Saturday 8 March 2014

Peter Mansbridge: A New Form of CBC Journalism?

Peter Mansbridge is probably the most recognized journalist in the country.  Disclosure: Peter kindly taught me how to hold a microphone when I replaced him at the now defunct CBC radio station in Churchill, Manitoba almost 50 years ago.  That’s right, Peter has been with CBC for almost half a century.

Peter has been the subject of some controversy for a speech he delivered to the Canadian oil lobby in 2012.  I haven’t seen the speech but I doubt it would be any different than one he would give to the Kiwanis and I believe his news judgment would not consciously be affected by accepting a payment from the lobby group. Though, in retrospect, he probably wishes he had agreed to speak to the Kiwanis. 

Peter has been reading the news on The National for the past 25 years. He also does numerous interviews, as well as moderating expert panels that usually include political pundits, pollsters and newspaper columnists, discussing political events. The panels are like newspaper columns, striving to understand the backroom workings of the political parties and their strategies. But looking at a number of episodes of The Insiders and the At Issue panels I noticed an interesting phenomenon.

When moderating the At Issue and The Insiders panels Peter is, I believe, breaking new journalistic ground that places the moderator on the same plane as the panelists. Peter not only questions the panelists but also offers his own comments on the news and issues discussed.  During a May 13, 2013 At Issue while commenting on the Nigel Wright affair, Peter looks at the three panelists, Chantal H├ębert, Andrew Coyne and Bruce Anderson, and says, “What do we make of this?” 

In a rare non-political edition of At Issue on September 19, 2013, which dealt with the near collapse of Blackberry, Peter sums up the discussion by saying that Blackberry “…appears to be in serious trouble and yet nobody seems to be talking about it, or really seems to care about it.”  This is the sort of declaration that a columnist makes.  The rest of the segment responds to Peter’s general assertion.

At one point Peter interrupts Chantal saying, “But it’s really not about how we see ourselves. I am sure that most Canadians would, you know, like, pick Sydney Crosby or you pick Chris Hadfield or any number of things that define us. But outside of Canada when internationally we’re looked at I don’t think there is any question that a lot of people identified us with Blackberry five years ago but now, you know, it’s changed, it could be the oil sands that define us to a lot of people on the international stage.”  This is again a sweeping opinion that a CBC journalist would not make.

Peter as moderator employs other techniques that CBC journalists don’t normally use.  For example, he often prefaces his introduction of a topic by saying that “some people” or a lot of people” are saying something about an issue.  Or, he will say that a trusted person has said such and such about an issue. Those “people” are rarely identified.

For example, during a January 23, 2014 At Issue Peter comments on the political situation in Ottawa: “You know, a wise old political hand told me just in the last couple of weeks that if you are going to win, if you are going to win in politics, you gotta have three things going for you, you gotta have the polls in your favour, you gotta have crowds when you appear and you have to have money and if you have all three things, you got a really good shot at winning and of the three parties only one has got all those three things.”  It is somewhat unusual for a journalist not to attribute the source for the initial statement and even more unusual to offer the opinion that only one party has all three things.  I suspect that two of the three parties would disagree.  

The Senate scandal has been the focus of many At Issue segments.  Here are a few examples of when Peter has offered various opinions about aspects of the scandal:

*May 23, 2013: “You know, the NDP has been calling for an RCMP inquiry.  That’ll bury this story for a long time, right?” (Like a lot of columnists, Peter is not always right.)

*May 28, 2013: “When you run that against the back drop of some of the things we’ve talked about in the last few weeks, about, you know, the potential of, you know, a kind of open mutiny going on inside the Conservative caucus, I found that interesting.”

*October 25, 2013: “Well, where does the week come to an end with the Prime Minister? I mean his people are all running around saying he’s back, he’s on top of his game, he’s looking good.  How much of that is real? There’s no doubt he had a better week than he’s had lately.”

*November 20, 2013: “Some of the stuff in this document about some of those other senators that you just mentioned is pretty devastating stuff about the way they were operating.”

*November 21, 2013: “Well, (this is) as bad as it gets, unless somebody gets charged and there’s a trial and people have to be on the witness stand.”

*November 28, 2013: “Wow, you kinda wonder after that, like, what’s the role of everybody there and what’s the role of Question Period.”

There are many others...

The Insiders, which has a lower profile than At Issue, focused on the budget on February 11, 2014.  When Jamie Watt refers to the Conservative’s good management of the economy, Peter questions this: “That’s being challenged now more than it had been the last couple of years.”  Jamie Watt and the other pundits that appear on The Insiders are clearly identified as Conservative, Liberal or NDP strategists.  Oddly, when Jamie appears on a regular segment of another CBC show, Power and Politics, he is not identified as a Conservative.  

Peter Mansbridge is probably not only the most well known journalist in Canada but also among the most trusted.  Our public opinion surveys have shown in the past decade that despite declining budgets and audiences Canadians still feel CBC has the best quality national news and is highly trusted, and Peter can take some credit. 

Peter and his producers have in recent years re-shaped CBC’s flagship news program and his role in it.  He is no longer just a newsreader or interviewer. He has grown into the equivalent of a TV news columnist offering opinions on the news and current events. Peter seems to want to distance himself from his old role as just a CBC journalist; following each broadcast At Issue is posted on Youtube with no reference to CBC.

I suspect that Peter’s role as TV news columnist has gone unnoticed, except by the newspaper columnists and pundits who appear on his show. Does the CBC fully understand that Peter has developed a new journalistic form that does not seem to be captured in its journalistic policies?  CBC news management was unaware that Rex Murphy’s commentary on The National had been improperly labeled for five years. CBC should acknowledge Peter’s role as a commentator, not just a journalist, and revisit its journalistic policies.