A new book by a former top CBC executive reveals that the flagship TV news program, The National, gave more positive coverage to the Conservative government than did the national TV newscasts on the Global and CTV networks.
The ex-head of English services, Richard Stursberg, writes in The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC (Douglas & McIntyre) that he briefed “one of the Most Powerful Ministers in the Conservative government” about an extensive arm's-length “Fairness and Balance” study.
“Remarkably, the results showed that the CBC not only allocated more time to the Conservatives than either Global or CTV, but we tended to treat them more positively as well,” Stursberg writes. “This, for me, was unexpected.”
In preparing the report, ERIN Research retained five academic media researchers to examine a 25-week sample of news in the 2009–10 season. This included 6,000 radio news stories, 7,500 television stories, and 2,400 stories on the Internet.
The study revealed that the CBC's national newscast devoted 69 percent of the speaking time for parliamentarians to Conservative MPs and only 31 percent to opposition politicians over the period.
The National's chief rival, CTV National News, granted 61 percent of the speaking time to Conservative MPs, whereas Global allocated 54 percent to politicians on the government side and 46 percent to the opposition parties.
In a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office, Stursberg said that the study was undertaken because many Conservative MPs had “a certain view” of the CBC. “They felt that it was…full of pinkos,” he admitted.
He also emphasized that the CBC takes its responsibility to be fair “extremely seriously”, and he wanted the government to know this by conducting a “gigantic study”. His book didn't reveal the identity of the cabinet minister with whom he shared the results.
“Whether it had any kind of influence on anything, I have no idea,” Stursberg said.
Since then, right-wing broadcasters such as Charles Adler and Ezra Levant have pounded away at the CBC as some sort of den of left-wing thinking.
“I think people want to continue to believe certain kind of things because…they may have some kind of axe to grind,” Stursberg mentioned. “I think it's unfair. And I'm very surprised that there has not been more conversation about the study.”
Stursberg mentions in the book that he was fired in 2010 after he expressed disagreements with the president, Hubert Lacroix, and some members of the CBC board, who questioned his emphasis on gaining mass audiences through such shows as Battle of the Blades. This sometimes came at the expense of arts programming that drew lower ratings.
He noted that one former high-profile critic of the CBC, right-wing National Post columnist Jonathan Kay, recently wrote a column praising the Crown-owned network.
Murphy is a frequent critic of the scientific consensus on climate change; O'Leary is a rich businessman whose favourite author is right-wing zealot Ayn Rand.
If the right is starting to embrace the CBC, does this mean that it has abandoned the left? Not according to Jennifer Maguire, editor-in-chief of CBC News.
In an interview with the Straight at the CBC building in Vancouver, she said that the Fairness and Balance study was a detailed, six-month content analysis that showed that “we are, by and large, neutral”.
“So any sort of perception of inherent bias was not real,” Maguire said. She also suggested that Stursberg was “probably simplifying” the results of the study.
While it indicated that Conservative MPs received more airtime on The National, Maguire claimed that the nature of the stories at that time explained why more Conservative MPs ended up on the news.
“It's like coverage of the Middle East,” she said. “You can't measure it in one story.”
CBC's At Issue panel, which comments on federal politics, includes a libertarian National Post columnist, Andrew Coyne, and a senior adviser at National Public Relations, Bruce Anderson, who has worked on federal Conservative and Liberal campaigns.
Anderson's company's clients include energy businesses active in the Alberta tar sands.
The third panel member, Chantal Hébert, is a middle-of-the-road political columnist with the Toronto Star.
Maguire said that she didn't play any role in the selection of panel members. And on the same day, the head of CBC Radio, Chris Boyce, told the Straight that Murphy does not select the topics to be covered on Cross Country Checkup, which he hosts on Sunday afternoons.
“We have standards—journalistic standards and policies—that we expect him to abide by in his role as the host of the show,” Boyce added. “And as far as I'm concerned, he does.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.