How many views make for balance?

The complainant, Robert Wood, thought a segment on The Current in the aftermath of the alleged poisoning of the Skripals and a member of Pussy Riot was malevolent “against a leader of a nuclear power.” He thought it was biased and did not present enough alternate views. I did not agree.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about a segment on The Current regarding the poisoning of Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the Russian dissident group Pussy Riot, who is also a Canadian citizen. Guest programme host Michelle Shephard interviewed Bill Browder and Amy Knight. You thought the interviews were one-sided, promoted hate and did not challenge the views of both interviewees who believe that Russian operatives are responsible for this and other poisoning of critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. You said “I am astonished by the malevolence that has been, seemingly haplessly programmed by CBC against a leader of a Nuclear Power.” You added that the Russian president was “vilified” to make the case for the Canadian government to take action in the case of Mr. Verzilov:

The tenor of “Allegedly poisoned Russian activist's life could depend on Canada's response: Browder” was that, many believe, that, Putin/Russians poisoned their critics and that Canadians and or the Canadian Government should be concerned and act. (It should be noted that no real proof was provided that Putin/Russians poisoned their critics.)

This tenor would lead Canadians to believe, that they have a heard a number of stories that would indicate that Canadians should be Russia-phobic!

You also thought the two interviewee’s backgrounds reveal reasons to conclude they are not credible:

A quick search on Google reveals the Guests Bill Browder and Amy Knight, have problematic backgrounds, that would lead most to believe, they have strong motives to shade the truth, and/or to imagine boogeyman scenarios. Both were promoting their books that were highly critical of Putin and Russia. Both have many threads connecting them to the Atlantic Council, a Right-wing cold war Think Tank, that have championed Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright .

You thought this segment violated CBC’s journalistic standards of balance, fairness and impartiality. You believe opinion was taken as fact and should have been rigorously challenged. You gave some examples of errors which showed lack of rigor. You said that Sergei Magnitsky was described as Mr. Browder’s lawyer but he was his accountant, and you wondered why the interviewer did not query Mr. Browder’s assertion that Russia had tried to put him on Interpol’s most wanted list as a way to get him back to Russia. You thought other perspectives, notably those who question Mr. Browder’s credibility and reject Russian culpability, should have been included. You wondered if the production of this segment was “independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Kathleen Goldhar, the Executive Producer of The Current, replied to your concerns. She explained the decision to do the story arose from the fact that Mr. Verzilov’s family and friends had publicly stated they believed he was poisoned. This came in the wake of the British government having identified two Russian citizens it believed had poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal. She said Mr. Browder was a “British financier, economist and human rights defender” who was well positioned to comment on the day’s story. She acknowledged that Mr. Browder’s own “troubled relationship with the Russian government” is complex, and was not the focus of this interview. On the specifics you questioned, she said that Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer working for Mr. Browder’s Hermitage Capital Management who was also an auditor investigating charges of tax fraud against it. She responded to your question regarding Interpol:

In fact, he said the government had tried to put him on the list seven times as well as threatened him with death and kidnapping. In the context of the interview, Mr. Browder offered that as an example of how the Russian government had pursued him. Interviews are limited by time and must be focussed. Mr. Browder’s troubled relationship with the Russian government is another story; in fact, one we have previously explored on The Current.

She explained that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for the presentation of a range of views and perspectives over the course of time. She noted in the past there have been different views and that coverage would be ongoing. In a story this large and complex it is not unusual to focus on one perspective - or aspect - of the story at a time.

REVIEW

I have listened to the programme segment and do not agree there was anything malevolent about it. The tone is straightforward and provides appropriate background. The introduction provided some information about Pussy Riot and its activities as outspoken critics of the regime. It also provided the information that the family believed he had been poisoned. There is no doubt this was a newsworthy and appropriate topic. It was framed this way:

Today, Pyotr Verzilov is in critical condition in hospital. He mysteriously fell ill on Tuesday after attending the trial of a fellow Pussy Riot member and relatives say they believe he was poisoned. His partner Pussy Riot member, Veronika Nikulshina, told the website Medusa that he’s losing his sight, speech and ability to walk. Many are placing the blame on the Russian government. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Russia has been accused of poisoning people who said things it didn't like yesterday. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the situation.

The introduction also pointed out that there has been a history of poisoning and deaths of dissidents and critics of the government. You can reject that any of these are true, but there is a substantial body of evidence going back decades - notably Alexander Litvinenko who died of polonium poisoning in 2006, and two attempts on the life of Vladimir Kara-Muza. Critics of the government and many journalists have been killed with impunity. As for the most recent case of the Skripals, CBC News has been reporting the evidence as it emerges, allowing citizens to draw their own conclusions. It refers to the incident as the “alleged” poisoning. In this segment there is a part of an interview on RT with the two Russian citizens the British authorities say were responsible. They are able to put forward their denial and defense. You believe that there is no proof Russian security or the Kremlin have been responsible for any of these acts. CBC journalists are asked to use their knowledge and expertise to draw conclusions, to assess facts and evidence and to make decisions about what weight to give to facts as they emerge. The people interviewed in this segment have acceptable credentials. Those credentials and background are given for each of them so that those listening or reading can make up their own minds. Mr. Browder’s background is given in the introduction:

Bill Browder is watching all of this unfold with a particular interest he knows Pyotr Verzilov and he knows what it's like to take on Vladimir Putin. The hedge fund manager was once one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia but after his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was found dead in a Moscow prison Mr. Browder hit back. The result was the Magnitsky Act which imposes sanctions on top of Russian officials accused of corruption and human rights abuses. Mr. Browder's Campaigning has turned the act into law in Canada, the U.S. and four other countries. But it's also put him in the crosshairs of Moscow.

You objected to the term "crosshairs of Moscow". It is a strong image. Mr. Browder explained why that is an apt phrase as he stated that he has been threatened with death and kidnapping. Other reputable journalists who have investigated these claims give weight to the available evidence. His assets have been seized by the Russian authorities and his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison. All of this may have another explanation. The narrative explored in this coverage - based on firsthand experience and the observations of people with knowledge and expertise - is a reasonable presentation.

I appreciate you reject this narrative, stating that this is “beyond truth.” Getting at the truth in journalism is an iterative process. The information and analysis presented here are based on known facts and some evidence. You proposed alternate interpretations citing other writers and analysts whose analysis and interpretation align with your point of view. The CBC journalistic policy says this:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

This is not a blanket policy which obliges programmers to provide equal time or weight to all views, but rather to consider the relevance and how widely-held these views are. Given the pattern of behavior, the documented erosion of human rights in Russia and the fact that that particular segment makes it clear there has been no definitive proof, this programme does not violate CBC journalistic standards and practices. Because coverage of such complex and controversial matters is ongoing, there will be ample opportunities to present other views, when and where it is appropriate.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman