The sober business of news.

The complainant, William Bowering, objected to the host and panelists on Sunday Talk drinking on air during the New Year’s day programme. This production technique may not be best suited to a newscast, but it did not distort the information the panel conveyed. It did not constitute a policy violation.

COMPLAINT

On the New Year’s Day edition of The National, host Wendy Mesley and the participants on the regularly-featured “Sunday Talk” toasted each other with sparkling wine as they began their discussion. You found this objectionable. You said it was “totally inappropriate that the host passed a bottle around and the panellists drank as they talked. “This is totally offensive and out of character,” you asserted. It was wrong for participants in a news programme to indulge in this behaviour:

It is unbelievable that The National aired a story of the airline pilot who was found drunk in the cockpit of a Sunwing plane and at the same time here is a panel drinking on a news program. While I recognize they were not drunk, but the image is totally different from what is expected of individuals participating in such a program as The National.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He apologized if you found the segment of the programme and the behaviour of the participants offensive. He conceded that some viewers may find the consumption of alcohol offensive. However, this was done in a light-hearted spirit, and no more than a few drops were consumed. He added that it is a “commonly accepted” social custom in Canada to toast the New Year, and that all the panelists knew this was the plan, and had agreed to it.

For this programme, there were small glasses of wine poured for the panel guests. This was done for a festive toast to the New Year. It was done with good natured humour, and was part of bringing a celebratory tone to the programme on the first day of 2017. This is not a regular activity.

REVIEW

The framing of the Sunday Talk panel by a New Year toast was a production device chosen by the programme producers. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices lays out some general principles on production and production techniques:

Form is important in information programming. Production techniques contribute to the meaning of our content and its impact. They help focus attention and can facilitate understanding. Our use of production techniques is consistent with factual accuracy and fairness in our reporting. This means we make judicious choices when information content is presented with music or visual effects that could affect perception or impact.

This policy provides the overarching principle to measure this programming choice. I appreciate that the toast appears to condone drinking on the job, but it is a far cry from a drunken pilot passing out in the cockpit. CBC journalistic policy emphasizes the need to ensure information is clearly conveyed, and the production technique does not distort its meaning. When the panelists were addressing serious international and national issues, they spoke with the same depth and humour as is usual in this feature. The policy does not prohibit the use of fun or humour. Humor is highly subjective, and it is not always to everyone’s standards or taste. That is a calculation, but it is not a policy violation.

I agree that drinking on the set of a news programme, even one with the range of content of The National, might not have been the wisest choice. Having said that, it was framed in the context of a New Year celebration, and it did not affect or undermine the journalistic integrity of the content. In your case, it seemed to have detracted from the focus on the substance the panel was addressing, and that is something the programmers might want to take into consideration.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman