Election balance on Ontario Today

The complainant, Marc Poitras, thought the host of Ontario Today behaved differently to the callers on the edition which focused on the Progressive Conservative party, during the recent provincial election. He felt she was rude and dismissive. The host was challenging, as she was during episodes focused on other parties. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

After listening to the May 31st, 2018 edition of the Ontario Today show phone-in, you wrote directly to the programmers with your concerns. The host of the phone-in, Rita Celli, had invited supporters of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario to share why they were going to vote for the party in the upcoming provincial election. You thought she deliberately cut off callers because they were not saying what she wanted to hear. You thought she had behaved very differently when she interviewed the provincial leader of the NDP, Andrea Horwath:

The NDP program was basically Ms. Celli assisting Ms. Horwath in presenting her platform. The Conservative program was Ms. Celli arguing against the conservative platform.

At this point, it is appropriate to put the CBC journalistic standards at the same level as those of Fox news.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Margot Wright, the Producer of Ontario Today, responded to you. She explained the goal of the day’s programme was to “put the Progressive Conservative Party platform under the microscope” to examine its “strengths and weaknesses.” She said the goal for all the election shows focusing on each party was the same. There was a significant difference with this one, though:

The difference today was that the PC Leader declined to come on our show and defend his platform. So we asked Conservative callers to do so instead.

After each of the shows with the other political leaders, party faithful complained that Rita Celli was biased against their leader.

What the host was trying to do with each of these shows was challenge, clarify, and play devil's advocate, in an effort to give listeners a better understanding of the party platform and what drives its supporters.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic policy requires the even-handed treatment of individuals and organizations as a hallmark of fairness. You asserted that the programme host of Ontario Today treated callers in a rude and inappropriate way, and that her treatment of the NDP leader on a separate broadcast was quite different.

The purpose of both broadcasts was to thoroughly examine and challenge the platform and the positions of each party in the June provincial election. According to the programmers, the goal was to do that through an interview with the party leader and an opportunity for citizens to ask them questions directly. In the case of the Progressive Conservatives they opted not to provide the leader nor a senior party official, as is their right. In order to fulfill the obligation of balance, the programmers decided to invite a consultant who has worked as a strategist for the PC party, and to ask PC supporters to phone in and explain why. This was clearly laid out in the introduction to the programme:

So the party is officially absent with us here but you are real – your vote, your soul searching. It matters. We do also have a Conservative strategist in our Toronto studio. She worked for Tim Hudak in the past. She worked for Caroline Mulroney in this leadership race. She has no official assignment in this campaign. Here’s what we are asking you: Why vote Conservative. Perhaps you can make the case for why you are choosing a party says that it is fiscally responsible but it is the only party without a costed platform. If you are the hard core supporter we will put some of the tough questions to you.

In the course of the hour, it is true, Ms. Celli stepped in on callers to challenge their views, provided fact checks, and tried to explore their reasons for support. It was not rude or abrupt. I note she treated those who were strong supporters exactly the same as those who stated they had not made up their minds, or were Conservatives who would not be voting for the party this time because they objected to the leader. Doing a live phone-in and getting to the point is a challenge. Listening to the programme, Ms. Celli uses the same style - no matter what the topic.

It is also important to note that Ms. Celli said at the outset, and repeated, that she would be challenging supporters because there was not a party official to do so. Her exploration with the callers was rigorous, but not rude or brusque.

She also turned to her studio guest, Ginny Movat, for an overview and an explanation and defence of PC party positions. She was able to put her case without interruption.

You cited the programme with NDP leader Andrea Horwath, so I listened to that one as well. The dynamic was different in that citizens were able to put their questions to a party leader and they were able to hear her answer. Ms. Celli did interject in this broadcast as well. She also put rigorous and challenging questions to Ms. Horwath. At the outset, Ms. Celli raised the issue of privatization of Hydro One. Three times she challenged the leader on how this would bring down power rates. Here is a sampling of that exchange:

RITA CELLI
So the connection your party has made, and you did it again, here it is in the platform. Our plan will cut you bill by about 30%. We’ll do that number one by reversing the sell off of Hydro One. The government sold off the transmission lines, not the generating assets so this actually has nothing to do with the rate That people pay..why do you make that connection

Okay it also confuses people and some of it has been in the public space.. the actual reclaiming of Hydro one will not affect it...Why keep repeating this when it is not entirely true?

She continued to challenge the leader about her platform throughout the interview. As for your statement that she never interrupted Ms. Horwath - at one point Ms. Horwath actually said to Ms. Celli “let me finish.” In both episodes the host was well briefed and asked challenging and informed questions. You may not appreciate her style of dealing with callers, but there is nothing that indicated a lack of respect and openness to any and all callers. This programme did not violate CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman