The complainant, Robert Burnett, was present in the House of Commons 35 years ago when a female MP got up to ask a question about violence against women. Some MPs laughed, and when The Current re-ran the speech to illustrate the change in attitudes since then, Mr. Burnett objected. He said The Current deliberately edited out the one phrase that explained the laughter that did not pertain to issues about women. There is strong evidence to suggest they were, in fact, diminishing the issue of domestic violence. The edit did not distort the meaning.
In May, The Current produced a segment which featured a discussion concerning the changing attitudes about violence against women. In that context, the programmers played part of a May 1982 House of Commons question about domestic violence from Margaret Mitchell, then an NDP MP. The point of the quotation was to show that the mostly male parliamentarians responded with laughter.
You thought that the archival tape presented left out an extremely important phrase that completely changed the context of the laughter. The Current item left out her first phrase “I have an upbeat question for the Minister of the Status of Women,” before she went on to say “The Minister knows that the Parliamentary report on battered wives was tabled in the House yesterday. It states that 1 in 10 husbands beat their wives regularly…”
You said you were in the House of Commons that day and it was clear to you the laughter was prompted by her opening words, not the serious matter that followed:
The MPs present laughed at Ms. Mitchell's characterization of her question as upbeat or were confused by her introduction and thought she was joking. To suggest by careful editing of the quote that the people present in the House that day laughed at the idea of violence against women is misleading and destructive. I request that the ombudsman have The Current acknowledge that it manipulated the facts to suit its own agenda and that it broadcast a clarification for its listeners who have been badly misled by an organization that is supposed to be striving for the truth rather than attempting to distort it by calculated editing leading to a distorted conclusion.
The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, replied to your concerns.
She told you that she “respected your recollection and opinion” of what you observed in the House of Commons on May 12, 1982. She agreed that the way Ms. Mitchell characterized her question in the first phrase may have started the laughter, but the laughter continued. She pointed out you can also hear a male MP saying: “I don’t beat my wife. Do you beat your wife George?” Ms. Mitchell is also heard saying to the Speaker several times that this was no laughing matter. She said that it would be reasonable to assume if the impetus to the laughter was her opening statement, that by the time she got to the substance of her remarks the laughter should have subsided. Ms. Goldhar cited several interviews with Ms. Mitchell in which she expressed dismay at the reaction. She also noted that the House of Commons apologized to Ms. Mitchell the next day. She said there is no explanation she knows of for the intent of Ms. Mitchell’s opening remark:
As for why Ms. Mitchell rather oddly began her statement with the words "I have an upbeat question", we can never know for sure. Sadly, she passed away without answering that question.
She told you the purpose of the edit on this and any other material on the programme is for time, or clarity, never to distort the meaning.
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy regarding editing. While it is in reference to the editing of an interview, the principle applies to all edited content:
Questions and answers can be excerpted from a complete interview for use in a report, intercut with narration, news footage or excerpts from other interviews. Similarly, a longer interview often needs editing to cut unnecessary passages or to fit program timing.
Whatever editing we do, we present what the interviewee said fairly and without distortion.
Here is the complete exchange from Hansard that day:
Madam Speaker, I have an upbeat question for the minister responsible for the Status of Women. The minister knows that the Parliamentary report on battered wives was tabled in the House yesterday. It states that 1 in 10 husbands bear their wives regularly.
SOME HON. MEMBERS
I do not think it is very much of a laughing matter, Madam Speaker
I don’t beat my wife
Madam Speaker, I do not think it is a laughing matter. I would like to say that the battered wives in these cases rarely have any refuge. They have no safe place to go with their children. Police who are called on an emergency basis rarely respond to domestic calls. Charges are not laid in the courts, and there are very few instances of prosecutions in our judicial system. I want to ask the minister responsible for the status of women what she intends to do immediately in a major way - we do not want just reports, research and conferences - at the federal level to protect battered women.
SOME HON. MEMBERS
Hansard will often capture laughter as “oh, oh”. While the transcript did not capture it, as Ms. Goldhar pointed out, the full response from an MP is “I don’t beat my wife, do you beat your wife George?” That is clearly not in response to the “upbeat” portion of the question.
I appreciate that you were present and your impression was different. It is hard to establish precisely what happened 35 years later. What is most persuasive in this instance is the memory of the person who stood up and made those comments. Ms. Mitchell is quoted remembering that day in the House in a CBC piece about the role and treatment of female politicians almost ten years later. This is what Ms. Mitchell has to say about the incident on a CBC TV report broadcast on Newsmagazine in September of 1991:
I was absolutely shocked, not that they laughed at me so much - I mean as a novice MP you sort of might expect that – but that they laughed at the whole, very, very serious social problem of the high incidents of women that were battered by their spouses.
Margaret Mitchell is the longest sitting woman in the House. She regards that incident in 1982 as a watershed event, one that awakened the consciousness of Canada. The next day the House apologized to Mitchell and to the women of the country.
I do find, though, that there is a very patronizing attitude still, and Mr. Kempling himself, for instance, calls me “dear” all the time and that to me is almost as bad as the kind of overt sexist comment that they made this week.
Ms. Goldhar told you the House of Commons issued an apology the next day. In fact, Ms. Mitchell rose and asked that such an apology be granted and provided wording for a resolution. Because there was not unanimous consent, it was not officially granted.
A report in the Globe & Mail of the incident quotes one MP who agreed with your perception. Ms. Mitchell vehemently denied that was the case. One of the other few female MPs of the day, Flora Macdonald, was more equivocal:
“I know there was laughter and I know I was appalled by it but I couldn’t tell you (what caused it)” she said. “I do volunteer work in a transition house and I know how desperate the situation is,” Miss MacDonald said. “I can’t imagine anyone laughing at it.”
The incident seemed to resonate with people concerned about violence against women - that was the context the parliamentary exchange used in The Current segment. The absolute truth of the matter would likely have been difficult to ascertain even closer to the time. Decades later, it is impossible. It may have been some of the initial laughter was provoked by her first phrase - “I have an upbeat question” - which apparently was an echo of something said by a government minister in another context just before she spoke. However, the comments about wife beating and the continued laughter make it equally plausible that Ms. Mitchell’s perceptions are correct. For that reason I do not think The Current violated policy in cutting out the first sentence of Margaret Mitchell’s remarks.