The importance of research - know more than you publish.

The complainant, Jean-Paul Murray, Secretary of The Gatineau Park Protection Committee, thought there were errors and omissions in two CBC Ottawa pieces concerning the impact of bylaw changes on the integrity of Gatineau Park. He thought they downplayed the potential dangers and were biased in favour of the private landowners. There were an unacceptable number of errors and a lack of context. There was no bias.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about two treatments of a story, one published on the CBC Ottawa News website and the other an interview on the local morning show. Both the article and the interview reported on the passing of a new bylaw by the Municipality of Pontiac to allow for construction on private property within Gatineau Park, a conservation area, administered by the National Capital Commission (NCC). The park was formed in 1938 and includes private property within its borders. You considered both reports error-ridden and accused the reporter and the programme host of simply parroting the position of the National Capital Commission. You are the Secretary of The Gatineau Park Protection Committee, a group which advocates for protection of the park’s land. Its mission states that it “insists that the public interest prevail over all other factors in park management, and that its history be presented fairly and truthfully.”

You thought the reports were “slanted”, deliberately downplayed the threat of development and that generally CBC News has undercovered the ongoing controversy around the park and how it is administered and managed.

You listed a number of areas where you thought the facts were wrong:

In both the article and interview you objected to a reference to the private properties having been “grandfathered” at the creation of the park in 1938. This was completely wrong because to “grandfather” means that something is not covered by a new law. That is not the case here because “all NCC/Treasury Board policies stipulate they are non-conforming and must be removed eventually.” You thought the use of the term created “the impression that their presence is in perfect harmony with the vocation of a public/ecological park.”

You found two errors in this statement from the web story:

In 2008, the National Capital Commission started working to acquire 405 private properties on about 600 hectares of land.

It said it has since purchased nearly half of those properties.

You said that purchasing of private property began long before 2008 and that only 211 hectares had been purchased, which is a third, not a half.

The same web story stated that one of the home owners featured has a property which borders on the park. You said that her property is within the park boundaries.

You questioned the inclusion of the fact that only 2% of land in the park is privately owned. This lacked context and downplayed the problem:

The reporter parrots the NCC claim that private lands represent less than two percent of Gatineau Park's area. Well, most of the park is inaccessible, and the private lands there crowd around public facilities. For instance, according to the NCC's 2010 Gatineau Park Conservation Plan (p.165), nearly 40% of park visitors are concentrated at Meech Lake, while the Meech Lake residents association, for several decades, has pressured the NCC to close public facilities there, including the boat launch and the public beach. This is an obvious attempt to downplay the seriousness of the problem.

Turning to the interview on Ottawa Morning, you listed a series of errors and omissions committed by the fill-in Host, Giacomo Panico. You thought he deliberately downplayed the danger of development. You said it was wrong to say until the bylaw, residents with property in the park could do little work on their properties. You stated that they have been building and renovating for years.

You wondered why a homeowner’s statement - that there was inherent protection of the land because it was covered under Quebec’s stringent agricultural land use policies - was not challenged. Later, when the mayor brought it up in her interview, Mr. Panico should have challenged her statement that Quebec’s agricultural zoning is the strictest in the country. You do not agree that it is.

You said that the host “made up the NCC’s alleged ‘right of first refusal’” when it came to the sale of private properties. No such thing exists.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC Ottawa, Ruth Zowdu, replied to your concerns. She acknowledged that there were errors, both in the radio interview and the print version of this story. She informed you that the web story has been corrected, noting the changes. The errors were:

The news staff corrected the reporter’s statement that the NCC began acquiring private property in 2008 as soon as they received your complaint.

You were correct that the woman interviewed owned a property within the park, not bordering on it.

The Ottawa Morning host misconstrued some research he had done to come to the conclusion that the NCC has the right of first refusal - but they did not. She told you she followed up with him to understand how the error was made.

On the other matters you raised she did not agree with your assessment. She rejected your characterization of “fake news” and allegations of deliberately downplaying the issue. She pointed out that the views of those concerned about the status of the park and the impact of the bylaw changes were represented. Your views were conveyed in a clip at the beginning of the radio interview with the mayor, and you were quoted in the print story. The host put the fears of development to the mayor in the course of the interview.

Ms. Zowdu also disagreed that the term “grandfathered” could be taken to mean that the private properties were in alignment with the park mandate:

This term, used both in the online story and again in the introduction to the interview with Ms. Labadie is used to suggest that the owners of the homes are not seen to be in active breach of the rules because the properties were present first. In our work to verify this, the National Capital Commission (NCC) wrote to us saying that the homes 'were there when the park was created in 1938. Since that time NCC and its predecessors have been acquiring private lands within the boundary of the park.'

Your other criticism involved assertions made about Quebec’s agricultural zoning laws and the protection it afforded against development of private property. She reminded you that the homeowner’s statement was not part of the interview but a separate clip used to set up the discussion. She said it was not reasonable for the host to have detailed knowledge of the agency, CPTAQ (Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Québec), in the course of preparing an interview about a bylaw change in Pontiac. It would not be reasonable to know the rate at which it approved exemptions, or to assess its reputation for enforcing its rules about land usage.

REVIEW

It goes without saying that accuracy is the bedrock of all of the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. There is one important line in the description of accuracy:

We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

Precision of language and informed and adequate context, all contribute to the accuracy and fairness of a piece. There were three errors in two pieces on the same subject. I acknowledge one was a live radio interview and the other was an article. Nevertheless, I consider that a disappointing outcome. It concerns me that there was not a broad enough understanding to be able to interpret the information gleaned from the National Capital Commission, which was a source for the numbers. Ms. Zowdu agreed that in the case of the date when acquisition of property began, the location of one property and the issue of right of first refusal, CBC journalists were wrong. Committing this number of errors undermines the integrity of the work and does not meet CBC standards. I do not believe that this, in any way, was deliberate or arose out of any agenda. You are an advocate with decades of knowledge and activity and a very strong point of view. It is not realistic to expect daily news reporters to have that depth of knowledge - but it is for them to get it right and have enough background to provide context for listeners and readers to make up their own minds about the issue. The history of this park, its governance and the presence of private property, are complex and contentious issues. The story’s purpose was to highlight a change in a bylaw that would have some impact on that history. There were varying views about its impact, and those were both represented. In fact, you are the person quoted in the web article, and heard on air:

JEAN-PAUL MURRAY

I think there’s a very genuine risk … we’re talking about at least 40 acres that have been identified as being private property. The argument the municipality is using is that the land is landlocked and therefore not subject to development, but the Quebec Civil Code clearly stipulates that “Personne ne peut être enclave” – nobody can be prevented from accessing their property, so the owner can demand a right-of-way. So you’re talking 40 acres? At least 40 other houses, and a gentleman I just spoke to told me that one of the owners that was here tonight, of over 22 acres really would like to see condominiums built on her property. All these assurances we’ve got I don’t take them at face value. I still think there’s a clear and present danger to the park in terms of residential development.

This was paired with a quote from a homeowner who cited the protection of Quebec regulations on agricultural land:

Well if you actually look at the lots that are not in the agricultural zone - because most of them are in the agricultural zone and that is very strictly governed by the CPTAQ (Commission de Protection du Territoire Agricole) as mentioned in the meeting. There really isn’t that much potential for any development, and then they would still have to respect the Municipal laws which are allowing R1, I think, which is single family homes. So really it seems to me there’s nothing there.

You wanted to know why this wasn’t challenged, and said that in fact land is frequently removed from agricultural use. I appreciate that you are asking for a level of knowledge and precision that daily journalism cannot always provide - that is why issues are covered over time. There were a range of perspectives offered on the impact of the bylaw enactment - your views were broadcast before the start of the interview, for example. Mr. Panico may not have challenged the stringency of agricultural zoning but he did challenge the mayor’s views by putting to her some of the concerns about the new bylaw. I do not agree that those listening would necessarily conclude there is nothing to worry about. You queried the accuracy and intent of several other aspects of this coverage, notably the use of the term “grandfathered.” While strictly speaking it may not be in the case of the law, its use in this context is fairly clear - that when the park was formed, private land was allowed to exist within its boundaries. That does not imply that was considered acceptable, and the piece does go on to talk about the NCC acquiring other land:

Gatineau Park was created in 1938, when existing private properties were grandfathered in.

In 2008, the National Capital Commission started working to acquire 405 private properties on about 600 hectares of land.

It said it has since purchased nearly half of those properties.

It may not have been as detailed or precise as you would wish, given the long history here, but I do not believe the use is misleading in context. You disputed the reference to “nearly half of those properties.” You cited a figure of 211 hectares. It is here that more precision and background would have been helpful. In communication with CBC staff, the NCC stated that were only 338 properties left covering 361 hectares. Is that “nearly half?” It’s not half the number of properties - I suppose it could be “nearly half” of the land mass. The NCC characterized it as “nearly half.” As the responsible agency, it is reasonable to assume the numbers provided are accurate. It is not as reasonable to uncritically use their language, even when attributed to them. That brings my comments back to where I started - I think this story was under-researched and failed to meet CBC’s standards of accuracy and provide the necessary clarity to help citizens understand the facts.

As this is a story that is not likely to end any time soon, I would think CBC News in Ottawa will have other opportunities to delve into the issues more closely. The frequency may not meet your expectations as someone very close to this issue, but I expect that sound editorial judgement will prevail.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman