CBC policy on balance allows for the expression of a variety of views over a reasonable period of time, writes ombudsman Esther Enkin. 

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

The complainant, Jon Melanson, once again thought CBC programming showed a left-wing bias. In this case, he cited an interview about corporate tax evasion. He thought that it was inappropriate to have only interviewed someone from a critical perspective. He particularly objected because the interviewee was the head of Canadians for Tax Fairness, a group supported by unions. He might have a case if the program had not followed up with other content that supplied other perspectives on the matter. CBC policy on balance allows for the expression of a variety of views over a reasonable period of time.

COMPLAINT

On The Sunday Edition of March 16, 2014, Michael Enright interviewed the Executive Director of Canadians for Tax Fairness about corporate tax evasion. You had several concerns about the interview. You thought “Mr. Enright’s bias was on full display when The Sunday Edition ventured into the world of international corporate taxation.”


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You chose to reproduce parts of a column written by Terence Corcoran in the Financial Post as the basis of the complaint, although you did not attribute them to him. You shared his views that Mr. Howlett was not qualified to speak to the subject as he is “not a tax specialist.” In Mr. Corcoran’s words, reproduced in your letter:

Dennis Howlett is not a tax specialist, let alone a corporate tax expert. He’s a long time social activist who has held a variety of posts, including executive director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization. He’s been a relentless campaigner over decades for social justice, wealth distribution and soak-the-rich government intervention.

You thought it was deceptive not to provide Mr. Howlett’s background. You thought his organization, Canadians for Tax Fairness, was also not properly identified as left wing and aligned with unions, or a “union front,” as you put it. You considered the entire interview totally one-sided; again borrowing Mr. Corcoran’s words, you thought it contained facts that were “mangled” and had “hidden objectives.”

Your final objection, as was the column’s, was that Mr. Enright ended the interview by informing the audience that the program had made repeated requests for an interview on the subject with then (now deceased) Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, but were turned down. You dismissed this, again using Mr. Corcoran’s words, as a “typical CBC public affairs show gambit.” From the March 20 Financial Post column reproduced in your letter:

The parallel would be to end an interview with a Moscow university professor who denounced the United States as an aggressive warmonger with a note that ‘we tried to get Mr. Obama to respond, but his office declined.’ In other words, no effort was made to get another opinion.

MANGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of The Sunday Edition, Susan Mahoney, responded to your concerns. She rejected your characterization of the segment on corporate tax avoidance as biased and deceptive:

That the advocacy group Canadians for Tax Fairness is supported by Canadian unions or that Mr. Howlett, the organization’s executive director, was a social activist for many years does not, as you suggest it does, detract from his credibility or diminish his knowledge or the clarity of his views.

She rejected your claim that the show made no effort to get another opinion. She explained that in a six-month period, the program made frequent attempts to get an interview with former finance minister Jim Flaherty as well as Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the minister of revenue. She added that after the broadcast of March 16, the program did receive a statement from Ms. Findlay, referring to an interview request they had made for the new finance minister, Joe Oliver. The statement was read on the program the following Sunday, March 23.

Ms. Mahoney told you that this is a “complex and controversial issue,” and that the program intended to return to the subject in the near future and would seek out other views. She explained that CBC has an obligation laid out in its journalistic standards and practices to broadcast a range of views on topics like this one, but that its obligation was not necessarily to do it in the same broadcast: “Balance can be achieved over a series of programs or over a period time and we are doing that.”

REVIEW

Ms. Mahoney is correct when she states that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for balance over a period of time:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The value of Fairness calls for the even handed treatment of varying points of view.

You are correct that the interview of March 16 did not provide a range of views. It was a discussion about corporate tax avoidance from a particular point of view. If that had been all the program did, there might be reason for concern. But in a reasonable period of time, two other perspectives were added.

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


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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.