The documentary, Silence of the Labs, provided many relevant facts and presented alternative perspectives about an important public policy issue so that Canadians could draw their own conclusions, writes CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin. 

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The complainant, Jon Melanson, considered the Fifth Estate documentary Silence of the Labs, about the demise of various scientific research programs and the shift in government policy on science, a one-sided and biased piece of work. He accused the creators of using selective facts to attack the Conservative government. The documentary provided many relevant facts and presented alternative perspectives about an important public policy issue so that Canadians could draw their own conclusions, as CBC journalistic policy demands.

COMPLAINT

The Fifth Estate broadcast a program that examined the controversy around Conservative government policies on scientific research. You objected to the documentary entitled “Silence of the Labs” and an accompanying article on the website because you felt that it was biased, used selective facts and generally conformed to your view about CBC news and current affairs as anti-Conservative and left-wing.

The documentary spoke to a number of research scientists who had lost their funding and their jobs in a variety of formerly government funded projects. The piece and the article highlighted criticism of the federal government and its approach to research science and its relationship to public policy. Its thesis was that there has been a shift in the way science is funded, and in the priorities around science:


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Scientists across the country are expressing growing alarm that federal cutbacks to research programs monitoring areas that range from climate change and ocean habitats to public health will deprive Canadians of crucial information.

“What’s important is the scale of the assault on knowledge, and on our ability to know about ourselves and to advance our understanding of our world,” said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

In the past five years the federal government has dismissed more than 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding. Programs that monitored things such as smoke stack emissions, food inspections, oil spills, water quality and climate change have been drastically cut or shut down.

You had several issues with the work. You felt that the producers of the piece “cherry picked” the facts and the sources used:

Do Prime Minister Harper’s science priorities reflect the best interests of Canada? It’s certainly a question worth asking, but you won’t find the answer by interviewing the folks guaranteed to have the most biased perspective: laid-off scientists and the left-wing union that represents them. Why didn’t the biased CBC mention this? The CBC attacks a government for having a ‘war on facts’, while ironically and hypocritically waging its own very biased, selective same ‘war on facts’.

You dismissed the views and experience of those interviewed as “factless partisan opinion.” You pointed out that funding for science under the Conservative government has increased, and that there are more scientists in Canada than there used to be, so there is greater competition for funding:

Between 2006 and 2011, the Harper administration increased federal funding for science and technology every year  —  a $9 billion spike, according to the “Investing in World-Class Research and Innovation” chapter of Minister Flaherty’s 2013 budget. Even following a slight dip post-2011, overall annual funding still remain billions higher than in the Liberal years, and as Minister Rempel reminded a Twitter troll the other day, the Conservatives are still funneling tonnes of tax dollars to a vast assortment of science-themed bureaucracies across the land, many of which they themselves founded.

You also thought that the use of a graphic of buildings on a map with lights going out to illustrate cancelled programs, and the background music that accompanied it, was further evidence of bias. You characterized the soundtrack as “scary music.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Fifth Estate, Jim Williamson, replied to your concerns. He told you that the basis of this documentary was not a CBC fabrication. He pointed out that the government closure of research projects had prompted public demonstrations and public criticism of government priorities by scientists. “It is a controversial issue, an issue of public interest and concern, and one that we felt would benefit from a closer look.”

He explained that while only a certain number of scientists appear in the broadcast, the researchers spoke to many more with a range of perspectives on these developments. He added that the scientists whose programs were cancelled were internationally recognized experts in their fields. He pointed out that there were “credible and articulate voices” which supported government science policy.


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.