More than 300 people have taken the trouble this month to complain to the CBC ombudsman about a column we ran on CBCNews.ca about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Sept. 5.
The column, by award-winning freelance writer Heather Mallick, was also pilloried by the National Post in Canada and by Fox News in the U.S. Despite its age — it is three weeks old, several lifetimes in web years — this posting remains a subject of fascination in the blogosphere.
Vince Carlin, the CBC ombudsman, has now issued his assessment of the Mallick column. He doesn’t fault her for riling readers by either the caustic nature of her tone or the polarizing nature of her opinion.
But he objects that many of her most savage assertions lack a basis in fact. And he is certainly correct.
Mallick’s column is a classic piece of political invective. It is viciously personal, grossly hyperbolic and intensely partisan.
And because it is all those things, this column should not have appeared on the CBCNews.ca site.
On the whole, the CBC News policy handbook takes a very anxious view of any mixing of opinion in with the news business. It sees the two as nitro and glycerin, innocuous on their own but explosive together. This is a very healthy restraint for a public broadcaster.
But every news organization needs to have an opinion dimension. Access to different viewpoints helps readers, listeners and viewers make reasoned choices, especially during an election campaign.
As a public broadcaster we have an added responsibility to provide an array of opinions and voices to complement our journalism. But we must do so carefully. And you should be able to trust us to provide you with work that’s based on solid reporting and free from the passionate excesses of partisanship.
We failed you in this case. And as a result we have put new editing procedures in place to ensure that in the future, work that is not appropriate for our platforms, will not appear. We are open to contentious reasoned argument but not to partisan attack. It’s a fine line.
Ombudsman Carlin makes another significant observation in his response to complainants: when it does choose to print opinion, CBCNews.ca displays a very narrow range on its pages.
In this, Carlin is also correct.
This, too, is being immediately addressed. CBCNews.ca will soon expand the diversity of voices and opinions and be home to a diverse group of writers with many perspectives. In this, we will better reflect the depth and texture of this country.
We erred in our editorial judgment. You told us in no uncertain terms. And we have learned from it.
Here was CBC ombudsman Vince Carlin’s assessment of the complaints that followed Mallick’s column,
Airing a week ago on January 22nd, CBC’s This Hour has 22 minutes weighed in on the complaints that CBC received from Doug Finley, Conservative Party chief of political operations (background and first letter, second letter).
When, as in the present instance, it is revealed that a reporter has been collaborating, even if only obliquely, with one party or another, an appearance of partisanship emerges that cannot be dispelled by claims that this is how political reporters interact with their sources. — John Cruickshank, CBC News
CBC’s recognition of Conservative concern and it’s action on the complaint shows that the CBC is at least reluctantly receptive to complaints of impartiality when discussed broadly by senior political officials and other news media.
I have reviewed your pre-Christmas fundraising letter.
I write this public response to you because I believe that by its inaccuracy, innuendo, exaggeration and expressed malice towards hundreds of Canadian journalists you risk damaging not just your target, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but also public faith in our political process
The underlying issue here is the potential damage done to Canadians’ faith in the public broadcaster’s ability to deliver a non-partial news report and to remove itself from the political process. Your statement is akin to blaming the victim. The political process? Again, allegations of conspiratorial parliamentary committee manipulation between the Liberals and the CBC are so egregious because the questions went far outside of the mandate of the committee and if the allegations of collusion are true – it goes without saying – they extend beyond the mandate of the CBC.
I understand that a private association like the Conservative party does not have the sort of transparent and reliable complaints process that we have at the CBC. That is regrettable.
You say “private” like it’s a bad thing. Besides, it is not the transparency and accountability of the Conservative Party that is in the spotlight here. Again, it is that of the CBC.
I understand that you have already availed yourself of access to our Ombudsman, complaining that a member of the CBC News staff communicated suggested questions to Liberal MPs in advance of a public hearing. I appreciate this show of confidence in the integrity of our process. I wish you had reflected that respect for our commitment to answer any and all complaints about our work in your unfortunate letter to potential donors.
This isn’t so much a show of confidence in the process but rather an indication of the limited number of avenues of accountability that the Conservatives can seek of the institution. The only method by which one can cry “foul” to the material reported by the CBC is to write to an ombudsman. We cannot use our remotes or our wallets to demand accountability as the CBC receives $1 Billion in tax revenue every year from the government. Even the government is elected; it is directly accountable to the voter via the electoral process. CBC directors are not popularly elected and they may not even represent the Canadian reality. As a private institution, the Conservative Party is accountable to Canadians. The party cannot operate without donations from Canadians and we gave the party our confidence to the tune of $18.9 million in 2006 (2007 annual figure not yet available). One wonders of the extent of the sum that the CBC could raise (even without $1100 donation caps) if it faced the direct accountability of Canadians via the market.
You were well aware when you sat down to write your appeal for cash that CBC News had publicly condemned the behaviour you complain of and had called a disciplinary meeting to look into it.
An appeal for change and for action should neither be dismissed nor diminished because of the process underway. The Conservative Party seems to seek preventative action rather than put its faith in process that only comes about when malpractices (alleged or not) come to light.
Your suggestion to your potential contributors that the CBC was waging a partisan campaign against your party and the government of Canada was flatly contradicted by every step we had taken before you composed your cash appeal.
Again, it is the initial allegations of journalistic malpractice that likely concerns the Conservative Party. You are arguing that since there is now an internal investigation (again, only after the fact), that this dispels the cloud. It is absurd to say that an investigation of alleged partisanship itself disproves partisanship.
We accept that you are not the only, or even the first, Canadian political party to use CBC News as a whipping boy for fundraising purposes.
The Liberal party accused us of bias on several occasions when it fit their agenda.
By this argument you suggest that the CBC isn’t non-partisan but rather that it is bi-partisan. The Ombudsman that seems to be the most hopeful lever of accountability has recently concluded on CBC missteps towards the Conservatives. The Liberal Party may have accused the CBC of skewed reporting, but the ombudsman has convicted the CBC of it following conservative concerns.
As a public broadcaster we take our responsibilities to all Canadian shareholders very seriously. This is more than just a glib promise.
Hey John, where can I sell my shares?
Unlike any other broadcaster in the country, the CBC has a journalistic standards and practices book. This book is given to each reporter, producer, editor and host working at the CBC. It outlines in explicit detail the code of conduct for our journalists. It covers conflict of interest; it covers issues of journalistic fairness and balance.
It is clear, and it is binding. It is also a living document. We talk about it and refer to it daily when we are dealing with difficult ethical issues. It is also freely available to the general public to see, so they know exactly what standards we aim to maintain.
I would be delighted to share a copy of it with you.
CBC News is especially sensitive to how we cover partisan political debates. The CBC is non-partisan. We do not want to be seen to be a creation of any party (although, as you know, it was a Progressive Conservative government that brought our organization into being.)
Here, the PC reference isn’t simply offered by you as trivia, you suggest some introspection for the Conservatives as if the Conservatives behaviour is inconsistent by your implying that both entities are the same. Yet this controversy started by alleged manipulation of a Parliamentary committee by the CBC outside of the committee’s mandate as the Liberals (via the CBC, allegedly) tried to tie Harper to Mulroney.
While all our journalists try to live by our code of conduct, CBC News is not infallible. But we are accountable. When there are errors of judgment, or misunderstandings or improper interpretation of the journalistic standards and practices, we investigate. When we discover shortcomings, we change our standards and practices.
No other news organization in the country operates within such a demanding ethical regime. For you to sully the reputations of so many dedicated Canadian professionals is utterly unacceptable. Your denigration of our ethical standards can only contribute to the public cynicism about public life that is already far too pervasive.
I take issue with your circling of the reputational wagons of hundreds of so many Canadian professionals around an institution which may have serious faults to address. There are good, capable and professional people that contribute to reporting for the CBC and they should not be your shield. Further, the Conservatives are not denigrating the Corporation’s ethical standards, they are concerned about staff that may fail to meet set standards and managers and directors that fail to enforce them and/or meet such standards themselves.
Yours sincerely, John Cruickshank, Publisher, CBC News