Telling the truth over time

The complainant, Jean-Paul Murray, secretary of the Gatineau Protection Committee, thought two stories involving information about Gatineau Park were biased and omitted critical information. There was one error in a live radio broadcast but the stories did not violate CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

You are the Secretary of the Gatineau Protection Committee and have once again expressed concerns about CBC News in Ottawa and their coverage of Gatineau Park. There were two stories published, one on November 12, which concerned a stand-off over a tax bill between the municipality of Chelsea and the National Capital Commission, which administers the park. The park occupies a significant portion of the municipality. You objected to a quote from a resident who lives near Kingsmere who was angered by the possibility she and others would have to make up the difference in taxes if the NCC would not pay up. You were offended by her statement that it was the “damned tourists” using the park that were the problem. You noted that the biggest issue facing the park and its sustainability are the residents who have property there. You said this was one more example of CBC presenting these residents as victims, ignoring history and more recent studies of land use:

A cursory review of the 2005 Gatineau Park Master Plan would have informed the fact-challenged journalist that the NCC views private property as harmful to the park and that it must eventually be removed.

To present the information in any other way is “grossly dishonest in presenting park residents as victims, rather than agents of the park’s ecological demise.”

You thought the reporter deliberately conflated visits and visitors to exaggerate the use of the park to bolster the view of the resident quoted:

Clearly, Mr. Mills bent over backwards to triple (even quintuple) and grossly inflate the number of visitors to the park in what appears to be an effort to slant his report and present park residents as victims of the big, bad NCC. That is an egregious violation of the journalistic principle known as “presenting the facts,” not to mention and beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is what’s commonly and sadly called “fake news.” Because it isn’t even remotely true and because the NCC’s own figure is very easy to find.

You thought the reporter also overstated the services Chelsea provided. You see this and another story, published in March 2018, as continued evidence of bias to support and protect CBC staff who own property or have connections to Meech Lake. That story featured the restoration of an historic property in the park which had been renovated and converted to a hotel. In this case you thought it wrong and a willful snub of the the park to mention some history of Ambrose O’Brien, original owner of the property, but not to mention it was the park’s 80th anniversary and that he was a member of the group which was behind the creation of the park. This reinforced your stated views that:

I am filing this complaint as further evidence of CBC Ottawa’s mindless complicity/mediocrity/hidden agenda when it comes to reporting on Gatineau Park. It readily covers the opening of a “luxury hotel” that will cater to the wealthy, but completely ignores issues that are of public interest—like the residential proliferation at Meech Lake and elsewhere in the park, the NCC’s packing its public advisory committee on renewal of the Gatineau Park Master Plan with park residents who are in a serious conflict of interest; the very murky nature of park boundaries, etc.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Ruth Zowdu, Managing Editor of CBC Ottawa, replied to both of your complaints. In regard to the article published November 12 about the tax dispute, she pointed out that the relevant sides in the dispute, the municipality of Chelsea and the National Capital Commission, are represented. That is what constituted balance and fairness in this instance. The story was narrowly focused on the gap in what the NCC appeared willing to pay and what the municipality had assessed based on a process of tax assessment carried out by the Municipal Regional County. They did not include a quote from a park user because “the story was essentially about the tension between Chelsea and the NCC.”

She told you that the reporter, in the course of a live radio report, accidently said “visitors” instead of “visits” which accounted for the discrepancy in the numbers. She has reviewed the error with the reporter.

She told you she did not agree that mention of the park’s anniversary or a more detailed biography of Ambrose O’Brien was necessary in the story about the hotel opening:

Time constraints and editorial focus invariably mean we can't include everything, and I do not feel the choice to focus instead on his ties to hockey showed a suppression of facts as you suggest.

She acknowledged your passion about the park and your concerns that it is in decline. She noted that the station has and will cover the park as “we become aware of news that is happening there.” She said each story will feature views and voices appropriate to that particular news story.

She also addressed accusations in your complaints and in social media that CBC Ottawa staff are in a conflict of interest. She told you to the best of her knowledge no employees at CBC Ottawa live in the park, and if they did the conflict of interest guidelines would preclude them from reporting about the park.

REVIEW

I will echo Ms. Zowdu’s observation that clearly you have great interest, knowledge and passion about the viability and future of Gatineau Park. I appreciate you would like to see all coverage mentioning it framed within the issues that you see as critical. The reality of daily journalism is that it is iterative. It cannot take a macro look at an issue every time it is mentioned. The headline of the November 12 story was “Tax Dispute between Chelsea, NCC could cost residents.” That is what it is about. You are right there are many complicating factors in this situation. As the story pointed out, the payee is an entity, not a single property owner, but the issues you raise are way beyond the scope of this segment.

As for the quote from the disgruntled taxpayer who may have to pay out of her own pocket, it is clearly her view, hyperbolic at that. To think that readers and listeners will then extrapolate that it is the park users who are at fault is a big leap. The essence of the comment is one more disgruntled tax payer expressing her anger over taxation rates. The larger question of whether she is justified or not is not addressed here in any way. The story would have had more context if the unique status of the park was mentioned, but I have some sympathy for its absence—it is complex and to do it justice would be beyond the scope of a short daily news item.

I appreciate you see what you consider omissions and errors as a deliberate pattern of obfuscation and somehow a plot to promote the position of property owners. The fact is people make mistakes, and people on live radio have no safety net. That is not to excuse it—100 per cent accuracy is the goal—but Ms. Zowdu’s explanation that the reporter confused visits with discrete visitors is plausible.

CBC News staff are obliged to get it right, to ensure that a variety of voices are heard over time, and that a variety of perspectives and issues are mentioned as appropriate. They are obliged to declare conflicts of interest. Some of the names you have mentioned are people who never worked in news or current affairs and/or have not worked for CBC for decades. You do name one or two other people who are journalists. To the best of my knowledge they have never reported on this story. And Ms. Zowdu has made it clear to existing staff they must, as CBC policy dictates, conform to CBC conflict of interest guidelines.

CBC news staff is not obliged to create a narrative that most closely conforms to your view of the state of affairs, as knowledgeable as you are. That would apply to your observation that neglecting to mention Ambrose O’Brien’s connection to the creation of the park or its anniversary constitutes bias. It denotes a different interest and approach. Neither of the facts you mention are critical to understanding or appreciating the history of O’Brien House.

Technically speaking, there was a violation of policy in the error regarding the number of visitors to the park. There were no other violations in either story.

Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman