Opinion on The National

The complainant, Dieter Buse, objected to a Viewpoint segment by Robyn Urback, calling into question Canada’s desire for a seat on the UN security council. He thought it was a one-sided diatribe.

It presented a single point of view. It was clearly labelled as Opinion and was not obliged to present other perspectives. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a Viewpoint segment on The National in which Robyn Urback, a columnist and producer of the cbcnews.ca Opinion section, presented her perspective on Canada’s desire for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Ms. Urback was critical of the United Nations, and questioned Canada’s goal. You characterized her presentation as a “one-sided diatribe against the United Nations, calling it corrupt and incompetent.” You thought she offered no proof of her allegations, and noted four images were shown, but there was explanation as to why these particular visuals “proved any assertion she made.”

You thought there should have been mention of the U.N.’s accomplishments to balance out her position:

No balancing opinion was offered about what the UN has achieved, such as helping contain AIDS, identify and provide standards for World Heritage Sites, or Resolutions condemning aggression and transgressions of international law (eg Israel building wall on Palestinian territory or North Korea nuclear program), to cite only a few items. Why does the CBC allow such uninformed biased rants to pass as an opinion, instead of labelling it anti UN propaganda?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National at that time, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint.

He explained that Ms. Urback is an opinion columnist for CBC News, whose work appears on the website. The National also has a feature called Viewpoint which presents individuals’ opinions on a variety of subjects from a range of perspectives. He then provided you with an essay written by Jennifer McGuire, the head of news, which outlined the purpose and parameters of opinion features on CBC news platforms. To paraphrase some of it, she explained the goal of providing an Opinion feature was to give the audience a place to read and see provocative debate on a range of topics and from a range of perspectives. She explained most of the material would come from freelancers, and that reporters would not be allowed to contribute.

REVIEW

CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy on covering opinion:

Our programs and platforms allow for the expression of a particular perspective or point of view. This content adds public understanding and debate on the issues of the day.

When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.

When we choose to present a single point of view:

  • it is clearly labeled, and

  • it does not misrepresent other points of view.

Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.

The episode you watched on The National was clearly labelled “Viewpoint”. By definition, something that is opinion will have a point of view. It may very well be provocative - and some will strongly disagree - that is the case here. Ms. Urback put the case that the United Nations has many challenges and has been ineffective in a number of conflicts. For this reason, she prepared this segment advocating that Canada “stop fighting for a UN security council seat.” There are facts to back it up - and the visuals you were concerned about actually were illustrating a brief reference to some of those challenges. This is the relevant script:

Note this [the Security Council] is the arm of the United Nations that is impotent at the best of times and besieged by incompetence and dysfunction at the worst of that.

The evidence in Rwanda, Darfur, The Middle East, Bosnia, certainly demonstrates that. Most recently, the UN Security Council couldn’t even muster a resolution condemning the reported use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria because Russia, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, vetoed it, as it has plenty of times in the past.

Yet this is the Council on which Canada is, rather embarrassingly, begging for a spot.

While Ms. Urback is delivering the lines about evidence from Rwanda, Darfur, the Middle East and Bosnia as you noted, some generic images as you described them appear on the screen. The technique is used to enrich the visual experience of the segment. The script provided the explanation - the first was a photograph of a woman in front of a collection of skulls, an image from the Rwandan genocide. It is true the script did not go into details, but the visual is a reminder that there has been criticism of the United Nations and its failure to halt the slaughter. The same principle pertains to the other images of suffering and violence from Darfur, the Middle East and Bosnia. They are present to bolster the commentator’s view that the Security Council is not an effective agency, citing its track record in those conflicts. She is not obliged, since this is an Opinion piece, to provide examples of successful actions since, in her view, the failures outweigh them.

Raj Ahluwalia, who is now Executive Producer of The National, told me that this Viewpoint was one of four done in the last six months or so that presented a critical look at an aspect of Federal government policy. He also said the Opinion feature is monitored over time to ensure fairness and a range of views. Note the CBC policy calls for a diversity of perspectives over an appropriate time frame. Between now and the next vote for a Security Council seat, which is about two years from now, I would expect The National to bring other perspectives to bear on this subject. However, broadcasting this piece was not a violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman