NAFTA Coverage

The complainant, Josette Wier, thought that an As It Happens interview, in particular, and CBC coverage of the NAFTA negotiations overall, was biased. She believed there should be more questioning of the fact that most Canadians support it and more stories pointing out its negative impact. She wanted to hear fewer predictions of catastrophic results, should it end. I found the coverage appropriate.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned that As It Happens, and CBC in general, are biased in their coverage of the NAFTA negotiations:

It is chronically presented as a catastrophe, much to lose for Canada if the US leaves NAFTA while no other opinion is offered. It is less than certain that NAFTA has been such a bonus for Canada, at least for all Canadians. For many, leaving NAFTA and the model of "free" trade it exemplifies is far from being such a bad thing.

You cited an interview with one of Mexico’s original NAFTA negotiators as one example of that biased coverage. While you acknowledge polls that indicate a majority of Canadians support staying in NAFTA, you believe a lot of that support is soft and that CBC has an obligation to present the views of those opposed:

I contend that CBC, as a national media, has a duty of fairness and should offer more detailed facts that do not necessarily support the repeated assertion that a majority of Canadians support NAFTA.

You suggested a range of stories that CBC should be presenting and has not:

I also contend that the national media has repeatedly failed to document the negative effects of NAFTA like the millions of dollars paid by Canada to corporations from rulings of secretive trade investment tribunals, the export of jobs, the loss of environmental protection etc.... How often has CBC, including As It Happens, detailed the millions of dollars (and more pending) paid to corporations suing the Canadian government for such compensations?

I would have been interested in CBC investigating those issues. I also would have been interested in discussions being offered on the reasons for the differences in support from the subgroups identified. Why is the province I reside in, British Columbia, mostly opposed to NAFTA while Quebec shows a strong support?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Robin Smythe, the Executive Producer of As It Happens, replied to your concerns. She explained the reason for interviewing the former Mexican negotiator was because of the news peg that the Prime Minister was in Mexico meeting with the Mexican president about NAFTA. She agreed with you that the guest, Luis de la Calle, was in favour of the agreement. She explained that this was a logical choice of guests, given the event of the bilateral meeting. The purpose of this interview was to explore the position of the Mexican partners of this deal. It was an exploration of the Mexican perspective and to provide Canadians with an understanding of what might be:

Our program seeks interviews with guests who have a point of view, in order to hear them explain their position. Our hope is that this gives listeners a better understanding of all sides on issues of importance. Our show’s mandate is to get as close as we can to a story, often interviewing “principals” in stories. In this way, we are different from other current affairs programs at CBC that often seek to present many ides of an issue at once.

She told you that the consensus view for some time has been, as the programme host Carol Off said in the interview, that “an integrated North America is in the best interests of everybody.” She cited a cbcnews.ca article which documented the shift in public views of the deal and which reveals, based on several public opinion surveys, that a majority of Canadians - even more than the U.S. and Mexico - support NAFTA and its continuation.

She also pointed to other CBC programmes which have featured a critical look at the agreement and how Canada should proceed in these negotiations, including an episode of The Current which asked the question: Should Canada pre-empt the U.S. and pull out of NAFTA?

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices state that balance is achieved over time and over a range of programmes and platforms. It also says this:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

It is important to consider the context, and how the debate is framed. In this case, most of the coverage is centred around the politics and the problems of dealing with the American demands for change in NAFTA and for the “America-first” ideology of the United States administration. The reporting is concerned with the trilateral negotiations and what positions Canada is taking - and that is what a lot of the coverage deals with. There is no inherent bias in doing so. If Canada had called for renegotiating the treaty based on the concerns of a segment of the population or a particular industry, or because there was a significant push to end it, then your contention that there should be much broader attention to those against the treaty would make sense.

In terms of reflecting the debate, it is noteworthy that there is consensus from the federal political parties that Canada should try to save the deal. While you question the contention that Canadians are in favour of NAFTA, the fact is that public opinion research reveals they do, including reputable institutions like the Pew Research Centre and the Environics Institute. The Environics data was collected this October and November. It showed two-thirds (65%) of Canadians surveyed say that NAFTA has helped the Canadian economy (vs. 17% who say it has hurt the economy, and another 18% who gave other responses). If CBC were to emphasize those who opposed the deal, it would actually be a distortion of the facts. The differences of emphasis and opinion lie in what should be addressed, what the government should be emphasizing, in what ways the deal could and should be improved - notably some of the areas you referred to - environmental and labour standards and gender equality. Canadians and their policy-makers have come to a consensus that this framework should continue. There has been coverage that focused on the areas of NAFTA that Canada and various stakeholders would like to see improved. That is the context and information most useful at this time, and that is where there are different perspectives and views. Looking at coverage on the news site and provided by various programmes, those issues are being addressed.

You are right that CBC should provide background and context so that Canadians can understand what is at stake, what a new agreement should have and what the consequences of ending it or keeping it might be. I don’t agree with your characterization that CBC coverage paints the end of the agreement as a “catastrophe.” Analysis has included scenarios where Canada can and should walk away from the deal. In this article, an expert is quoted as saying “If Canada doesn't get what it needs, the country could just say ‘Thank you very much. We tried it.’” Ms. Smythe mentioned an edition of The Current which looked at whether Canada should pull out of the pact pre-emptively. As part of her introduction, programme host Anna Maria Tremonti put the question:

But what if NAFTA has not been terrific for Canada as Donald Trump likes to suggest? With the decades-old trade pact back in the headlines, some economists and politicians are suggesting Canada should do exactly what the US has threatened and pull out of NAFTA.

One of the guests that held that position, David Orchard, argued that the agreement has, in fact, made Canadian access to U.S. markets worse. Another, an economist, explained that there is not great data to measure the impact:

It's very difficult to tell. We don't have really great data which is kind of surprising when it comes to a trading nation that we do not know what the net impact is of free trade deals or in particular trade. On jobs and wages, we have some idea of what it does to GDP but not whether the net impact of job loss is outweighed by the net impact of job gains of the sort that was just described in rural Canada. So yeah. We don't know is the answer.

The piece you cited on As It Happens contributes to Canadians’ understanding of the forces at play and what is likely to influence the negotiations. To ignore this kind of coverage would be a disservice. The introduction of the piece framed the reason for it, and why it is being done. Seeking the historical perspective of one of the original negotiators provides context and knowledge for Canadians:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in Mexico tonight, talking NAFTA with the Mexican President. Their dinner follows Mr. Trudeau's trip to the White House yesterday, where President Trump first threatened to walk away from the trade deal, and then speculated about the possibility of cutting Mexico out to begin talks with Canada one-on-one. Luis de la Calle is no stranger to unpredictable negotiations. Mr. de la Calle was one of Mexico's original NAFTA negotiators. We reached him in Mexico City.

If this was an issue that was polarizing Canadians then your concerns would be valid; there would be a lack of that view. You might question the depth of support - nevertheless the percentage of Canadians who believe free trade has helped the economy is significant, and its trend is increasing, based on a variety of solid studies. This is an ongoing story, and I would expect that more views and perspectives will be represented. In my conversations with some of the editors, there is an intention to look at some of the concerns about NAFTA and to seek critical perspectives on what should change and what has been lacking. There is certainly room here to include the voices of those who question the value of the deal at all. There is no formula for how many of those stories there should be. While you are right about the overwhelming number of stories that have been done that do not question the fundamental premise of the deal, that is not a violation of policy in the current context, but reflects the issues at hand and the parameters of the debate and discussion.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman