We have to stand apart
Wednesday, January 23, 2008 | 04:37 PM ET
Posted by John Cruickshank, Publisher CBC News
In mid-December, as Brian Mulroney was appearing before the parliamentary ethics committee, allegations were made that a CBC reporter had provided Liberal MPs with written questions to pose to the former prime minister.
Once we established that a legitimate concern about professional conduct had been raised, we took the reporter off the story and turned to our Journalistic Standards and Practices guide to help us deal with this matter.
As Canada's public broadcaster, the CBC has a special responsibility to our national audience. Part of that responsibility is that the process of accountability has to be transparent. We are obliged to show how and why we reach the decisions we do.
In this case, the publicity surrounding it led to considerable debate in other media, a formal complaint to the CBC Ombudsman from the Conservative party and an internal disciplinary process, which has now concluded.
Serious complaints about CBC programming go to the Ombudsman, an independent arbiter accountable to the public and not CBC management. The Ombudsman informs complainants of CBC actions, as he has done in this instance, and launches his own investigation if an initial response is found unsatisfactory.
As the publisher of CBC News, I feel it is important to address some of the arguments made about this incident.
Some people have suggested that this kind of interplay between reporter and politician is normal practice in parliamentary reporting, the kind of give-and-take that goes on in the cultivation of sources and pursuit of information. Others condemn it as unethical and unprofessional.
From the beginning, members of the CBC radio and television news operation on Parliament Hill took the position that what happened in this case was neither normal nor in keeping with the practices to which they are committed.
After a thorough, internal investigation, I can only agree with that assessment and the reporter involved has been reassigned to a different job in Toronto where she can receive further training.
Perceptions of partiality
One of the key principles outlined in our handbook is that our journalists must not have any association, or engage in activities, that could reasonably give rise to perceptions of partiality.
On the surface, this seems like a straightforward rule. But in the heat of the journalistic hunt, I can understand how it can sometimes be overlooked.
This has not been an easy decision. Our audiences want us to bring them "inside knowledge." As their delegates in the press gallery, we get a front-row seat at a drama they can only watch from a distance.
What's more, I am convinced that the Canadian public is sophisticated enough to realize it is well served by the intense and proper competition for news scoops that exists at every parliamentary, legislative and municipal bureau across the country. That competitive spirit sustains the press in its watchdog function and it is a spirit I hope to encourage at every possible occasion.
But our role at the CBC is different from the private media whose obligation is, ultimately, only to their shareholders.
Our very mandate is to provide Canadians with a view of their political life unobstructed by bias. To do that, we must be detached from partisan interest, and professional and dispassionate in all aspects of our reporting. We must be seen to be all these things as well.
The case in question
When, as in the present instance, it is revealed that a reporter has been collaborating, even if only obliquely, with one party or another, an appearance of partisanship emerges that cannot be dispelled by claims that this is how political reporters interact with their sources.
In this case, our reporter provided questions to two Liberal MPs using her BlackBerry in the hope that these would be put to the former prime minister during the committee hearings.
I accept the reporter's explanation that she did not do this to advantage the Liberals or hurt the Conservatives — that she just wanted answers for her story.
She believed it was permissible to create a temporary alliance of convenience with the Liberals if it would help determine whether Brian Mulroney had lobbied a Tory minister on a recent matter.
But in this kind of information sharing, reporters can become part of the story they are covering, which is not our role. Any time a reporter plants a question and covers the results, they are deceiving their audience about their detachment and fairness.
For our reporters, this makes cultivating sources problematic. We can't make deals that leave us beholden either to members of the government or any opposition party.
We have to stand apart. Our mandate demands it and our audience, the people of Canada, deserve it.
This discussion is now Open. Submit your Comment.
Post a Comment
CBC News Editors Blog is an online feature from the CBC’s senior editors and producers that goes behind the scenes at the CBC. Our producers, editors and correspondents will discuss how and why the news is made and give you a chance to join the conversation.
- From London with Love
- Wednesday, June 4, 2008
- A world of indifference
- Friday, May 30, 2008
- Planes, trains and automobiles in Pakistan
- Tuesday, April 22, 2008
- London's unusual Sunday: First came the snow, then the anti-China protesters
- Monday, April 7, 2008
- CBCNews.ca expands reader comments, recommendations
- Tuesday, March 4, 2008
- Subscribe to CBC News Editors' Blog
- June 2008 (1)
- May 2008 (1)
- April 2008 (2)
- March 2008 (1)
- February 2008 (1)
- January 2008 (2)
- December 2007 (1)
- November 2007 (5)
- October 2007 (5)