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University of Wisconsin–Madison

A Weakness in Accountability?

Marc-François Bernier summarizes his study of the CBC’s French ombudsman

The French ombudsman of the CBC (Société Radio-Canada, or SRC) is not as independent as one might expect. A scientific survey shows that this important accountability mechanism, established in the early 1990s, must be improved to gain efficiency, credibility and legitimacy.

The survey, which I conducted over the past few years, is contained in my new book, L’Ombudsman de Radio-Canada: Protecteur du public ou des journalistes? published by the University of Laval Press. The publication was facilitated by a grant from the Université of Ottawa.

My analysis suggests that the holders of this office are not always as fair as they could be vis-à-vis the plaintiffs. Moreover, in their decisions, ombudsmen don’t hesitate to ignore the CBC’s manual, Journalistic Standards and Practices, which is supposed to be the basis for their judgments.

These findings raise tough questions, such as whether the Office of the French Ombudsman exists to protect the public against possible ethical transgressions by CBC journalists, or to protect the journalists against complaints from the audience. At the very least, the study shows that this mechanism cannot be considered to be above all suspicion, in spite of some good qualities.

Each year, thousand of citizens, Quebecers essentially, are vocal in their criticism of the information provided by the Société Radio-Canada. Some of the criticisms are serious enough to warrant a complaint to the ombudsman, in hopes of a neutral, rigorous and fair arbiter.

The Office of the Ombudsman claims that the ombudsman is independent, and that he or she oversees a neutral and fair process for evaluating complaints. In 1993, the ombudsman wrote that the process is “the most complete, the most equitable, the most ‘democratic’ that exists in Canada, in North America and probably in the world” (author’s translation). According to the same ombudsman, no other press organization forces its managers to answer all complaints and no other organization has an ombudsman with as much independence. However, it seems that this process does not always meet the legitimate expectations of all plaintiffs.

Main findings of study

The survey focused mainly on 144 decisions of the various ombudsmen from 1992 to 2000, plus quantitative data of more recent annual reports. Some highlights from the study:

First, the ombudsman judged only 10% of the grievances from the public to be well grounded, while 24% were judged to be partially grounded.

Second, plaintiffs acting on the behalf of groups received more favorable treatment than those acting as individuals. Almost 30% of the grievances from groups were considered well grounded but only 20% of individual complaints were recognized as well founded. It is possible that plaintiffs for groups have more knowledge or resources to argue their points. If true, this raises the question of whether the process is fair for plaintiffs who have less knowledge of the rules of the SRC and the procedures of the Office of the Ombudsman.

Third, the study found that ombudsmen may be arrogant or even moralistic toward the plaintiffs, tending to lecture plaintiffs on how they should behave on professional matters, rather than criticizing the behaviour of journalists.

Fourth, astonishingly, the survey reveals that ombudsmen referred explicitly to Journalistic Standards and Practices (e.g., referring to the rules) in only 26% of their cases. Most of the time, the ombudsmen stated their decisions without any reference to these standards. This gives ombudsmen a lot of freedom to interpret the standards in favour of the SRC. Sometimes, ombudsmen rejected claims without any explicit rationale, or they did not say anything about some grievances.

Fifth, on two occasions, a plaintiff addressed his grievances to the Office of the Ombudsman, the Quebec Press Council and the civil courts. This allowed the study to do a comparative analysis of the decisions of these three mechanisms of accountability. The analysis reveals that the ombudsman in office at this time was more favorable in his judgement to his employer than were the Press Council and the civil courts. In my view, the different nature of these three mechanisms does not adequately explain the difference in the rulings. The main reason is that the ombudsman did not apply professional standards rigorously to the conduct of the journalists, preferring instead to be more charitable in his interpretation of the rules and the alleged misconduct.

Nevertheless, ombudsmen did on occasion take a severe stand toward the reporters and even the managers of the SRC. For example, an ombudsman was threatened with a civil suit because a reporter was upset at his ruling on her work. She did not want the ruling to be printed in the ombudsman’s annual report.

The “question nationale”

The study’s systematic analysis of annual reports shows that, following the 1995 referendum in Quebec, the SRC became very concerned by plaintiffs who claimed that the reporters of the SRC had a bias in favor of Quebec sovereignty. The ombudsman in office even created a new category of grievances for this issue. But he did not create category for complaints that some reporters were biased in favor of the national unity of Canada.

This innovation from the Office of the Ombudsman upset numerous Quebecers at a time when then prime minister Jean Chretien was conducting a political war against Quebec sovereignists. Many people called on the SRC to be strictly neutral regarding the “question nationale,” at the same time that many federalists wanted, au contraire, a partisan stance from the public broadcaster in favor of national unity.

It must be recognized that from its beginning, the SRC has been an instrument of national unity, and a large number of its employees and managers have been close to the Liberal Party of Canada. The SRC’s top management have been nominated by a partisan system influenced by the Prime Minister’s Office (what the “Friends of Canadian Broadcasting” call patronage). These close links cause many Quebecers to be suspicious about the SRC’s neutrality on important political issues. In fact, many letters from the audiences of the radio and television services of the SRC express this distrust.

Need for improvement

Despite these criticisms, the French ombudsmen may claim some legitimacy. The public’s expectations towards ombudsmen are numerous, diversified and even conflicting. The number of plaintiffs grows annually. The survey found that, more and more, the grievances arrive by e-mail, and they are submitted very quickly, often as people watch newscasts.

In their decisions, ombudsmen transform themselves into agents of media literacy by explaining how the SRC operates. Sometimes their comments and decisions are well received and are implemented by SRC management.

The Office of the Ombudsman is a mechanism of accountability compatible with the journalistic tradition of self-regulation in societies which cherish the freedom of the press, as well as their social responsibilities. Unfortunately, press ombudsmen are rare, largely because of the cost of operating such an office. Also, many news managers still believe that they are in the best position to act as producer and critic of the news they broadcast. In spite of this attitude, the number of press ombudsmen increases slowly. News ombudsmen are sometimes appointed following a huge ethics scandal at a news organization, as was the case a few years ago at The New York Times.

The question remains whether SRC ombudsmen adequately protect the public against the poor practices and professional faults of reporters, or whether they protect the SRC and its reporters. Actually, the fair and accurate answer to this question is that the ombudsmen are of some use in guarding against excesses by SRC reporters. There is still room for improvement, and improvement in the future is fundamental for the efficiency, the credibility and the legitimacy of this office.

MARC-FRANÇOIS BERNIER, PhD. is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa. He is a well-known expert in media ethics. In this article, Bernier summarizes in English the results of his book, L’ombudsman de Radio-Canada: protecteur du public ou des journalistes? The book is published by the University of Laval Press.

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