Full Disclosure.

The complainant, Anton van Walraven, took issue with the information disclosed about various political panelists used on The Morning Edition in Vancouver, as well as some other local radio programmes. Their lobbying activities were not mentioned in the introduction to the segment, although they were mentioned in the course of the discussion. He called for rigorous vetting of participants and banning of them if there was any conflict. In the instances he cited there was no violation of policy and no need to recuse them. I agree, there is need for rigor in the process.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned there is no protocol in place to assess any potential conflict of interest of guests appearing on various radio programmes on CBC British Columbia. You cited several examples when former politicians, in particular, were invited to comment on a range of issues, including ones in which they have an interest. You noted that on December 12, 2017, Moe Sihota, a former NDP cabinet minister, was asked to comment on the political fallout from the approval of the Site C hydroelectric project. You said Mr. Sihota’s work as an LNG lobbyist and association with a wind farm board were not mentioned until the end of the interview. You added Rick Cluff, the programme host, sounded “clearly ticked off” and the mention was only made because of your persistent phone calls to the programme’s talkback line. You pointed out there is a need to keep current with activities of panelists so that their affiliations are all accounted for:

I have noticed that individuals reappear repeatedly over longer periods of time on these panels, which is of course not a problem in itself, unless these quests are introduced with insufficient disclosure of their interests, when introductions remain the same and are not updated, and when a variety of topics can be discussed and the potentiality of conflicts of interests are therefore present.

As an example, you noted Mr. Sihota also works for a company involved in lobbying the current NDP government and that too should have been mentioned.

You cited a second example in which you believe insufficient information was given about an interviewee. On February 28, a political panel was convened in which once again Mr. Sihota was only introduced as a former politician, and another guest, Suzanne Anton, was only identified as a former Liberal Attorney General. The panel talked about the LNG terminal in the context of a broader discussion on the budget and federal provincial relations. Touching on the topic put Mr. Sihota in a conflict of interest. You said it was not good enough to mention his energy links at the end of the panel. This same panel also touched on the issue of electoral reform, at which time the host said to Ms. Anton that she had “skin in the game.” You consider it inappropriate to have used these politicians. You objected because Ms. Anton is a member of a group that is against proportional representation in B.C.

Generally speaking, you think it was a mistake to provide a “repeated platform to commentators/guests that serves their other interests through increased name recognition and helps them establish them as credible voices.” You advocate for many more interviewees and the constant vetting of any regulars. You suggested at the point they take on other interests, they should no longer be used, at least temporarily. You suggested a protocol that should be used by CBC staff and guests, and recommended it be rigorously enforced. You recommended political panels be suspended until a more robust process is in place.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Shiral Tobin, Director of Journalism and Programming in British Columbia, replied to your concerns. She agreed that on the occasions you cited, the full revelation of panelists’ interests might have been handled more appropriately. She informed you that the team at the Early Edition have made changes to the way panelists are introduced. Staff have been reminded of the necessity to mention any lobbying activities:

We share your belief that CBC as the public broadcaster has a responsibility to reflect balance and accuracy on hotly debated subjects such as a major energy project. CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices also requires full transparency to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. I understand your concern and agree we did not do enough in the examples you provide. I have followed up with all of our show producers, hosts, as well as our colleagues responsible for the television and digital news platforms. My news colleagues agree full transparency is essential.

She also explained the reason that individuals are asked to be panelists and appear regularly on various broadcasts. She said they are chosen for their “experience, expertise and connection to the issues,” as well as any political affiliation they might have. For that reason, she did not see any value in suspending the segments.

REVIEW

As Ms. Tobin indicated, CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices requires full transparency, and incorporates CBC’s Conflict of Interest policy. There is a specific reference to the need to supply relevant information about an interviewee in the policy on identification of interviews:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.

The policy is written in this fashion to give producers and reporters some discretion. Not all information related to an issue or an event must necessarily be included in every mention or use of an individual. The guiding principle must be, as the policy states, what is relevant and important for the audience member to form a judgment. Ms. Shiral agrees with you that when it comes to political pundits, their party affiliation and lobbying associations are probably important. That’s because they are likely lobbying about issues that intersect government and public policy. A consistent provision of this information is necessary to live up to the policy. Ms. Tobin told you that in the two instances you cited they might have done a better job. However, there was no violation of policy because it was not absent. In the December example, as you noted, Mr. Cluff did introduce the missing bit of information. I appreciate that you heard Mr. Cluff’s mention of the information grudgingly and sounded “ticked off” - I do not agree. Ms. Tobin told me that Mr. Cluff neglected to read the full introduction at the outset and added at this point because the energy issue had come up.

The second instance involved regular political panelists talking about the impact of the federal budget on the agenda and policies of the B.C. provincial government. There clearly was no intention to talk about the LNG terminal, but one panel member raised it by example of a broader question of co-operation between the two levels of government. This proved your point that it is probably useful to mention it at the outset, since it is part of the political discourse in the province. Once again it was mentioned before the end of the discussion so that listeners would be able to put Mr. Sihota’s remarks in context. As for the interaction between host Stephen Quinn and Suzanne Anton - as you yourself noted - Mr. Quinn stated that she had “skin in the game.” She acknowledged that fact and gave further information:

Yes I do have skin in the game. I am co-leading with my NDP friend Bill Tieleman the no to proportional representation challenge in B.C.

The important point, as laid out in the policy, is that a participant’s affiliations are made clear. Having them does not disqualify them from participating. CBC’s Conflicts of Interest Policy provides gradations and important consideration of context. The actual conflicts of interest policy is written with CBC/Radio-Canada in mind, although it states that it applies to freelancers, independent producers and consultants. Neither that policy nor the journalistic section automatically call for a remedy of removal from the air, or a banning from covering a specific topic. Rather, common sense and some questions about the degree of conflict and perception of conflict have to be assessed. The remedy of declaring the conflict, which happened in these cases, is also appropriate. You noted to Ms. Tobin there is a difference between transparency and conflict of interest - I would agree. In this case, however, transparency is the issue. People are invited to comment and participate at least partly because of their associations, past experiences and knowledge. The important thing, as the identification of interview policy indicates, is that the relevant information is stated. In other cases, it might be better not to include a particular person - that is an editorial judgment call that cannot be precisely mandated. CBC policies provide a framework. News leadership, as Ms. Tobin indicated, can and should from time to time ensure there is consistent practice around its application.

The overarching and most compelling need in political panels is that a range of views and perspectives are brought to the table. As a programming and production device, having regular contributors is considered of value. There is nothing wrong with it. If the only time LNG or proportional representation was discussed was in the context of these panels, there would be cause for concern. Ongoing public policy issues are treated in many ways over several platforms, programmes and newscasts.

Ms. Tobin told you practice has changed and programmers will take care to ensure there is appropriate disclosure. Your suggestion that prospective and current panelists are asked to declare their major associations that might touch on the matters at hand is a good one. It is, in fact, the practice in the province. Ms. Tobin told me the producers are instructed to ask any potential regulars or guests to disclose their political and other relevant affiliation. They also consult the B.C. lobbyist register and note any relevant connections in the realm of public policy. The cbcnews.ca Opinion section explains how the editors handle potential conflicts this way:

Anyone writing opinion for CBC News is asked to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. To help them along, they are sent a series of questions. Editors will then determine which conflicts need to be brought to a reader's attention in the author's bio field.

CBC management might want to make sure a similar process is in place where applicable. Your concerns about disclosure are an important reminder of its importance. The programming itself did not violate policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman