CBC responds to my Ombudsman complaint over coverage of Wynne’s Walkerton press conference

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The response below is what I received from CBC’s Managing Editor Brodie Fenlon to my complaint filed May 21:

During the highly-charged, partisan climate of a provincial election campaign, it is critical for journalists to avoid any appearance of bias or unduly favourable coverage that would seek to promote the interests of one candidate or party over another. One of the most important ways journalists can uphold this standard, in turn, is to ensure whenever possible, all available facts on a controversial matter are fully reported, particularly when the controversy involves one candidate or politician making allegations of another’s past record or future agenda.

In a May 20, 2014 article by CBC commentator Robert Fisher, Mr. Fisher offers a lengthy analysis of the legacy of the Walkerton water plant scandal, and the challenge the issue presents for both the PC and Liberal parties’ electoral chances. Though the column makes mention of the fact that PC leader Tim Hudak “served as a loyal and enthusiastic member of cabinet” during the Harris years as a way of indicating Hudak’s connection to the government whose budget cuts some consider responsible for the Walkerton scandal, Mr. Fisher’s piece made no mention of the equally relevant fact that the Liberal government of which Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was part cut funding for the Walkerton Clean Water Centre by $1 million in their 2011-2012 budget.

Since Mr. Fisher’s column is described on the CBC website as neutral “analysis,” and not partisan commentary, I believe it was inexcusable for the omission of the Liberal government’s $1 million cuts to the Walkerton facility in an article on the political impact of Walkerton on the provincial election.

I’ve asked Mr. Fisher about this omission yet received no reply and am making this complaint in order to compel the CBC to respond and explain.

Thank you

Dean Skoreyko

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Dear Mr Skoreyko

While I regret you are disappointed in Mr. Fisher’s analysis, with respect, the information you feel he should have included is tangential to his point.

Early in the Ontario election then underway – and in what later proved to be a pivotal moment in his campaign – Mr. Hudak promised to cut 100,000 public service jobs, part of his larger plan to create a million jobs in the province. Not only would this cut result in smaller government, but the money saved would help reduce the province’s considerable deficit, he said. It was the kind of bold action his advisors argued would strongly appeal to party supporters and as a result motivate them to get to the polls on voting day. His promise dominated election coverage and, more desirably for party strategists, for the next few days set the election agenda.

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne had to respond. She chose a powerful but potentially risky way to do it, Mr. Fisher wrote, which was the focus of his analysis.

Ms. Wynne travelled to Walkerton, a small southern Ontario town in the midst of some of the province’s richest farm land, where in 2000 seven people died and thousands fell ill after the town’s drinking water was contaminated with deadly E. coli. bacteria. A subsequent investigation by Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor, at the time the province’s associate chief justice, offered a scathing indictment of the astonishingly incompetent Koebel brothers who ran the town’s water treatment plant. Mr. Justice O’Connor was also sharply critical of the Mike Harris Conservative government’s budget cuts, which he wrote were made “in the face of the warnings of increased risk to the environment and human health”. Although Mr. Hudak indicated he would not cut water inspectors, for many people living in Ontario, Walkerton remains a potent symbol of the risks attendant on cuts to public services.

She wanted to use the symbol, but in doing so risked appearing to exploit the tragedy for political purposes. This was the tactical gamble that Mr. Fisher’s article focused on.

He wrote that Ms. Wynne began her remarks that day “on a high note”, saying no political leader would intentionally follow a policy that would risk another tragedy. He pointed out that while she “carefully did not draw a straight line” between the events of 14 years ago and Mr. Hudak’s promise a few days earlier, she did say repeatedly that “’cuts have consequences’”. And to be sure the point wasn’t lost on anyone, he wrote, her staff handed reporters summaries of Mr. Justice O’Connor’s report. She wanted to “allow voters to make their own connection”, he said.

As an example of the risks in making a direct a connection, he went on to cite the “swift and harsh” reaction ten years earlier to former NDP leader Jack Layton’s charge that Ottawa’s cuts to affordable housing left Prime Minister Paul Martin responsible for the deaths of dozens of Toronto’s homeless. Ms. Wynne was “more measured”, he wrote, “carefully and deliberately” stopping short of saying the promised cuts would result in another Walkerton.

He concluded that both party leaders carry with them the baggage of former premiers (Mike Harris for one, Dalton McGuinty for the other) and both likely had what will be remembered as “’defining moments’” in their campaigns where Walkerton was a “key symbol”

In the context of the story, the Walkerton Clean Water Centre’s financing is not especially relevant. Mr. Fisher wrote that Ms. Wynne took the opportunity offered by her visit to announce a 10-year, $30 million commitment to the Centre, but quickly pointed out that was not the “real purpose” of her visit. (While you (and Ms. Batra) say the Liberal government has cut $1 million from the Centre’s budget, the government says it has not. The Ministry of the Environment says the government committed an initial $50 million to the project and since then annual funding amounts have ranged from $3 million to $7 million depending on operational requirements. The government says it will have completed transferring the committed funding by 2016/17).

Thank you for your e-mail and again my apologies for the delay in replying.

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CBC omits PR firm owner under scrutiny of Quebec govt is a federal Liberal candidate

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After reading this article titled “MUHC ordered to cancel two-year contract with Montreal PR agency”:

Quebec’s Health Minister Gaétan Barrette says hiring an expensive public relations firm is no way to fix the image of the McGill University Health Centre.

Barrette spoke to CBC News Friday morning about an order he gave the MUHC earlier this week to cancel the remainder of its $600,000 contract with the Montreal PR firm Jonathan Goldbloom and Associates, or JGA. (see here)

I did a quick Google search of owner Jonathan Goldbloom and discovered a couple very interesting details that the CBC didn’t include in their story:

1) son of Victor Goldbloom who was a minister in the Robert BourassaLiberal government

2) brother of Michael Goldbloom who was the former publisher of the Toronto Star and Montreal Gazette

But the real bombshell:

3) current candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada (see here)

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Tell me how a dumb guy like me can find all this out in a couple minutes yet a professional reporter working at the CBC apparently couldn’t.

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