Williams Alleges Bias

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CBC Ombudsman makes decision on premier's complaint

Last year, Premier Daniel Williams filed a complaint with the CBC Ombudsman, over comments made by a CBC journalist during a media interview.

The dispute dragged out for more than a year, concluding on March 10, when the Ombudsman rejected the substance of the premiers complaint.

The journalist was Peter Gullage, Executive Producer of CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador. The offending comments appeared February 4, 2009 in The National Post, in an article headlined Danny Williams: Puppet master of Parliament.

Heres the part that got under the premiers skin:

Mr. Gullage says there is a reluctance to openly confront or disagree with Williams that didn't exist under former premiers such as Roger Grimes or Brian Tobin.

Trying to get someone to talk openly and freely from the business community, and from inside government, is tougher than previous times People have a fear that Danny will find out. That sounds kind of like a Beijing sort of thing, but it's there, and our reporters have come across it.

The premier filed off a written complaint about Gullages comments to Vince Carlin, the CBC Ombudsman.

Subsequently, Gullage apologized for the Beijing comment. He said his comments were impromptu, hyperbolic, and, I believed, so wildly overdrawn that there would be little chance it could be understood as anything more than what it was intended to be: humorous and colourful.

That was followed by an apology from Jennifer McGuire, the interim Publisher (at the time) of CBC News.

However, the premier was not satisfied with the apologies, claiming that Gullages responses serve to illustrate what I believe is a bias on (Mr. Gullages) part in (his) role as Executive Producer.

The matter stretched out over some time, with correspondence back and forth, and did not reach a conclusion until the Ombudsman sent his report to the premier, dated March 10, 2010. I asked the Ombudsman for copies of all letters written by Premier Williams, but the Ombudsman declined.

My reviews are, generally speaking, public documents, Carlin wrote, in an April 30 email. I would be happy to share that with you. I am a little less comfortable in releasing Premier Williams correspondence, although I do quote from it in the review.

(In a reply, I asked the Ombudsman to reconsider, pointing out that the premiers original complaint is necessary to give the story context. I will update when I receive a reply.)

In his decision, the Ombudsman agreed that the apologies already given by Gullage and McGuire were appropriate and necessary. However, he did not accept the accusation of bias. Here is the meat of his decision:

In the course of their work, CBC journalists, whether directly reporting or appearing as commentators, must be careful to present information and viewpoints in a fair manner. Mr. Gullage was appearing essentially as a commentator, an appropriate role for someone of his experience. While CBC policy would recognize that Mr. Gullage may be qualified to draw conclusions about government actions, policy is also clear that this should be done based on accurate information, and be fair to those whose work is being judged.

Making the observation that reporters have found it difficult to get people to speak on the record is not a violation of policy. As a longtime reporter and now Executive Producer, Mr. Gullage would be seen as someone who is able to make judgments on the affairs of the day.

While I appreciate that Mr. Gullage did not mean his reference to Beijing to be taken literally, nor do I think any reasonable member of the audience would do so, hyperbole is always a risky tool for journalists to employ. In this case, in my view, it is both unfair and unreasonable to compare your Government, in the lively world of Newfoundland politics, with that of an autocracy.

Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, my experience with Newfoundland political figures extends back to interviews with Joseph Smallwood in 1970 and extends forward from there for a couple of decades. It has been my experience that Newfoundland leaders have been quite capable of dealing well with the cut and thrust in the kinds of political debates that have taken place in Newfoundland over that time.

Had this note been written before Mr. Gullage and Ms. McGuire apologized, I would have recommended that he and the CBC do so. Mr. Gullage appears to understand that his remark was inappropriate. Making the observation that people appeared disinclined to speak publicly is not inappropriate for a senior journalist and would not appear to be an indication of bias but of a reasonable, if arguable, conclusion based on experience.

It appears to me that the CBC and Mr. Gullage have taken appropriate action in the wake of his inappropriate metaphor.

I do have a few comments on the Ombudsmans decision (the full text is reproduced below).

Firstly, while the Ombudsman agreed that the Beijing comment was over the top, he sided with the reporter on the more serious accusation of bias. If you read between the lines, what Carlin says, in effect, is that Gullage was making an objective conclusion based on the facts at hand, and his many years of experience as a journalist.

Secondly and this is more subtle I draw your attention to the Smallwood reference, and the Ombudsmans observation that NL politicians have always been capable of dealing with the cut and thrust of political debate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it looks like Carlin is telling Williams to man up.

And good on him, I say.

Meanwhile, the premiers boycott of CBC NL continues. Last Tuesday, when the premier was in Ottawa for meetings with the Harper Conservatives, CBC tried repeatedly to book Williams for a live interview on Here Now. But they were not successful. The premier was not available. That night, Williams did appear on TV for a live interview on the NTV Evening Newshour. The folks at CBC must have been pissed.

Over the next day or two, I will offer my own take on what transpired here. Meanwhile, here is the complete text of the letter, from Ombudsman Vince Carlin to Premier Daniel Williams:

Dear Mr. Williams:

You wrote to complain of a statement made by Peter Gullage, Executive Producer of CBC news in Newfoundland and Labrador, in the course of a column written for the National Post on February 4, 2009. In the column he wrote: Trying to get someone to talk openly and freely from the business community, and from inside the government, is tougher than previous times. People have a fear that Danny will find out. That sounds kind of like a Beijing sort of thing, but it's there, and our reporters have come across it.

Subsequently, Mr. Gullage apologized for those remarks, claiming that his comments were impromptu, hyperbolic, and, I believed, so wildly overdrawn that there would be little chance it could be understood as anything more than what it was intended to be: humorous and colourful.

Subsequently, you also received a note from Jennifer McGuire, at the time the Interim Publisher of CBC News, who wrote: I sincerely regret that you were offended.

You were unsatisfied with the responses and asked me to review the matter, saying that the answers serve to illustrate what I believe is a bias on (Mr. Gullages) part in (his) role as Executive Producer.

My deepest apologies for the delay. I mistakenly believed that the matter had been settled between you, the CBC and Mr. Gullage.

In the course of their work, CBC journalists, whether directly reporting or appearing as commentators, must be careful to present information and viewpoints in a fair manner. Mr. Gullage was appearing essentially as a commentator, an appropriate role for someone of his experience. While CBC policy would recognize that Mr. Gullage may be qualified to draw conclusions about government actions, policy is also clear that this should be done based on accurate information, and be fair to those whose work is being judged.

Making the observation that reporters have found it difficult to get people to speak on the record is not a violation of policy. As a longtime reporter and now Executive Producer, Mr. Gullage would be seen as someone who is able to make judgments on the affairs of the day.

While I appreciate that Mr. Gullage did not mean his reference to Beijing to be taken literally, nor do I think any reasonable member of the audience would do so, hyperbole is always a risky tool for journalists to employ. In this case, in my view, it is both unfair and unreasonable to compare your Government, in the lively world of Newfoundland politics, with that of an autocracy.

Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, my experience with Newfoundland political figures extends back to interviews with Joseph Smallwood in 1970 and extends forward from there for a couple of decades. It has been my experience that Newfoundland leaders have been quite capable of dealing well with the cut and thrust in the kinds of political debates that have taken place in Newfoundland over that time.

Had this note been written before Mr. Gullage and Ms. McGuire apologized, I would have recommended that he and the CBC do so. Mr. Gullage appears to understand that his remark was inappropriate. Making the observation that people appeared disinclined to speak publicly is not inappropriate for a senior journalist and would not appear to be an indication of bias but of a reasonable, if arguable, conclusion based on experience.

It appears to me that the CBC and Mr. Gullage have taken appropriate saction in the wake of his inappropriate metaphor.

Again, I am truly sorry that my assumption of settlement was incorrect.

Sincerely,

Vince Carlin

CBC Ombudsman

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Recent comments

  • Mark
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Two quick comments:

    1. What was inappropriate about Gullage's metaphor?

    2. This quote ''I am a little less comfortable in releasing Premier Williams correspondence...''
    is ironic, considering the regular behaviour of the Premier towards those who write to him.