Not everything goes from on-air to online.

The complainant, Gabriel Hurley, was skeptical about CBC’s reasons for not publishing online a radio segment that had criticized the corporation’s relationship with Facebook. He also questioned CBC’s public statement that the segment in question did not live up to its journalistic standards. I was still working for CBC News when this incident happened, and had discussed the matter with managers at the time. I felt it would be a conflict of interest for me to adjudicate it now, so I am grateful that my predecessor as Ombudsman, Esther Enkin, agreed to conduct this review.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that CBC News management had failed to post the audio portion of a discussion between Metro Morning host Matt Galloway and Jesse Hirsh, a CBC freelance contributor for some years on technology matters, because it was critical of CBC and its use and promotion of Facebook. The discussion was in response to a New York Times exposé regarding how the social media company had dealt with a series of accusations and revelations of its influence on the news and its role in the 2016 U.S. election, the Brexit referendum and the misuse of users’ data in a variety of ways. Toward the end of the discussion, Mr. Hirsh made some statements about CBC News, CBC News policies and management. Those who had not heard it, but heard about it, wished to have access to it on the cbcnews.ca website. When it was not published there was concern and anger that this was being repressed because of the unflattering things said about CBC. Ultimately, CBC News managers, through Tim Richards - Managing Editor at CBC Toronto - posted an “editor’s note” to explain what had happened. You were skeptical that it was a true picture of what occurred. You asked two questions:

Is it possible that the CBC did not publish the interview because it contained criticism of the broadcaster itself, rather than because it violated any actual journalistic standards. Since the Ombudsman is the arbiter of such standards, my questions for you are: Did it actually violate these standards? Was it justifiable for the CBC to refuse to publish this interview online?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, replied to your concern. He assured you that it was not criticism of the CBC which was the reason the column was not posted online. He told you that not everything from the programme is posted daily. He also acknowledged there were concerns about elements of the broadcast:

...we reviewed it as there were concerns that Mr. Hirsh had positioned himself as an advocate for a particular view, and was offering his personal opinion on the matter at hand. His role as an analyst and contributor is to offer context and informed analysis which in turn, enables you - the audience - to form your own opinions if you so desire.

He made reference to some concerns about “editorial inaccuracies” and referred you to the editor's note published by Mr. Richards. Mr. Richards stated that while “there is public value in using Facebook and other social media,” there are also legitimate questions about its role in news distribution. He added these are issues CBC has and will continue to explore. He went on to cite “several sweeping statements made that were unsubstantiated” regarding complaints against Mr. Hirsh every time he spoke about Facebook which CBC failed to defend, and that CBC programmers were mandated to promote Facebook. He noted that CBC columnists are obliged to “be accurate and their arguments must be supported by the facts.”

REVIEW

The lines between commentary and opinion are, at best, blurry. However, I would like to correct a misconception in your complaint - the title “columnist” does not give one license to express opinion. Columnists provide analysis - a synthesis of facts based on knowledge and expertise, the Journalistic Standards states. Analysis can be provocative, but it must portray the facts with precision. The full guidance on Analysis is this:

When appropriate, news and current affairs staff offer reports we refer to as "analysis". Here, reporters may make observations and draw conclusions based on facts as well as their own experience and expertise. Their intent is to give the audience insight into the true nature of events, not to be a forum for the personal opinions or preferences of the author.

As for the CBC Opinion section, the pieces may be columns but the authors are, with one exception, engaged to write a point of view piece from a particular perspective. You remarked that “all of the writers for the CBC Opinion website are referred to as ‘columnists’ next to their byline.” It is unclear what you are referring to, as the byline generally presents the name of the contributor followed by the phrase “for CBC News.” Even in the realm of Opinion, there is a necessity for facts to back a view. The JSP states:

When we choose to present a single point of view:

  • it is clearly labeled, and
  • it does not misrepresent other points of view.

CBC news management has the right and responsibility to evaluate the work of any employee or contributor. They use the JSP as their guide. It is not without its irony that I am adjudicating this since it is usually management who defends the work, although sometimes they acknowledge violation, and the Ombudsman then renders an opinion. Had this piece come to me directly with a complaint about its content, I would have had to agree that it did not represent the situation precisely enough. In conversation with Mr. Hirsh, it is clear he felt he did not have the support of CBC management. The particulars are a bit more complex. In his conversation with me and in other interviews he gave, he qualified some of his declarative statements in the Metro Morning interview. In trying to understand which level of management he dealt with, I discovered that frequently, in fact, editorial disagreements were dealt with at an appropriate programming level, which would be with programme producers. Mr. Hirsh pointed out as a freelancer and an outsider, that he was vulnerable and should not be expected to understand the intricacies of CBC management, and often it was unclear to him where decisions or editorial direction were coming from and that he was involved in phone calls which included news management. I appreciate the process may not always be clear; as a commentator hired by CBC, he is bound by the JSP and has an obligation to follow journalistic principles of clarity and precision

This is what Mr. Hirsh said to Matt Galloway:

And further, every time I’ve appeared on this show to talk about Facebook, Facebook has complained to CBC, and CBC has not defended me, or has not defended our right to have these conversations, although Metro Morning does.

In fact, according to Mr. Hirsh, it was not every time that Facebook complained. There were times he inferred management was involved, although conversations were not with members of senior management, but generally with producers and sometimes they would invoke management. The Editor in Chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, told me she had not received complaints about Facebook, nor did her office initiate the examination of this broadcast. There were some complaints sent to programmers in other instances when there were editorial issues, and they were dealt with at the programme level. If at times producers did refer journalistic questions to management, it was consistent with Journalistic Standards and Practices, which embodies a concept of upward referral. Important decisions are generally made by senior newsroom staff, but certain policies explicitly call for upward referral for discussion and decision. When there are reputational or legal implications, this would be done as a matter of course. According to the JSP:

We make ourselves familiar with the contents of the JSP. We apply the JSP to each situation in good faith and according to our best judgement. We keep up with best journalistic practices, share our experiences and ask ourselves questions before making editorial decisions. We refer to senior editorial management any question raising a doubt or any decision that could affect CBC’s credibility, independence or reputation as a provider of high-quality information.

Ms. McGuire told me there was no dictum to promote Facebook. In subsequent interviews, Mr. Hirsh stated that it might no longer be the case, but that it used to be. Again, it would have been helpful to cite proof or be more precise.

It is true that the column was never posted on the Metro Morning website. It was not general practice to post this or any other columns. You asked if it was justifiable - it is a decision programmers make every day, and it seems consistent with stated programme practice. Tim Richards explained 3 pieces are generally posted each day and priority is given to newsmakers. That day an interview with Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders was posted, along with the first interview with the president of St. Michael’s School - in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal - along with a segment with a band, Whitehorse, who was to be part of the upcoming Sounds of the Season celebration.

It is also true there were concerns and misgivings about the column. It was in response to the social media reaction that prompted the publication of the “Editor’s Note” by way of explanation. It is hard to fault an organization for trying to live up to principles of transparency. The fact you reject the explanation is, of course, entirely your decision and rightly so. CBC News management has a right to assess and decide whether a piece of work does not meet its public journalistic standards. I asked Mr. Hirsh what he made of the whole episode. He realized that once he raised the topic there might be consequences, but he had no desire to see this happen and thought it was “simply good radio.” He felt the whole incident was overblown in the public space, and in some cases it was used to support various agendas. That might very well have been the case. Process and policy were followed.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman