UNESCO talks with Esther Enkin, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Ombudsperson

Esther EnkinUNESCO spoke with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Ombudsperson, Esther Enkin, about her role as the broadcaster’s Ombudsperson. Ms. Enkin was appointed in 2012 and has over 25 years of journalism experience with CBC News. She is widely recognised in Canada and abroad for her knowledge and leadership in the field of journalistic ethics, theory and practice.

Can you describe your role as Ombudsperson?

The Ombudsman acts as an appeal authority for complainants who are dissatisfied with responses from CBC information or program management.

My office is basically an appeals authority. The way the process works is that people write to me and if I feel it is within the mandate of news and current affairs, then I will look at it. I will then write to the manager of the news desk to raise the issue of concern. I am completely independent of news management – I report to the board and the president. 

One of the important aspects of the CBC is that journalism standards are upheld through our charter and the public understands this. So my office also has an educational function. It’s a condition of having a broadcasting licence that we have an ombudsman.

How would you describe your relationship with listeners?

I am their representative, their eyes and their ears. Their spokesperson. I make myself as transparent and accessible as possible and I treat everyone with respect.   

Can you give us some examples of the issues that are brought to your attention?

Lately, the issues that have been raised are those around climate change, childhood vaccines and bias in the coverage of election campaigns.

How do you deal with those issues? Are the decisions public or kept in-house?

When people write to me, it’s important that they know that:

1. I am taking their complaint seriously

2. When I send a complaint to news management, they are obliged to answer and do so thoroughly. If the complainant is not satisfied, they can ask me to review the matter.  The reviews are public and on my website, unless there is a compelling reason why they are not, and this is up to my discretion.

How has social media changed your role? Do you spend more time dealing with issues via social media ? 

It hasn’t fundamentally changed my role, but it is changing journalism. There are various academic studies on this showing that it has polarised public opinion. People have always done this, through the friends, newspapers and radio they listen to, but now it’s creating false news or conning people. The fact that social networks are such powerful players, without any public editors...

How does CBC ensure they are hearing a wide range of views and promoting dialogue?

There is an upside to social media and that is accountability transparency. I am on Twitter. It has its place, but I don’t make a ruling on 140 characters. It’s a very valuable tool in breaking news situations. It’s an interesting period in history where views seem to be more and more polarised around political issues.

Do you have a charter? Has it been updated recently to keep in step with social media? Why is it important to have a charter?

The Broadcast Act of 1991 in Canada is where our mandate comes from. It was created by an Act of Parliament. Our Mission also comes from this. CBC has created its own vision for the Digital Age.

How do you keep abreast of the latest trends for Ombudspeople?

I am the President of ONO – the Organisation of News Ombudsmen. We have an annual conference. My key advice to ombudsmen is to be independent, transparent and put the audience first.

What is your message for smaller community broadcasters?

When organisations have public editors and ombudsmen the liability suits go down and the confidence of your audience goes up. Social media may keep you honest, but it’s not the same kind of accountability to challenge the organisation and speak on behalf of people.

The real reason for the decline of ombudsmen is that they are seen as a luxury, not a necessity. Yet the need has never been greater because of the speed at which informations moves and things change. Find the resources or combine resources to have a public editor or ombudsman.

UNESCO encourages radio stations to appoint an ombudsperson to deal with listener concerns and complaints. Community radio stations can pool resources and share an ombudsperson between them.