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BC media make false charges stick
CBC radio program The House violates standards, but offers no apology
Straight Goods (straightgoods.com) June 2001; Free The Media, July 2001
|It was too outrageous. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't known how it happened. CBC radio was found at fault on an important political matter by their own ombudsman, and yet they refused to mention anything about it to their listeners.
The story begins December 30, 2000, with that week's edition of The House, the reputedly prestigious Saturday morning program about politics in Ottawa and elsewhere. Host Jason Moscovitz and B.C. news correspondent Chris Brown are doing an item on what's in store in the new year for B.C. politics. They talk about the NDP's loss of credibility.
They falsely report that the NDP government in the mid-1990s lied about the provincial budget. They say it a second time, and a third time. At that point, they make a show of going into the background, to explain to listeners from outside B.C. what they are talking about. They ooze authority, particularly Moscovitz. The frame for the discussion is "scandal."
Was there in fact lying and a scandal, however, or were they the product of the anti-NDP media in the province, media which have the power to make fallacious charges stick politically, since concentration of ownership in right wing hands is so extreme?
I send The House an e-mail. I have real authority on my side: an August 3 B.C. Supreme Court judgement, dismissing a suit alleging election fraud. The budget in question - for the financial year 1995-96 - was at the centre of the case. Justice Mary Humphries was direct and unequivocal in exonerating the finance minister at the time, Elizabeth Cull, and also Glen Clark.
The court found Cull to be an "honest, careful, articulate and well-informed witness. I accept that she believed her assumptions were reasonable and that she was honest in her belief that the 1995-96 budget was balanced."
And further: "I have found that Ms. Cull's beliefs were honest and reasonable."
And so on, in the same vein, in other sections of the judgement. Similarly, the margin of error in the 1995-96 budget was well within acceptable limits, as the court pointed out.
I cite, for The House, the relevant passages, complete with paragraph numbers to underline where the citations come from. The program, however, declines to make a correction or even to mention my e-mail. This irks me, so I file an appeal to the CBC's ombudsman David Bazay.
An involved e-mail correspondence follows between Esther Enkin, managing editor and chief journalist for CBC radio, and myself. Enkin's response to my appeal is evasive bafflegab, but complex. I curse myself for the time it's taking me - Enkin gets paid for her time, and I don't - but I can't simply shrug the matter off. I go to the trouble of carefully deconstructing her response.
My appeal doesn't argue the details of events surrounding the budget controversy, although I'm tempted. I argue only that, having purported to go into the background and citing an auditor general's report, Moscovitz and Brown should have at least also mentioned the Supreme Court judgement. This is clear-cut. I want to make it easy for Bazay.
I also argue that the real story in the affair, one that that Moscovitz and Brown should also have gone into in their backgrounder, was media bias, media abuse and how media power works.
Bazay, after interviewing Chris Brown - Moscovitz declines - duly files a report. He avoids altogether addressing my second argument, the one about media abuse. On the other issue, however, there is no mistake. "By failing to include the Supreme Court ruling as part of the background information," he writes, "this broadcast was incomplete and thus fell short of CBC's standards of fairness and balance."
I win! It doesn't mean a damn thing, though, as it turns out. Enkin simply refuses to mention anything about the matter to listeners of The House - doesn't correct the quite false impression the program has given its audience - despite, as I point out, the volatile political situation in B.C. where the issue has a bearing.
It's infuriating. "There ain't no justice," I mutter to myself. I fume over this suppression of important information by the public broadcaster which is supposed to be independent.
I know only too well, however, what has happened. Media power is real power. The anti-NDP Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Province, BCTV and CKNW radio station, owned by right-wing proprietors, dominate the media scene in the B.C. Lower Mainland, all the more so because there are no left-wing mass media at all to provide even a passing check.
These right wing media are powerful enough to fix the frame in which the CBC itself operates. This is so much the case that even when the CBC is found in the wrong, its people are afraid to step outside of the frame or are incapable of seeing they are inside it. This is how media power works. A single medium like the CBC, in a concentrated sea of other media, cannot withstand that pressure and be out of step.
Fast forward now to May and the B.C. election. I watch with bemusement the outcome of that media power in an election campaign. The NDP, which has been demonized by that power, on financial issues among others, has presented three balanced budgets, two of which have been borne out and the current one having a margin of safety. The Liberals on the other hand, intent on surrendering tax revenue, are predicting three years of deficits if they form the next government.
There are no screaming headlines, however, vilifying the Liberals and exposing their hypocrisy, no rabid open line shows mocking them day after day. The major private media's owners, after all, have themselves contributed financially to the Liberal party. Miraculously deficits don't appear to be an issue any longer.
The CBC, in programs like The House, have let this media power impose itself with impunity.