A complainant said The National’s political affairs panel, At Issue, lacked balance. He though that the panelists were supporters of the Liberal and Conservative parties and that there needed to be someone to speak for the NDP. But CBC's ombudsman Esther Enkin found that the panelists were non-partisan, that the discussions were not based on party positions, but analysis of them, and the analysis provided came from a range of perspectives.

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman 

The complainant, Ron Faris, had concerns about lack of balance in The National’s political affairs panel, At Issue. He though that the panelists were supporters of the Liberal and Conservative parties and that there needed to be someone to speak for the NDP. I found that the panelists were non-partisan, that the discussions were not based on party positions, but analysis of them, and the analysis provided came from a range of perspectives.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned that the weekly political affairs panel on The National, At Issue, is too narrow in its perspective. You think it should include “the social democratic perspective of the federal Official Opposition.”

As an example of this bias, you cited the At Issue panel of September 12th. The panel was discussing a recently held NDP caucus meeting. Host Peter Mansbridge observed that the gathering had not received much media attention, possibly because other events of the week (chemical weapons in Syria and the Quebec Charter) had dominated the headlines. He played a clip of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair attacking Justin Trudeau, the Liberal party leader. He then asked the panelists why he might have done so.


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A discussion ensued about the challenge facing the NDP in the next election, what tactics and strategy might work, and how the party would approach Trudeau. You pointed out this ignored the wide range of policy discussion at the party caucus. You also felt it was unfair to focus in on the leadership issue, when Mr. Mulcair’s position was completely ignored in a previous part of the panel discussion that night. The panel had talked about the impact and political ramifications of the Parti Quebecois introduction of its Charter of Rights. You wrote:

To select a short clip of Tom Mulcair revealing the absence of accomplishment of Justin at the conclusion of several days of policy discussions where the NDP caucus has discussed economic, and social issues such as the PQ charter of Values – and Tom Mulcair has come out clearly and passionately against the Charter (Chantal claimed Justin is the leader on the issue!), and for revelation of important economic issues in the coming months is to ignore the clear, social democratic alternatives facing Canadians.”

This was an example of what you consider a built-in bias of this weekly feature of The National because of the background of the panelists. You think there should be a “journalist/ pollster/commentator of social democratic persuasion on the panel”:

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It is predictable that Andrew – a self-confessed conservative, Bruce a pollster for the Liberals, and Chantal, a journalist with the historically Liberal Toronto Star, will express support for either the federal Conservative or Liberal parties/leaders.”

You were referring to the regular At Issue panelists: Andrew Coyne, a national columnist for the National Post, Chantal Hébert, a columnist for the Toronto Star, Le Devoir and L’Actualité and Bruce Anderson, who has his own public opinion research firm called Anderson Insight. The panel airs regularly on Thursday nights on The National and the panelists address the major political stories in the news. Its website states that it is “Canada’s most-watched political panel (which) presents a mix of opinion and analysis to all that happens on Parliament Hill.” In fact it ranges further afield to discuss various issues that have impact on Canadian politics and public policy.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concerns. He explained that the participants in the At Issue panel were chosen because they are “experienced political analysts” and they do not take a party line in their analyses of the issues:

The panelists are selected because of their extensive knowledge of national and regional political strategy and tactics, as well as the insight and intelligent reflection they can bring to a discussion of the issues.”

He added that the panelists are not chosen for their alignment with one party or another, but because they present diverse views, which is what makes the discussions engaging. He also rejected your characterization of each of the panel members:

Regular panelist Andrew Coyne, for example, may be seen as holding broadly conservative views, but he certainly is not a booster of the Conservative Party. In fact, he could be seen as the government’s harshest critic on the panel. Although you identify Bruce Anderson as a Liberal because he polls for the Liberal Party; in fact, you will find he has worked for both the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Toronto Star carries Chantal Hebert’s column, but that does not mean she shares the newspaper’s editorial position. Identifying them as political partisans is as untrue as it is unfair.”

To continue reading this review, please go to the CBC ombudsman’s website where this was originally published.