CANADIAN BROADCAST STANDARDS COUNCIL

atlantic regional PaneL

CJCH-TV (CTV Atlantic) re CTV News at 6 (Stéphane Dion interview)

(CBSC Decision 08/09-0196+)

Decided January 12, 2009

R. Cohen (Chair, ad hoc), B. A. Jones (Vice-Chair), B. MacEachern, R. McKeen,
R. Morrison, T.-M. Wiseman

 

THE FACTS

In October 2008, a Canadian federal election campaign was underway (the vote occurred on October 14).  Prime Minister Stephen Harper was attempting to win a second term for his Conservative Government, while the Liberals under the leadership of Stéphane Dion were hoping to form the government.

On October 9, CJCH-TV (CTV Atlantic) broadcast an interview with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion during its 6:00 pm newscast, CTV News at 6 (the report and interview began at 6:37).  The interview had been conducted about two hours earlier in the day by CTV Atlantic news anchor Steve Murphy, who had previously conducted a live interview with Dion on September 15, during the same electoral campaign.  There were three aborted starts to the interview and finally a fourth start that became a full interview (referred to variously below as the “complete” interview or the “good” interview).  The transcript of the interrupted beginning, and the first portion of the complete interview forms a part of this decision text.  The remaining portion of the “good” interview, which is only of oblique relevance to this decision, is nonetheless available in Appendix A.  The CBSC does not know whether the complete interview with the Liberal leader was broadcast on CJCH-TV (CTV Atlantic) other than as a part of that station’s 6:00 pm newscast on October 9.  As anchor for that newscast, Murphy introduced his full interview session, including all restarts, with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion as follows:

Someone once said that in politics a week is a lifetime.  Well, it’s now several weeks since we last spoke with Stéphane Dion and a great many things have changed.  The world markets are now in turmoil, interest rates and the dollar are falling and the Liberal Party has seen its popularity rise in the polls after the two leaders debates.  Against that backdrop, we sat down this afternoon with Stéphane Dion.  I began by asking Mr. Dion about his comments that the prime minister has done nothing to put Canadians’ minds at ease about the current economic problems.  I asked him, quote, “If you were prime minister now, what would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?”  After beginning to answer that question, Monsieur Dion asked to start the interview again because he did not understand the question.  After a second false start, a member of Monsieur Dion’s staff explained the question to Monsieur Dion and there was also a third false start.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have agreed to restart with the questioning and the Liberal campaign was anxious that this exchange not be broadcast and initially we indicated that it would not be.  However, on reflection, CTV News believes we owe it to you to show you everything that happened.

CTV Atlantic then proceeded to broadcast the full interview, preceded by the false starts and retakes.  The false starts consisted solely of a head shot of Stéphane Dion, Murphy’s voice being heard off-camera.  The complete interview reflected the more traditional cutaways to the interviewer. The transcript of the initial part of the dialogue, as described above, was as follows:

Murphy:            Thank you.  Monsieur Dion, thank you.  Good of you to come again.

Dion:    Thank you, Steve.

Murphy:            Monsieur Dion, the economy is now the issue in the campaign and on that issue you’ve said that, today, that Mr. Harper’s offered nothing to put Canadians’ minds at ease and offers no vision for the country.  We have to act now, you say.  Doing nothing is not an option.  If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?

Dion:    If I would have been prime minister two and a half years ago?

Murphy:            If you were the prime minister right now.

Dion:    Right now?

Murphy:            And had been for the last two weeks.

Dion:    [speaking over the last response of Steve Murphy, rendering it difficult to make out]  Okay, no.  If I’m elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, is what you are suggesting?

Murphy:            No, I, I’m saying if you, hypothetically, were prime minister today.

Dion:    Today.

Murphy:            What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?

Dion:    I would start the 30/50 plan that we want to start the moment that we’ll have a, a Liberal Government.  And the 30/50 plan, uh, the 30, in fact, the plan for the first 30 days, I should say, the plan for the first 30 days once you have a Liberal Government.  Can we start again?

Murphy:            Do you want to?

male voice off-camera:  Sure.

Dion:    [looks at someone off-camera] Yeah?

Murphy:            I’m okay to start again.

Dion:    Yeah.  Because I think I been [sic] slow to understand your question.

male voice:       I’m recording.

Dion:    Okay.

Murphy:            Monsieur Dion, good of you to come again.

Dion:    Thank you, Steve.

Murphy:            Monsieur Dion, you’ve said today that Mr. Harper has offered, uh, nothing to put Canadians’ minds at ease during this financial crisis and you go on to say that he has no vision for the country.  You say we have to act now.  Doing nothing is not an option.  So I’d like to begin by asking you if you were prime minister now, what would you have already done in this crisis that Mr. Harper hasn’t done?

Dion:    I can’t, I don’t understand the question.  Because, are you asking me to be prime minister at, at which moment?  Today or since a week or since two weeks or since –

Murphy:            No.  If you, if you were prime minister during this time already.

Dion:    [visibly frustrated]  We need to start again.  I’m sorry.  If I was the prime minister starting when?  Today?  If I was the prime minister today?

female voice off-camera:           If you were the prime minister when, since Harper’s been prime minister.

Dion:    But, yes, two years and a half ago.

female: At any given time.

Dion:    Two years.  Two years and a half ago.

female: What would you have done differently between, between the time that Harper’s been there to change things?

Dion:    Yeah, but if I have been prime minister two years and a half ago, would [sic] have had an agenda.  Let’s start again.

Murphy:            Okay.

[female off-camera laughs]

Dion:    We’ll go there.

male voice off-camera:  I’m still recording.

Murphy:            Monsieur Dion, thank you for coming.

Dion:    Thank you, Steve.  Let’s start again, I’m [laughs].

[female off-camera laughs]

Murphy:            It’s a good job that tape is cheap.

Dion:    But, but give me, give me a first date where I’m prime minister that I can figure out what, what is your question is about [sic].

At this point, the aborted part of the interview concluded and Murphy, in his news anchor role, explained, “Here then is the interview in its entirety from the point that we pick it up now, which is from the re-ask of the question.”  CTV Atlantic then broadcast (from just before 6:41 pm) the final, uninterrupted, “good” interview in which Dion discussed his platform and offered suggestions for dealing with the economic crisis.  The opening exchange (about two and a half minutes in length) on the subject that appeared to be anticipated by the earlier line of questioning is included here.  The balance of the interview (a little more than an additional ten minutes in duration, found in Appendix A) dealt with what should be said “to ease the minds of Canadians”, the Liberal economic plan, the proposed carbon tax, deficits, the green shift, taxes, comparable European national policies, and Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

Murphy:            Monsieur Dion, thank you for coming.

Dion:    Thank you, Steve.

Murphy:            The economy is now the major issue that we’re confronting in this campaign and on that issue you’ve said that Mr. Harper has offered nothing to put Canadians’ minds at ease and offers no vision for this country.  You say we have to act now, that doing nothing is not an option.  I’d like to ask you, Mr. Dion, if you were Prime Minister of Canada today, what would you have done by now that Stephen Harper has not done about this economic crisis?

Dion:    A-, Assume that I have been elected today prime minister, the first thing I would do is to consult with the Privy Council Office, minister of Finance, to know exactly which situation we are according, uh, the data.  I would speed up the, uh, my ability to appoint rapidly a government with the minister of Finance to, to be able to be prime minister right away, as soon as possible.  And once we are the Government, uh, we have thirty days of an action plan that we announce.  So we will need to work with the regulatory agencies to have their best recommendations to protect our savings, to protect our mortgages, our pensions and our jobs.  I will, uh, I will speed up the investment in infrastructure and in the manufacturing sectors to create economic activity and jobs now.  Good jobs, well-paid jobs.

Murphy:            Mm hm.

Dion:    I, I will, uh, call, uh, Mini-, uh, First Ministers meeting to be sure that our great federation, everybody will work in coordination: provinces, territories and the federal government.  I will consult the best economists of the private sector.

Murphy:            Mm hm.

Dion:    To ask them where are we ready, uh, uh, really?  Us, Canada, and the world.  What is, what is their forecast for the situation in which we are?  There are a lot of things that I would do.  I would not be passive as Mr. Harper.

Murphy:            But looking back over the past two weeks, what specifically should Mr. Harper have done about this economic crisis that he has not done?

Dion:    He did nothing.  And what I will need to do is to be sure that the regulatory agencies will come with their best recommendations.  There are things to examine.  For instance, can we improve the, uh, insurance on the deposits of Canadians?  That’s what other countries have done.  Can we put our seniors in a situation where they are not in the obligation, uh, to sell their savings when the, uh, when, when the, uh, stock market is so shaky?  There are a lot of things that other countries are doing and here in Canada Mr. Harper is doing nothing.

From the anchor desk, Steve Murphy concluded the interview with the following statement:

Murphy:            The leader of the Liberals, Stéphane Dion.  For the record, the interviews you see on this broadcast are usually live and those which are recorded are not edited for content.  We believe you have the right to see the entire exchange, the questions and the answers.  We don’t want to be accused of hiding anything and that is why we opted to show you tonight’s entire exchange.  And this interview today fulfilled our invitation to have the leaders appear twice on this broadcast.  Monsieur Dion is the only leader to take us up on that.  The prime minister, who has not appeared, has been invited to join us tomorrow.

The CBSC received a total of 39 complaints about Murphy’s interview with Dion.  Of those, 21 provided enough information for the CBSC to proceed with its process.  Four of those complainants then requested that the CBSC further investigate the matter following receipt of the broadcaster’s response.  [It should be noted that CTV Newsnet also broadcast the false starts and restarts as a part of Mike Duffy Live Prime Time that same evening.  That broadcast was the subject of a decision of the National Specialty Services Panel, CTV Newsnet re an episode of Mike Duffy Live Prime Time (Dion Interview) (CBSC Decision 08/09-0213 & -0281, April 6, 2009).]

The complainants generally shared common concerns about this broadcast (the full text of their letters can be found in Appendix B).  They believed that Murphy’s question had been awkwardly worded and that it was understandable that Dion had had comprehension difficulties, particularly since English is his second language.  Some of the complainants pointed out that it was unfair that Murphy had not chosen a better re-wording of the question pursuant to Dion’s requests for clarification.  The real substance of the complaints, however, was not simply that the interview and questions had proceeded as they did, but that the broadcaster, CTV Atlantic, had chosen to air the false starts, especially since the broadcaster had (even according to Murphy’s introduction to the clip) told Dion that they would not.

The complainants felt, in the words of one of them, that CTV had done this “to demean and belittle Mr. Dion for his misunderstanding.”  The complainants also suggested that this action was unethical and unprofessional: “I think it demonstrated poor journalistic ethics and was a low-brow attack on a person who was struggling to understand a poorly-phrased question in [his] second language.”  Some also suggested that CTV’s decision to air the clip was “politically motivated” because the station was biased in favour of the Conservatives and had shown the clip to undermine the Liberal campaign.  One complainant accused CTV of choosing to “embarrass this individual rather than afford the courtesy of cutting the segments as requested.”  He also noted that it had been revealed that Dion had a hearing problem, leading him to assert that the “CTV actions involve elements of racism, abuse of minorities, insensitivity to disabilities and a complete absence of ethics.”

The President of CTV News and Current Affairs responded to all complainants in November with the following letter:

This letter is in response to various viewer complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) regarding an October 9th 2008 interview between Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and CTV Atlantic anchor Steve Murphy.  The interview was broadcast by CTV Atlantic on the Six o’clock News and subsequently on the Mike Duffy Live program on CTV Newsnet later that evening.

We believe a review of the chronology of this matter will be of assistance.

Chronology:

Wednesday October 8th 2008:

CTV Atlantic arranged a one-on-one interview with Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion.  It was to be Mr. Dion’s second one-on-one interview with CTV Atlantic anchor Steve Murphy during the election campaign.  The earlier interview was broadcast Monday, September 15th, live from CTV’s Halifax newsroom at 6:45 pm ADT.  It ran for 8 minutes.

The arrangements for the 2nd interview were the same, a live one-on-one unedited interview.  Mr. Dion’s campaign schedule, however, would not permit him to be live in the CTV Halifax newsroom for the Six O’clock News, so arrangements were made to record the interview, one hour before airtime, at a downtown Halifax Hotel.  It was understood that the format for the second interview would be the same as the first, a one-on-one interview that would not be edited nor interrupted.  The only difference in the second interview – it would be live-to-tape instead of live-to-air.  Mr. Dion’s staff agreed to these arrangements.

Thursday October 9th 2008:

A room was set up as a temporary television studio at Halifax’s Delta Barrington Hotel.

4:10 pm ADT: Global News interviewed Mr. Dion.  A “pool camera” from other television networks was in the room recording the interview.

4:20 pm ADT: CTV Atlantic’s Steve Murphy interviewed Mr. Dion.  The “pool camera” continued to record the CTV interview.

During the interview, there were three re-starts and an interjection by a Liberal aide, who tried to assist Mr. Dion to understand a question.

6:36 – 6:52 pm ADT: CTV Atlantic broadcast the full interview, including the restarts and the Liberal aide’s interjection.

8:00 pm EDT: Mike Duffy Live, a program that reports and discusses the election campaign on a daily basis, aired the Dion re-starts.  Liberal candidate Geoff Regan explained Mr. Dion’s stumbles by claiming Mr. Dion could not hear the questions.  This statement by Mr. Regan was inaccurate.

That evening and the next day, the interview and the restarts were reported by several news organizations including The Canadian Press, CBC, Newsworld, Global News, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star.

The Pool Camera:

During the Global and CTV interviews, there was a pool camera in the room (a camera person from Radio-Canada).  During election campaigns, by network agreement, all one-on-one interviews with party leaders are recorded and fed to network newsrooms.  All leaders were aware of this arrangement and agreed to it.  As such, the Global and CTV interviews could be broadcast by any of the television networks.

The Interview: Three Re-starts and a Liberal Aide Interjection:

Mr. Murphy began the interview by reviewing Mr. Dion’s luncheon speech in Halifax earlier that day.  Mr. Dion had attacked Prime Minister Harper on the economy:

            Murphy:            “Today, you said Mr. Harper has offered nothing to put Canadian minds at ease, and (he) offers no vision for the country.”

            Mr. Dion nods his head in affirmation.

            Murphy:            “If you were Prime Minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis, that Mr. Harper has not done?”

Mr. Dion asked for a clarification on the question then began answering.  He stumbled when he described a “30 – 50 day plan” for the economy.  He corrected himself and described it as an 80-day plan.  Mr. Dion then appeared flustered, abruptly stopped, and asked if the interview can be re-started.  Mr. Murphy acceded to this request.

On the second attempt at the question, Mr. Dion said: “We need to start again.”  This was not a request, it was a declaration from Mr. Dion that the interview would be re-started.

Then a Liberal aide (who appeared to clearly understand the question), interjected herself from off-camera, and explained the question to Mr. Dion while the cameras were recording.

The interview then resumed.  Mr. Dion stopped and said: “Let’s start again.”  This too was not a request of Mr. Murphy, it was another declaration from Mr. Dion that the interview would be re-started for a third time.

What Undertakings, If Any, Were Made By CTV News to Mr. Dion?:

Politicians are media savvy.  They know that everything they say is on the record, especially during an election campaign.

Mr. Murphy made no undertaking to Mr. Dion or anyone in the Liberal campaign that something would be off the record or not for broadcast.  In this case, there were several journalists, three television cameras and technical crews in the room.  In such a setting, and during an election campaign, everything that was said would be on the record and available for broadcast by all television networks.

After Mr. Murphy’s first question, Mr. Dion ASKED if the interview could be re-started.  Mr. Murphy agreed to this initial request as a courtesy – perhaps thinking that Mr. Dion did not hear the question or perhaps he was tired or distracted after a long election campaign.  But that courtesy does not extend to an interviewee declaring restart after restart.  It was Mr. Dion (not Mr. Murphy) who declared there would be a second re-start, and then a third.  Mr. Murphy had few options but to continue along with the interview.

Subsequent Actions Taken by CTV - Was This Newsworthy?

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) recognizes that it is up to the individual broadcaster to be responsible for the programming that it chooses to air, provided that it is balanced.  This editorial independence is an important keystone of the Canadian broadcast system and an important recognition of the Charter right of freedom of expression.  The CBSC, too, in various rulings and decisions supports the principle that it is up to the broadcaster to determine what is newsworthy, the content of the news, the length of news stories and the order in which they will run in a newscast.  CTV News takes these responsibilities very seriously.  After the Dion interview was finished, CTV News was put in a position where it had to determine whether it was appropriate to air the complete interview including the restarts.  An intensive editorial review began.  The tape was reviewed and the matter was first considered by the CTV Atlantic News Director and his staff and then subsequently considered by myself as President of CTV News and senior editorial personnel in Toronto.

In a Canadian political campaign, it is highly unusual for a party leader to spend three minutes trying to figure out a question and his answer to it.  It is even more unusual for an aide, off-camera, to speak up and interject herself into the middle of an interview, to explain a question to a party leader.

In its consideration, CTV News editors discussed several issues, including the following:

-           Could Mr. Dion hear the questions?

-           Were there any clear undertakings or promises that the videotape would not air in its entirety?

-           Were we being fair to Mr. Dion, posing questions in English, his second language?

-           Why were Mr. Dion’s aides so insistent that the re-starts be deleted?

-           If we deleted the re-starts, would we be offering a favour or benefit to the Liberal party leader?

To these questions, CTV News concluded the following:

-           Mr. Dion could hear the questions.

-           No clear or direct undertakings were made to delete the re-starts.

-           We believed we were being fair with an English question since Mr. Dion received clarification from his own aide.

-           We believed we would be providing a benefit to Mr. Dion if we removed the restarts.

The three minute exchange of re-starts also raised other issues:

-           Was Mr. Dion’s understanding of his second language, English, so poor that he could not understand a question with different tenses?

-           How often do aides explain important questions to Mr. Dion?

-           Does Mr. Dion understand issues like the faltering Canadian economy?

-           Is Mr. Dion able to think on his feet and answer questions directly and with precision?

-           Was Mr. Dion so scripted and programmed with his key messages that he refuses to say anything else?

-           Was Mr. Dion exhausted nearing the end of an election campaign, and if so, how does he handle pressure and public scrutiny at such times?

In our opinion, these were legitimate questions for voters to consider in an election campaign.  After careful review, CTV News deemed the interview newsworthy and made the decision to air the interview in its entirety, because the issues involved were of such important public interest.  This decision was one that favoured openness over censorship in order to let the viewers decide for themselves.  We also believe that this decision was in compliance with The Canadian Association of Broadcasters Code of Ethics - Clause 6 [sic, actually Clause 5]:

“The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening and to understand events so they may form their own conclusions.”

CTV News Obligations during an Election Campaign:

Our objective and our obligation is to expose viewers to the political parties, the platforms and leaders so voters can be better informed on Election Day.  Political coverage dominated CTV News programming during the campaign period on our local CTV newscasts, the CTV National News, Canada AM and Sunday’s Question Period.  During the campaign, we produced two hours of Mike Duffy Live on CTV Newsnet which is a close-up review and analysis of each day on the campaign.  This daily program is the meeting point for political partisans to discuss the issues and the leaders’ performance.

CTV News is well aware of its responsibilities under the Broadcasting Act and the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987 and more specifically, Broadcasting Circular CRTC 2008-4 which outlined the guidelines governing broadcasters in connection with the 2008 federal general election.

According to the Circular, there is an obligation on the part of broadcasters:

“… to provide equitable – fair and just treatment of issues, candidates and parties.  It should be noted that “equitable does not necessarily mean ‘equal’ but generally, all candidates and parties are entitled to some coverage that will give them the opportunity to expose their ideas to the public.”

We also note that the Commission reiterates in this Circular that news coverage should generally be left to the editorial judgment of the broadcaster.

During election campaigns, each political party seeks to position its leader in the best possible light.  The party war rooms are specifically designed to influence media coverage.  CTV News is an independent agency that favours no political party.  We do not run editorials endorsing leaders, platforms or candidates.  In our news coverage of political campaigns, we also do not offer favours or benefits to any one party or candidate.

During this past campaign, Conservative Party officials and Tory partisans were loudly criticizing our coverage of the Gerry Ritz listeriosis affair, the “pooping puffin” controversy, and Prime Minister Harper’s comments during the financial crisis.  Similar complaints over other issues came from partisans for the NDP, Liberals and the Greens.

In the matter at hand, Stéphane Dion’s aides asked CTV News to drop the opening portion of the interview.  They were asking us for a favour, a benefit we could not give, nor had accorded to any other party or leader.  We believe that if we had complied with such a request, CTV News would be in violation of Article Five of the RTNDA Code of Ethics which states:

“Broadcast journalists will resist pressures to change or alter the news.  Intrusion into content, real or apparent, should be resisted.”

Not to have run the full interview would have been to cover up something of direct public interest and considerable importance.

RESPONSE TO SPECIFIC CONCERNS:

Are Re-Starts Common Practice?:

Just for clarification purposes, in daily television news, re-starts and re-takes of interviewees are uncommon.  In fact, in feature political one-on-one interviews that last between 8-12 minutes and are formatted “live-to-tape”, re-starts and re-takes are extremely rare.  The intention is for the broadcaster to air the complete unedited interview in the same way that a broadcaster would air a live interview.  As previously stated, CTV Atlantic originally intended to conduct a second live one-on-one unedited interview with Mr. Dion during the campaign.  Arrangements were changed to accommodate Mr. Dion’s campaign schedule and, as a result, the interview was changed to a live-to-tape interview instead.

Mr. Dion’s Hearing Problem:

Some individuals have written CTV News suggesting we have discriminated against someone with a disability because Mr. Dion has a hearing problem.  Indeed, following the interview, Nova Scotia Liberal MP Geoff Regan stated on the Mike Duffy Live program that Mr. Dion could not hear the question.  This statement was simply false.  Mr. Murphy and Mr. Dion were sitting in a quiet room two metres apart.  Mr. Dion confirmed himself that he had no difficulty hearing the questions.

RTNDA: Article Eight (Decency and Conduct)

Some individuals have suggested that CTV News violated Article Eight of the RTNDA’s Code which states:

“Broadcast journalists will treat people who are subjects and sources with decency.  They will use special sensitivity when dealing with children.  They will strive to conduct themselves in a courteous and considerate manner, keeping broadcast equipment as unobtrusive as possible.  They will strive to prevent their presence from distorting the character or importance of events.”

While Mr. Murphy and his crew were confronted with an unusual situation which included partisan political pressure, they conducted themselves with the highest level of professionalism.  They were courteous and considerate in their interpersonal discussions with Mr. Dion and Liberal party aides.

It was following this interview, that CTV News was required to make a determination as to how it would use the interview with Mr. Dion that was live-to-tape.  Although it was never intended that this interview would be edited in any way and it was to be treated in the same way as a live interview, given the Liberal party interference and the very unusual and significant number of “restarts” demanded by Mr. Dion, it became incumbent on CTV News to give this matter serious consideration, from a professional journalistic perspective, before a final decision was made as to whether or not to air the interview in its entirety.

Did You Intend to Hurt Stéphane Dion’s campaign or Tip off the Harper Campaign?

Some individuals have suggested CTV News was intent on harming Stéphane Dion five days before the general election.  This is completely preposterous.  Other allegations that somehow CTV tried to alert the Harper campaign to the Halifax interview were equally offensive.

These allegations are completely false and not representative of how CTV News conducted itself during the election campaign.  We can assure you that CTV News would not take any action to aid or assist any political party or candidate during an election campaign.  CTV News is an independent news agency that favours no political party.  If something happens on any given day, during the campaign, we have an obligation to report what we believe is newsworthy.

Conclusion:

While CTV received numerous complaints about the broadcast of this interview by Liberal supporters, we also received numerous complaints from Conservative, NDP and Green Party supporters who complain that other news reports were biased against their parties.  Politics is a very sensitive and complex issue and it is very difficult for broadcasters to satisfy all viewers all the time, especially during an election campaign.  However, we can assure you that our newscasts are never intended to be biased against or favourable to any of the parties or their supporters.

CTV is a member in good standing with the CBSC and follows its guidelines.  We believe the news reports in question were in full compliance with all industry codes administered by the CBSC and all applicable legislation.

Thank you for taking the time to write with your concerns.  Hoping that this provides a better understanding of our position in this matter.

As mentioned above, following receipt of that CTV letter, four complainants requested that the CBSC rule on this matter.  All four provided additional correspondence which outlined why they were dissatisfied with CTV’s explanation (as already noted, those letters can be found in Appendix B).

 

The Decision

The Atlantic Regional Panel examined the broadcast under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Equitable Portrayal Code and Code of Ethics and the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics:

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 2 – Human Rights

Recognizing that every person has the right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 – Human Rights

Recognizing that every person has the right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 5 – News

1)         It shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to ensure that news shall be represented with accuracy and without bias.  Broadcasters shall satisfy themselves that the arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result.  They shall also ensure that news broadcasts are not editorial.

2)         News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be formulated on the basis of the beliefs, opinions or desires of management, the editor or others engaged in its preparation or delivery.  The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions.

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 1 – Accuracy

Broadcast journalists will inform the public in an accurate, comprehensive and fair manner about events and issues of importance.

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 5 – Independence

Independence is a fundamental value and we will resist any attempts at censorship that would erode it.  Broadcast journalists will resist pressures to change or alter the news.  Intrusion into content, real or apparent, should be resisted.

RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, Article 8 – Decency and Conduct

Broadcast journalists will treat people who are subjects and sources with decency.  [...]  They will strive to conduct themselves in a courteous and considerate manner, keeping broadcast equipment as unobtrusive as possible.  They will strive to prevent their presence from distorting the character or importance of events.

The Atlantic Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed a tape of the broadcast.  The Panel concludes that CTV Atlantic did not violate Clause 2 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clauses 2 or 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics or Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, but it did violate Article 8 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

 

A Preliminary Matter: Mr. Murphy’s Question to Mr. Dion

Since much turns on what was asked and what was understood, or misunderstood, the Panel considers it useful to look carefully at the formulation of the question itself.  It was initially put as follows: “If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?”  When the interview recommenced, the question was framed almost identically, the adverb “already” having been inserted to qualify the verb: “If you were prime minister now, what would you have already done in this crisis that Mr. Harper hasn’t done?”  And then, in the context of the “good” interview, that ran in full, there was no structural change, the word “today” having been substituted for “now” and “by now” for “already”; the question was worded in this final incarnation as follows: “If you were Prime Minister of Canada today, what would you have done by now that Stephen Harper has not done about this economic crisis?”  In the preliminary discussion in the final, complete interview, Mr. Murphy followed up the initial question with the following query: “But looking back over the past two weeks, what specifically should Mr. Harper have done about this economic crisis that he has not done?”

In any event, any moderately attentive analysis of any of the three forms of the initial question would reveal that the question is confusing, and not only to a person whose first language is other than English.  In the strictest grammatical sense, Steve Murphy’s question mixes not only tenses (present and past), but also moods (subjunctive and indicative), both being syntactically relevant in French and English.  It follows that several interpretations of what the interviewer intended to ask are possible.  What the Panel (speculatively) believes the interviewer wished to ask was essentially what Mr. Dion would have done in the past about the economy and this crisis had he been in Mr. Harper’s shoes during the same period.  If such is the correct understanding, the question would have been more properly framed, “If you had been prime minister during the period that Mr. Harper has been prime minister, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?”  Or, it may be that the question Murphy wished to put was meant to have a present/future articulation, as in “If you were prime minister now, what steps would you be taking about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not yet taken?”

Given the confused question, the Panel considers that the interviewer may even have intended to ask whether Mr. Dion would have taken specific steps to obviate such an economic crisis in the first place.  Alternatively, did Murphy mean to inquire how Mr. Dion would have tackled the economic crisis had it landed on his plate after two years in office?  Or did he wish to request how, if Mr. Dion were elected as prime minister on the day of the interview, he would handle such an economic crisis encountered that day or thereafter, in the future?  Indeed, Mr. Dion appeared to understand that there could be a difference in the answer depending on how long he might have been in office before being called upon to face such a problem.  As he ultimately pointedly asked, “give me a first date where I’m prime minister that I can figure out what, what is your question […] about [emphasis added].”

The Panel’s only point is that the question was unfocussed, unclear and ultimately confusing, even to Anglophones (as all Adjudicators on this Panel are).  It was neither crisp nor even clear, and it left doubts as to its meaning in the interviewee, the audience, and even this Panel, after viewing and reviewing the logger tape.  In other words, blame for misapprehension cannot simply be laid at the feet of the interviewee.  This is not to suggest that there is any code breach associated with a poorly framed question.  Not remotely.  It is just to make clear that the Panel’s assessment of the broadcaster’s decision to air the halting and restarted interview must take this underlying genesis of the problem into consideration.

 

The Disabilities Issue

The Panel agrees with CTV’s President of News that there is no indication that the cause of Mr. Dion’s difficulty in responding was the result of a hearing disability.  The Panel considers that the likelihood is greater that the Liberal leader did not understand the question than that he did not hear it.  CJCH-TV has in no way broadcast or done anything that could be understood as a breach of the Human Rights Clauses on the basis of the interviewee’s disability.

 

The Second-Language Issue

Nor does the Panel consider that the broadcaster breached the Human Rights Clause because of its actions as related to English as Stéphane Dion’s second language.  Whether Mr. Dion did or did not understand the question put by Mr. Murphy does not change the broadcaster’s entitlement to ask the question in English.  The interviewee was not mocked, humiliated or in any way maltreated on account of his language competence.  In fact, the simple truth is that the matter of possible linguistic difficulty was not even raised by the interviewer.  That some may infer that that was the reason for the wish of the Liberal leader to restart the interview on three occasions is in no way the responsibility of the broadcaster.  The Panel wishes to add that it does not share the view of one complainant who asserted that CTV Atlantic had aired the re-started takes in order “to demean and belittle Mr. Dion for his misunderstanding.”  While this may have been a possible result of the broadcaster’s decision to air the “outtakes”, the Panel does not believe for an instant that this was CTV Atlantic’s purpose.  The Panel concludes that there is no breach of the Human Rights Clauses on account of national or ethnic origin as reflected in Mr. Dion’s linguistic heritage.

 

Reporting Accuracy

While, as indicated above and explained below, the Panel found a Code breach resulting from the airing of the string of restarts, it was not on account of the inaccuracy of the broadcast.  After all is said and done, CTV Atlantic only ran what had been recorded.  Nothing was edited in.  And nothing was edited out.  What ran was the uninterrupted compendium of the late afternoon extended interview.  It included no inaccuracy and did not breach that proscription of either Clause 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics or Article 1 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

 

Decency, Courtesy and Consideration

The essence of Article 8 is that broadcast journalists must treat their “subjects and sources” with decency and that they, as broadcast journalists, will be “courteous and considerate”.  In the matter at hand, the President of News at CTV has argued in his letter that the CTV Atlantic interviewer “made no undertaking to Mr. Dion or anyone else in the Liberal campaign that something would be off the record or not for broadcast.”  The Atlantic Panel simply does not agree with that interpretation.  While, based solely on the transcript of the Murphy-Dion exchange, that is technically accurate, no fair-minded person would draw that conclusion from the dialogue.  When Mr. Dion asked, “Can we start again?” he was not asking that question with the expectation that the false start would be broadcast.  Nor when Steve Murphy agreed to recommence would any reasonable third party conclude that the interviewer was planning on subsequently running the superseded beginning.  Not even Mr. Murphy understood the matter any differently.  In his introduction to the broadcast of the restarts on the 6:00 pm newscast, he said, “the Liberal campaign was anxious that this exchange not be broadcast and initially we indicated that it would not be. [Emphasis added.]”  There can be no doubt that that was everyone’s original understanding.  The question for this Panel in this instance is whether it was or was not a code breach for the broadcaster, CTV Atlantic, to reverse its commitment and broadcast the outtakes.

Let us return to the original CJCH-TV undertaking.  In response to Mr. Dion’s entreaty, Mr. Murphy said, “I’m okay to start again.”  He did not have to.  He could have said, “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mr. Dion.  That was not our arrangement.  Please answer my question.”  He chose not to.  He agreed.  He recommenced, but he did not materially reframe his confused question.

The Panel appreciates that Steve Murphy was a newscaster of long experience, and had served as a CTV news anchor for more than 15 years at the time of the Dion interview.  In other words, Mr. Murphy was in a position to make the commitment he did make on behalf of the broadcaster, a commitment that could be relied upon.  Even if, as the President of CTV News has said, “Mr. Murphy agreed to this initial request as a courtesy [emphasis added],” he did nonetheless agree.  In the view of the Panel, if Mr. Murphy did not have the authority to make such an agreement, he ought not to have made it.  Having made it, the broadcaster ought to have stood behind him.

The President of CTV News wrote that Mr. Murphy and his crew “were courteous and considerate in their interpersonal discussions with Mr. Dion and Liberal party aides.”  The Panel has no information beyond the taped moments on which to judge the CTV Atlantic comportment but there is not the slightest indication that the Halifax broadcast team was anything other than courteous and considerate.  In the view of the Panel, it was the later decision to override Mr. Murphy’s commitment that was discourteous and inconsiderate, rather than any other matter occurring before or at the time of the interview.  Moreover, the Panel (two-thirds of the industry Adjudicators being themselves members of RTNDA and broadcast journalists of considerable experience) considers that restarts and retakes are a common, not a rare, occurrence.  The decision to extend such a courtesy was neither unreasonable nor even unusual.  The Panel considers that this courtesy was the moreso justified in light of the poorly framed question.

 

A Suggested Defence: The Newsworthiness of the Interview

The Panel makes no comment at all on the substance of the Liberal leader’s replies to any of the questions put by Steve Murphy.  It does, however, consider that, whether the responses and explanations proffered by Mr. Dion were or were not of quality, they were there for one and all to weigh in the complete interview broadcast following the final re-ask of the opening question.  As is provided in Clause 5(2) of the CAB Code of Ethics, “The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions. [Emphasis added.]”  The substantive policy positions of Mr. Dion and the Liberal Party were fully accessible for the assessment of the viewers.

That said, the Panel understands the position of the broadcaster to be, as the news anchor/interviewer put it, that viewers have “the right to see the entire exchange, the questions and the answers.”  Or, as the President of CTV News said, “a one-on-one interview that would not be edited.”  In fact, that, in the view of the Panel, is precisely what any viewer of the interview that began with the re-ask of the question and ended with Mr. Dion’s final word got.  That exchange, the full Murphy questions and the full Dion answers, is what precisely the audience did experience, once the interview got underway.  It was not edited.  It was not interrupted.  It was the full Monty.

What then was the broadcaster really seeking, if not the full questions and the full answers?  It appears to have been the stumbles, the whoopses, and the mis-starts.  Given the poor quality and confusing syntax of the question, the Panel does not accept the “justification” that Mr. Dion’s command of English could be shown to be “so poor that he could not understand a question with different tenses.”  Whether the Liberal leader did “understand issues like the faltering Canadian economy” and whether he proved to be “able to think on his feet and answer questions directly and with precision” were best judged by the policy explanations he provided during nearly twelve uninterrupted minutes of the complete interview.  That same lengthy interview could be the judgment base-line of whether his answers were restricted to, as put by the President of CTV News, pre-scripted, pre-programmed, and presumably rehearsed key messages.  If they were that, the audience was free to draw that conclusion from what he said in the twelve minutes worth of responses.

While, as a general rule, the CBSC does leave assessments of newsworthiness to the broadcaster, those assessments do not generally involve a conflict with other codified principles.  For example, in CFTO-TV (CTV Toronto) re CTV News report (terrorist suspects) (CBSC Decision 05/06-1641, January 9, 2007), where the broadcast of a story involved the unjustifiable invasion of privacy of a number of individuals, the newsworthiness of the story did not shield the broadcaster from a Code breach.  Where the airing of a news item involved a conflict of interest, as in CKNW-AM re Journalistic Controversy (CBSC Decision 94/95-0175, December 18, 1996), the newsworthiness of the story did not protect the broadcaster from a Code breach.  And, in the matter at hand, where the Panel considers that the broadcast of the restarts of the interview of Mr. Dion were of dubious news value to begin with, it concludes that the discourteous and inconsiderate treatment of the Liberal leader constituted a breach of Article 8 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

 

Pressure to Change the News

The Panel acknowledges that, as the CTV News President has said, “each political party seeks to position its leader in the best possible light [and that] party war rooms are specifically designed to influence media coverage.”  That is clear to the Panel.  It is hardly a debatable point.  The President of News at CTV, however, characterized the request of the Liberal leader’s aides to not run the false starts as “a favour, a benefit we could not give […]  We believe that, if we had complied with such a request, CTV News would be in violation of Article Five of the RTNDA Code of Ethics.”  The Panel does not agree.  The request, if one was expressly made, could only have been to respect Steve Murphy’s commitment, the initial CTV Atlantic indication that it would not be broadcast.  The Panel’s views on the failure to respect that commitment have been provided above.

The notion of any application of “pressures to change or alter the news” is, in the view of the Panel dependent on the existence of news to be changed or altered.  As the Panel has also indicated above, there was nothing newsworthy to change or alter.  All of the substance of the Liberal leader’s responses, the quality of his English in replying, the “rote” nature of his policy statements, if any, and other related characteristics were all there in the complete interview.  As the broadcast journalists and other Adjudicators indicated above, restarts are not uncommon.  As the Panel also concluded, the restarts provided no new information to viewers.  There could not therefore have been pressure to change the news, although there could have been pressure to honour the original agreement by the broadcaster.  The Panel does not consider that Article 5 of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics is a valid defence to the broadcaster in the present matter.

 

Broadcaster Responsiveness

It is always the case that the CBSC Panels measure the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the concerns of the complainant(s).  In the matter at hand, the Panel finds that the President of CTV News provided a thorough, detailed, thoughtful and contextual reply to the complainants.  Moreover, it was a usefully lengthy reply, complete with a chronology of events and an organized analysis of the material issues. Nothing more could be expected of any broadcaster.  CTV Atlantic has amply fulfilled its obligation of membership in the CBSC on this occasion.

 

Announcement of the Decision

CTV Atlantic is required to: 1) announce the decision, in the following terms, once during prime time within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which CTV News at 6 was broadcast; 2) within the fourteen days following the broadcasts of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with a copy of that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by CTV Atlantic.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CTV Atlantic violated the Radio Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics in a broadcast on October 9, 2008.  CTV Atlantic broadcast an interview with Stéphane Dion during its newscast CTV News at 6, as well as the several restarts of that interview in response to the question put to the Liberal leader.  The CBSC has concluded that CTV violated Article 8 of the Code, regarding decency, consideration and conduct, for broadcasting the interview outtakes after it had said that it would not do so.

 

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.