Tuesday, 15 August 2006

The CBC responds [Updated]

Practising what I preach, I contacted the CBC last week about my concerns with misrepresentation on The National news broadcast. I also emailed Vince Carlin, the ombudsman for CBC, who forwarded my email to Jonathan Whitten, Executive Producer of The National, asking him to address my concerns. I got a rather lengthy reply (quite honestly, more than I was expecting). Seeing as it was funnelled through a Communications Officer, I strongly suspect it was a form letter, all the more so, since he got much more specific about my concerns than I did myself. I am not offended by this; it means that he's being called on this issue by a good number of people.

In essence, he refutes the charge of misrepresentation of the Prime Minister's position, but does concede that "The construction of the piece did make it appear the Prime Minister was responding directly to the woman protester, and that was not the case."

I do believe he is understating the degree of distortion. People retain overall impressions much better than they do words, and the overall impression was misleading and quite emotive.

But to be completely fair to the CBC, I am reproducing his response in its entirety. One last thought before I do:

It would appear that one of the greatest contributions that the blogosphere can make to public discourse is aggressively fact-checking the mainstream media.

Dear Ms. Di Giacomo:

Thank you for your email to CBC regarding a report aired on The National. Jonathan Whitten, executive producer of The National asked me to forward the following to you:

Thank you for your e-mail of August 12th addressed to Vince Carlin, CBC Ombudsman. As you know, Mr. Carlin asked me to reply.

You wrote to draw our attention to a report on the August 4 editions of THE NATIONAL that you feel is inaccurate and misleading. Specifically, you wrote that by juxtaposing a comment by a protestor with what you feel is an unrelated statement made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a news conference, the report misrepresented the Prime Minister’s views, and made him appear insensitive.

The report on THE NATIONAL on August 4th concerned the Prime Minister’s reaction to questions he was facing about the Middle East. The report began with protestors outside the Conservative caucus meeting in Cornwall, one of whom was seen saying that both sides killing innocent children is wrong and has to stop.

The Prime Minister, meeting behind closed doors, did not hear her message (although, as we reported, she was invited to meet with the Minister of Foreign Affairs), but reporters did ask him about civilian deaths in a news conference held after the caucus meeting. He did not reply to the question directly, but he told reporters – including the CBC’s Christina Lawand – that his policy on the Middle East remained the same and would not change because of public opinion surveys or protests. He said that Canadians are not neutral on terrorism and that he would not call for a cease-fire until the right conditions were in place. And, he said, when properly understood, his views represent the views of most Canadians. Ms. Lawand clearly stated those views in her report.

She also included a statement from the news conference – the one to which you referred – where the Prime Minister said he is "not preoccupied in any way with reaction within individual communities."

This statement was in response to a reporter who asked specifically how he felt about what seemed to be growing support in the Jewish community for his government and ended his question by asking whether he was concerned about the negative response among some in the Arab community. Mr. Harper replied that he agreed the Middle East conflict had a pretty strong resonance in some cultural communities, but that the government “can’t take positions based on polls, we can’t take decisions based on reactions within certain domestic communities.”

In the bulk of his answer, however, he explained that the issues were far larger than the concerns of some communities. These are “serious international issues, he said, “there are not only many lives at stake, there are a lot of long term strategic interests of this country and of the world.…” He talked about two major elements of the Canadian policy, about terrorist groups, both in Canada and abroad. He talked about humanitarian concerns, including evacuation and re-construction as being among the “focuses of our activity.”

Then he returned to where he had started his answer and repeated: “I’m not concerned or preoccupied in any way with reaction within individual communities. I think that reaction is very predictable.” That was the clip included in the report following the protestor. It is logical to conclude here that the reaction he is “not concerned” with, is the kind of reaction personified by the protestor seen at the beginning of the report. Mr. Harper was talking about predictable reactions in general of which the protestor was a specific example. Some have argued that he was talking about polling within the Arab and Jewish communities, and while that's possible, he was also discussing, in addition to polling, "reactions within certain domestic communities." Far from being unrelated, as you suggest, the two are directly related.

Later in the news conference, the Prime Minister was specifically asked about the protestors outside the meeting. While he did say that it is important to listen to members of the various communities (as we reported, his Ministers met with two of the protestors) he also said “they can’t guide all of our decisions at the same time.” Far from being contradictory to his response to the earlier question, this was restating the government position that we faithfully reported throughout the piece.

I do, however, agree with your concern about the structure of the report. The construction of the piece did make it appear the Prime Minister was responding directly to the woman protester, and that was not the case. We should have taken the time to make it clear that the Prime Minister was responding to a general question, and not a specific question about the woman's concerns, and I regret that. While this does not constitute a misrepresentation of Mr. Harper's position, or the position of his Government, the program could have, and should have, taken the time to be clear about what prompted the response.

It is also my responsibility to inform you that if you are not satisfied with this response, you may wish to submit the matter for review by the CBC Ombudsman, Mr. Vince Carlin. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent and impartial body reporting directly to the President, is responsible for evaluating program compliance with the CBC's journalistic policies. Mr. Carlin may be reached by mail at the address shown below, or by fax at (416) 205-2825, or by e-mail at ombudsman@cbc.ca

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Whitten
Executive Producer

Box 500, Station “A”,
Toronto, Ontario
M5W 1E6

I hope this information is helpful to you, and thank you again for


Jamie Richards
Communications Officer
CBC Audience Relations

I do find it rather peculiar that he refers me to the Ombudsman, seeing as it was the ombudsman who forwarded my email in the first place. Yes, I know it's a form letter, but if I pursue this further, I would expect the ombudsman to do more than just send my concerns on. I specifically asked him to investigate and to make his findings known to the Canadian public. I fully recognize that he doesn't march to my orders, but still... one has to wonder if the ombudsman has any teeth.

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Update: Yup, it was a form letter! I wasn't the only one...

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