CBC responds to ombudsman ruling on cigarette label story

CBC News editor in chief Jennifer McGuire responds to the ombudsman's review of a complaint about CBC's reporting on the government's decision to not adopt new health warning labels on cigarette packages.

CBC News is committed to and participates fully in the CBC's ombudsman process. Appointed by the CBC's board of directors and president, the ombudsman  operates at arm's length from CBC News, reviewing complaints about our work and holding us to account according to the high standards outlined in the Journalistic Standards and Practices by which our employees are bound. In the interest of transparency and our continued commitment to our journalism and this process, I want to tell you about a recent case about a high-profile story you likely know about.

In September 2009, the government indicated it would move to implement new health warning labels on cigarette packages by May of the following year. However, that did not happen. At a meeting of provincial health ministers in September 2010, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq explained that Health Canada now had no plans to move forward on warning labels and that it would instead focus on curtailing the sale of contraband tobacco. 

Our research shows that during this period, Health Canada and other government departments were lobbied by representatives of tobacco manufacturers who opposed the changes to the labels and lobbied for increased efforts to control contraband. We reported this.

Shortly after our reports (one of them on The National ) appeared, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, wrote to me to complain that our journalists had not conducted their work properly. More specifically, that the Prime Minister's Office had been misled about the thrust of our research and that the story was simply wrong. I responded to Mr. Soudas's concerns and, as is our practice, also let him know that he was free to contact the ombudsman and request an independent review, which he did.

'CBC supported its conclusions'

Our ombudsman, Kirk Lapointe, found  that the thrust of our reporting was correct. He also determined that our journalists had conducted their work according to CBC's standards and had been diligent in both their research and their attempts to secure comment from the minister. CBC News had not misled the PMO, he concluded.

Mr. Lapointe wrote that, "CBC supported its conclusions with several documented facts. It gathered and analyzed extensive lobbying records in the most recent two years that identified an increase in lobbying following the government's initial announcement to strengthen package warnings.

"It reviewed parliamentary committee records of 'stakeholder meetings' involving Health Canada. It identified a pattern of meetings with one party to a dispute and no meetings with the other party to it. In also included in correspondence with this office hundreds of pages of media reports on the matter. Its research was exhaustive."

Feedback welcome

In one respect, Mr. Lapointe found that our original story on The National — though not companion pieces elsewhere on CBC News — had, in his view, fallen short.

He wrote, "The online story asserted the plans were shelved 'after' meetings where the report on The National asserted the shelving 'seems' to have been due to the meetings. The online phrasing was supportable: one thing followed another. But The National's conclusion of a causal relationship, in which the lobbying seemed to be the reason for the shelving, was insufficiently supported to meet CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices  that call for facts and evidence to arrive at conclusions."

We believe it is our job to look into matters of public policy and to try to understand and explain the reasons decisions are made. In this case, the ombudsman feels our use of the word "seems" — used in discussing a possible link between the multiple meetings of tobacco lobbyists and the government with the widely reported decision to change the timeline for the new warnings —indicated that we had evidence of a direct cause and effect when we did not. 

Although we did not intend to make a definitive link, we respect his view that the wording in The National piece should have been clearer and will certainly examine the way we characterize such relationships in the future and let the facts speak for themselves.

As a journalistic organization striving to be the best of class, we welcome feedback and are continually looking at what we do in order to be even better in executing our commitment to serve Canadians.