Tough Questions

The complainant, Bill Hughes, thought Montreal morning show host Mike Finnerty was rude and inappropriate in his interview with Conservative MP Tony Clement. The opposition public safety critic hung up on him during a live interview. Mr. Hughes felt there was deliberate provocation and an attempt to humiliate - the interview was tough and persistent. Angering an interviewee who is in a position of accountability is not a violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to an interview conducted by Michael Finnerty, host of Daybreak, on CBC radio in Montreal. He was talking to Conservative MP Tony Clement, who is his party’s public safety critic. The interview concerned the challenge of the growing number of would-be refugee claimants making illegal crossings into Canada. Mr. Clement hung up after Mr. Finnerty repeated the same question and interrupted him. You considered the interview rude and inappropriate. You told Mr. Finnerty he was “grandstanding” and instead of reporting the news, his goal was to make it. You thought the confrontation was deliberate and constituted “entrapment.”

Mr. Finnerty had an agenda, whether his own, or from the CBC, to embarrass Mr. Clement in the best way possible. If Mr. Finnerty already knew (and he did) what the law states on illegal entry into Canada, why didn’t he state the law himself, and ask Mr. Clement’s view on it?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Manager for Journalism Programming in Quebec, Helen Evans, responded to your concerns.

She explained Mr. Clement was invited to speak on the programme because the upsurge in illegal crossings at the Quebec and Manitoba borders had been in the news, and that some refugee advocates had been pressuring the Liberal government to suspend the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement which provided the loophole for these would-be claimants. She added there were calls for some kind of plan to deal with the influx. In this context, Mr. Clement had tweeted his view:

For his part, over the weekend, Mr. Clement, the opposition critic, tweeted that illegal crossings were a “burden on local communities”. “Our laws should be enforced”...

Ms. Evans explained that Mr. Finnerty wanted to find out which law Mr. Clement was referring to, and to state specifically how he expected the RCMP to enforce those laws. She said by re-asking the question he was giving Mr. Clement “ample opportunity” to provide an answer to the questions, and that his tone remained respectful. She added that it is the job of a skilled interviewer to not only provide a politician with a platform to present his or her views, or that of the party, but also to probe for detailed answers.

Of course, he encouraged him to explain his point of view, clearly Canadians are interested, and it is CBC’s obligation to give them the opportunity to hear it. But it is also an interviewer’s responsibility to test those views and that is what Mr. Finnerty did. That is part of the give and take of an interview: politicians understandably want to present their point of view in the most favorable way, while it is a journalist’s task to question assumptions, to challenge, to point out there are other views.

Of course, that is not always easy to do. Politicians in this age of communication understand the media as never before. They are practiced and usually trained in how to focus their message, convey it succinctly and skirt difficult questions until time runs out. A journalist who persists may be seen as “badgering”, or being arrogant or disrespectful when that is certainly not his intention, nor do I believe he was.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Policy indicates that CBC journalists are to treat “individuals and organizations with openness and respect.” Equally, it talks about the core value of maintaining independence:

We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

Journalists interview people in positions of authority or who guide and shape public policy so that Canadians can hear what they think, what course of action they will pursue and the reasons for their decisions or public pronouncements. Interviewers are generally polite, but they are also tenacious. It is a common technique to repeat a question if the interviewee is not providing specifics or is not answering the question directly. The first few minutes of the exchange between Mr. Finnerty and MP Tony Clement are open and relaxed. Mr. Clement is given an opportunity to state his view of the recent surge in illegal border crossings. It is when the conversation narrowed down to a search for specifics that it became testy. Mr. Finnerty jumped in while Mr. Clement was talking on several occasions as Mr. Clement objected to the characterization of what he said:

MIKE FINNERTY

Remove the blame game, so do you think that the government should change the rules and make it clear that refugee claimants are welcome to come to the land border crossing where they will be safer to cross through and where it can be done in an orderly fashion.

TONY CLEMENT

Well, I think that we have to make sure that the claimants are abiding by Canadian law, and that the RCMP have the resources necessary, both at border crossings and in between border crossings, to make sure that we don’t get illegal claimants because that’s a huge strain on the system, it promotes illegal activity and unsafe and dangerous activity because the claimants themselves.

We are calling on the government to put in more resources at the border ...

MIKE FINNERTY

But the question was about changing that rule that would then allow these claimants to cross in a normal way on a road or on a bus or on a train, instead of having to cross on foot, because the government could do that and it would fix that part of the problem.

TONY CLEMENT

That’s the law right now, yes.

MIKE FINNERTY

But you could change … so you think we should keep that rule in place, meaning that people still will try their luck and cross on foot.

TONY CLEMENT

Well, I’m saying that the RCMP need more resources to prevent that kind of activity and that we should be applying the law as it is right now.

MIKE FINNERTY

So what should they do?

TONY CLEMENT

The first stop, sir, the first stop let’s apply the law. How about that for a reason?

MIKE FINNERTY

Because we have photographs, for instance on the front page of the papers this morning here in Quebec of RCMP officers welcoming refugees on foot. In fact, there’s a picture on two of the papers of a baby being handed over into the arms of ...

TONY CLEMENT

Yeah, we’re a welcoming society, I get that, but

MIKE FINNERTY

So but are you saying they should act differently?

TONY CLEMENT

No, now you’re putting words in my mouth

MIKE FINNERTY

I’m just asking you actually, I’m just asking …

The conversation continued in this vein for a few more minutes - Mr. Finnerty asking for specifics and Mr. Clement repeating his answers and telling Mr. Finnerty he was mischaracterizing his responses:

MIKE FINNERTY

The RCMP are there on the border, what would you like them to do differently?

TONY CLEMENT

I would like the government to come up with a plan to apply the law.

MIKE FINNERTY

My question is, what would that mean … well, I’m just curious to know what happens to those people who are crossing on foot when they meet the police.

TONY CLEMENT

I’m not the government, the CBC is not the government, it’s up to the government.

MIKE FINNERTY

But with respect, you’re the official opposition and you’re supposed to be coming up with solutions as well as just criticizing.

TONY CLEMENT

Come up with a plan ...

MIKE FINNERTY

So you don’t have any idea how it should work.

TONY CLEMENT

Sir, now you’re putting words in my mouth

MIKE FINNERTY

Well then, tell us … tell us how it should work - it’s a simple question.

TONY CLEMENT

We have a problem, it’s simple. Apply the law.

MIKE FINNERTY

Well, how would they apply the law? Would they, would they stop them, would they say “I’m sorry you can’t cross here and you should go back across the border. How ...

Mr. Finnerty’s tone is firm but not belligerent. Mr. Clement clearly did not like the line of questioning, and he chose to deal with it by hanging up. If Mr. Finnerty had been talking to an inexperienced communicator or challenging and prodding a person who was traumatized, the persistence might be inappropriate, but this was an accountability interview with a veteran politician. I asked Mr. Finnerty why he persisted in his line of questioning. He told me he simply wanted to understand what Mr. Clement had in mind when he mentioned doing things differently, and thought perhaps he was not phrasing the question clearly enough.

I reviewed some other interviews Mr. Finnerty has done with people in positions of responsibility. His persistence when he does not believe they are providing detailed answers, or any answers, is not unique to the Clement interview. The next day he interviewed the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Ralph Goodale, and persisted in questioning him about the Third Country Agreement and its impact on this situation. Mr. Finnerty’s interview style has a pattern of tenaciousness and of asking tough questions to those in charge. In a tweet sent after the broadcast, Mr. Clement characterized it as being “shouted down.” Journalistic interviews can, and often should be, adversarial. It is not a violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman