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The Office of the Ombudsman: The consortium decision on the leaders' election debates

Mar 31, 2011

Source: CBC/Radio-Canada

In 2006, the CBC and Radio-Canada ombudsmen concluded that excluding the Green Party from the televised leaders' debate had not violated CBC/Radio-Canada Journalistic Standards and Practices.

They argued that the press must have freedom to make choices, but urged news programmers to examine the terms of participation "in light of changing formats, as well as the evolving social and political environment."

CBC/Radio-Canada Journalistic Standards and Practices policy today would not alter that 2006 review, so I have decided not to conduct another one, even with hundreds of complaints to this Office in the last few days.

While this is not a formal review, I feel it is important to observe ways in which the ground has changed:

· The Green Party garnered 6.8 per cent of the general vote in the last election, when it participated (albeit against the initial wishes of the consortium) in the leaders' debates. It receives federal financing because of that electoral support.

· Canada has had three consecutive minority governments and may face their possibility for the foreseeable future. A party that garners one million votes plays a significant role in riding races and the ultimate parliamentary outcome.

· There is technology well beyond conventional network television to deliver programming, whether it involves Internet streaming to computers and smartphones, satellite radio, or simply taking advantage of the increased public familiarity with all-news television.

There is increased relevance mathematically, politically and journalistically to include in pivotal events any party voters have supported significantly and nationally.

It is disappointing, then, to bear the decision of the broadcasting consortium of CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV, Global and TVA to limit the scope of the leaders' debates and stop short of fulfilling the spirit of journalistic principles that govern the craft's conduct.

I accept that this decision is not CBC and Radio Canada's alone to make. But it is difficult to discern how the public interest is best served by exclusion or to find congruence in the decision and the public broadcaster's mandate.

There might be no better time for media to demonstrate their commitment to democracy than in an election campaign. An integral part of that commitment is an exploration of ideas and platforms, and a valuable ingredient within that is an opportunity to present debate: many-on-many, one-on-one, on various issues in various places at various stages.

In a relatively short campaign, every element of coverage magnifies that commitment and every decision to include or exclude has a magnified impact.

The consortium has not elaborated on its decision, apart from asserting that it involved journalistic principles, but presumably press independence was a key. When media regularly park that principle to provide content with little other function than prurient indulgence, though, it is curious that the solemn stand suddenly surfaces.

The consortium correctly noted the Green Party does not enjoy official recognition in the House of Commons because it does not have a sitting MP (last election, it had one). But that logic nestles journalistic practice in behind a political custom, perhaps a shelter in a storm but hardly the best long-term mooring for the craft. These debates are journalistic creations and ought to be governed only by their best practices.

At the very least, the public is telling this Office the consortium has a moral obligation in such circumstances to be transparent about its rationale. Public service requires journalists to do the right thing in the circumstances, but the lack of transparency feels like the consortium has set the circumstances and simply pronounced them the right thing.

I would add: If some leaders want to limit participation, that should not guide the decision-making of the consortium. Its decision should focus on the public, not the political, interest. Nor should there be concerns that five leaders on a stage or around a table make for too much heat and not enough light. We should feel confident that journalism, in the form of a good format and strong moderator, has agency to deal with that.

One final point: It is true that the obligation to provide equitable coverage does not mean the need to provide equal coverage, and there is reason to believe that media will find many other ways to integrate the Green Party into political journalism in the weeks ahead. But, given the Canadian tradition of galvanizing public attention on elections through these debates, it would be disingenuine to suggest anything offsets the exclusion.

© CBC/Radio-Canada