PEI's Egmont riding

Summary

Statement that PEI's Egmont riding was “considered one of the safest Liberal seats in the country”

You wrote in August of 2008 to complain of a comment during a broadcast of CBC News: Compass in Prince Edward Island. In a brief story read by announcer Sara Fraser, she referred to Egmont riding as “considered one of the safest Liberal seats in the country.”

You said that the statement was “unverifiable,” “completely baseless” and you said that Compass “is ethically and morally obliged to apologize to PEI viewers for this display of bias and partisanship.”

The Managing Editor of CBC News for PEI, Henk van Leeuwen, replied that Egmont has been held by the Liberals for 28 years which, in normal political parlance, would qualify it as a “safe” seat, but went on to say that CBC News would “probe all four of PEI's federal riding contests in a thorough, fair and balanced way.”

This, of course, was before the launching of last fall's Federal Election. I am sorry that your complaint was subsumed by the avalanche of election, prorogation and Mideast war material. It surfaced only recently. The fault is entirely mine.

First off, I would like to review the relevant sections from CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Under Journalistic Principles we find:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but also a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events. Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

At another section we find these words: “…a CBC reporter must not take a partisan position on a matter of public controversy, even when participating in an interview or discussion program. In providing comprehensive coverage, reporters may want to offer some context to news events. To do this, they may present an explanation of the background to the event based on careful research. They must not, however, express or reflect their personal opinion or bias. In other words, they must keep their personal views separate from their reporting. The objective in providing context and analysis is to ensure that the audience, which relies on broadcast journalism as the primary source of information, is given as clear as possible an explanation of news events and of issues and their significance.”

So, we see that the information must be fair and accurate, but there is also a positive obligation to provide context and analysis where appropriate. All across the country in the run-up to elections, experienced journalists provide viewers, listeners and readers with facts and with explanation. I have to say that where I live I heard journalists, both inside and outside the CBC, refer to some ridings as being considered, before the election, as “safe” Conservative seats, “safe” Liberal seats and “safe” NDP seats. Such conclusions are not based on partisan view, but on analysis of previous election results. Of course, no such conclusion is safe from contravention: the Conservatives won Egmont, albeit with a margin of just over 60 votes. In a recent provincial by-election, Progressive Conservative leader John Tory ran in what all commentators labeled as a previously “safe” Conservative seat, but, in the end, he lost.

All reference to election districts must be taken as background, but not as predictive. I note that the comment, before the writ was dropped, referred to Egmont being considered one of the safest Liberal seats in the country. Ms. Shea, the winning candidate, was obviously not deterred by that conclusion.

It would be a violation of policy if the announcer had said that the Liberals were going to win, but that is not what she said. She said that it was “considered” safe, and as far as I can tell, that was a reasonable conclusion in August. A wise person once said that “forever” in politics is about 3 weeks. We have all seen how events overtake even the most careful or seemingly obvious predictions. That should serve as a caution to those doing analysis, but it should not deter them from providing viewers with relevant historical and political background.

Conclusion

There was no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman