CBC ombudsman: Senators’ travel expenses reported fairly
The complainant, Senator Donald Plett, felt the information about his travel expenses and those of his wife were misrepresented online and on television. But CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin says the subject was reported fairly.
By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman
The complainant, Senator Donald Plett, felt the information about his travel expenses and those of his wife were misrepresented online and on television.The complainant, Senator Donald Plett, felt the information about his travel expenses and those of his wife were misrepresented online and on television. He thought the journalists had deliberately chosen a time frame when his wife had travelled most frequently, and that his record of moderation was ignored. Overall he thought the piece was biased. While there was one error that was corrected, the senator was treated as all the others featured in the work, and the reporter made it clear that no rules were actually broken.
On February 12 and 13, 2014, CBC News did a series of stories about the travel expenses incurred by Conservative senators, both for themselves and their spouses, for the five-week period of October 14 to November 17, 2013. The data was based on public accounts voluntarily published by most Conservative senators for the last quarter of the year.
The story was first reported on The National, and a more detailed version was published online. The article was entitled “Tory Senators expense business class flights with spouses.” The article focused on you and two other senators because in the period examined you and your colleagues were ranked the highest spenders. This is how the story began:
The top-spending Conservative senators routinely purchased high-priced business class airfares and repeatedly used public money to bring spouses with them on trips to Ottawa, even as the Senate expense scandal was in full swing last fall.
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The article went on to reveal the expenses each of you had incurred. Senator Scott Tannas had spent more, and Senator Don Meredith used business class flights to and from Toronto and was the fourth highest spender in the period examined. In your case it said:
Manitoba Conservative senator and former Conservative Party president Donald Plett claimed the second-highest amount of money on travel during the five-week period reviewed by CBC News.
In total, Plett spent just over $12,000. He was not in favour of suspending the three senators whose fate was being debated at the time.
The cost of round trip airline tickets between Winnipeg and Ottawa purchased by Plett ranged from $1,300 to as high as $3,000. He also flew his spouse to Ottawa using public money three times at a total cost of nearly $6,000.
“I will be audited along with all my other colleagues. So I am not going to comment until after the audit is complete,” Plett said in an interview.
“I know that the audit will find that I have done nothing wrong intentionally,” he added. “Am I going to have some mistakes? I’ve been here for 4½ years and it is a fairly complex system at times and certainly I will not comment on whether there have been some mistakes made, but I will not have intentionally done anything wrong.”
You felt the information about you was “deliberately misleading.” One of the things you found misleading was the fact that only a month, and not the full reporting period, was featured.
“It is interesting that in the entire fiscal year you chose the four week period where my wife travelled with me the most frequently, where in reality, had you done your research for the entire fiscal year, as I had suggested, you would find that she flies with me roughly a third to half of the time.”
You pointed out that senators, as well as Members of the House of Commons, are allowed to travel with their wives if they are flying to Ottawa for parliamentary business. You questioned why this was newsworthy in the first place. You pointed out that you frequently use flight passes, which significantly reduce the cost of travel, but that Senate rules do not allow spouses to use those passes.
You also felt the online article was highly misleading because the prices quoted in the original version of the article referred to the cost of an “airline ticket.” You told Timothy Sawa, the producer of the story, that “an airline ticket refers to a single flight,” and the prices quoted referred to the round trip expense. You felt this was further evidence of the bias and misleading nature of the work. The writers changed the wording to ensure clarity. You also disputed some of the fares quoted.
You also pointed out an error – the original version of the story stated your wife had flown business class and this was not the case. It was amended to say that she had used a Latitude fare.
The error and clarification were corrected on the website, but you thought they should also be corrected, and the story retracted, on The National, because Susan Bonner presented a version of this story on the broadcast of February 12, 2014. You also feel the correction would have wider circulation and attention if it is broadcast on The National. You told Mr. Sawa:
“How can any professional think that printing an article as inflammatory as yours was and then reporting it on the most watched news program (the national) in the country and having your television station spend 30 minutes on arguably the most popular political talk show (power and politics) discussing this and then making a slight correction on your on line story that probably not 10 people in the country will read in any way corrects your blatant defamation of me and my wife's character makes things right?”
You also objected to the juxtaposition of your travel expenses with the mention of your vote on the suspension of three senators who have been under investigation: Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy.
Since the expenses involved were for flights for you and your wife, you are demanding a full retraction of the story on all CBC platforms and an apology to her.
You had further concerns about the broadcast. You felt Susan Bonner had taken your words out of context. You said that the clip used of you in her story was used inappropriately. Ms. Bonner was talking about your travel expenses for the five week period under discussion, but the response she used was to a different question that asked “whether the Auditor General will find any mistakes in my expenses.” “The clip was blatant manipulation.”
Overall, you said your record shows that you are careful and measured in using the allowable travel afforded to you as a senator, and so it is particularly unfair that you were singled out in this fashion:
“The rules of the Senate need to be clarified and they need to change. Nobody is advocating for that more than the senators themselves. My expense claims and my history in the chamber have not demonstrated that I have taken advantage of flawed rules, but rather that I have gone out of my way to save taxpayer dollars. That is why I primarily expense economy passes. That is why I only fly my wife to Ottawa a third to half of the time (also on economy tickets), and why I brought flight passes to the Senate in the first place. It is why I have publicly admitted in the chamber that a member of the Senate finance team told me when I was first appointed that Senate expenses are “whatever you deem them to be”. I said at the time that this was wrong. I have been advocating for rule changes ever since.”
The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns about the way you had been portrayed in these stories. He said “we have a responsibility to be fair and accurate in our reporting on you as an individual and on the institution of the Senate as a whole,” and that in this case CBC News had done so.
He explained the story focused on the period of October 14 to November 17, 2013 because this was the time frame where scrutiny on the Senate and interest in the ongoing expenses scandal involving several senators was most intense:
“The purpose of our February 12th stories was quite clearly not an indictment of any individual. It was to showcase the juxtaposition between ongoing practice for allowable expenses by Senators on one side, and the furor over previous expenses by Senators Harb, Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau on the other. Given that climate, asking questions about Senate expenditures is entirely reasonable and indisputably in the public interest. Is public money being well spent? Are the rules applied to Senators reasonable? “
He said that although you might disagree with the news value or reporting on these expenses, this was reasonable journalistic practice. “Why release the documents if you consider it irresponsible to scrutinize them?”
To continue reading this review, please go the CBC ombudsman's website where this 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.