CBC ombudsman: Does an interviewee’s perspective need to be accurate?

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

The complainant, Hugh Blakeney, was concerned that a passing reference to a former minister in Tommy Douglas’s government in Saskatchewan distorted the truth about Walter Erb’s role in the implementation of medicare in the early 60s. The reference to the past was in a piece about Erb’s nephew. The story featured Bob Erb who has been giving away a significant part of his 25 million dollar lottery winnings. He invoked the spirit of his uncle and Tommy Douglas to explain his social conscience.

Only problem is, Bob’s uncle actually quit the cabinet before medicare was passed. Mr. Blakeney faulted the reporter for not jumping in and setting the record straight, or leaving out the reference. If this had been a look at medicare or the struggle to implement it, he would be right. Accuracy is a critical value, but nothing is absolute. Bob Erb was talking about how he sees the legacy, and it was reasonable to leave it in this context.


Over the holiday season, on December 16, The National ran a feature on Bob Erb, a resident of Terrace, British Columbia, focusing on his acts of kindness and generosity. Mr. Erb won a 25 million dollar lottery in 2012 and has been supporting individuals and community groups ever since. In the spirit of the season, reporter Reg Sherren featured Mr. Erb and some of the people he has assisted.

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One of the things Sherren explored in the piece was what motivated Erb to give away a substantial part of his winnings; the “philosophy of Bob,” as he put it. Mr. Sherren refers to Erb’s prairie upbringing, and Erb adds that his uncle was a member of Tommy Douglas’s government when medicare legislation was introduced in Saskatchewan. The feature moved on from there.

You strongly objected to this reference to Walter Erb and the fact that Mr. Sherren did not challenge it, leaving the impression that Walter Erb was a supporter of medicare. You pointed out that the minister resigned from cabinet and crossed the floor to the opposition in the thick of the struggle to implement the legislation at a time when there was significant resistance to it. The reference in this piece would have been great, you said, “had Walter Erb been a believer in the values of Medicare. But the facts don’t support that gloss. The CBC should make a modest effort to check its facts.”

You felt very strongly that the impression left by this passing reference is inaccurate and never should have been included in the piece:

It links Walter Erb to Douglas; it links Walter Erb to Medicare. By doing so in the context of discussing values, the clear implication is that Walter, too, shared these values. He did not. He fought Medicare in a spectacular if unsuccessful way. As he opposed the values of Bob Erb and Douglas, the decision to include him in this short, pithy exchange, is puzzling.


The executive producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concern. Mr. Harrison said the reference to Walter Erb was a brief one just noting the relationship, in the context of explaining the philosophy of a man who has given away eight million dollars. “To be clear, Mr. Sherren’s story was not about Walter Erb, but about Walter Erb’s nephew, Bob Erb.” And within this context of a brief mention, the reporter and Mr. Erb were talking about the “values of Saskatchewan and Tommy Douglas.” He concluded by saying:

You are concerned that we did not give a fair representation of the history of Walter Erb and attributed that to slough. However, this was a story about the good deeds of his nephew, Bob. We would have gone into greater detail about Walter Erb's role in history if he had a larger role in the story.


The story broadcast about Bob Erb is a lighthearted tribute to a man who is giving away a significant part of his money. It is newsworthy because it is so unusual. The segment runs about nine minutes and in the course of it, reporter Reg Sherren explores what is the philosophy behind Erb’s generosity:

REG SHERREN: Bob believes in giving and he's been a busy boy. There's been hundreds of thousands of dollars for everyone from the Salvation Army, the hospital, food banks, soup kitchens, 300,000 dollars in dental work for those who couldn't afford it, cars for single working moms, trucks for friends with struggling businesses, money for people whose phones were being cut off. The total so far, a whopping eight million dollars. It all comes down, says Bob, to his hardy Saskatchewan upbringing.

BOB ERB: My uncle Walter, he was the minister of health for Tommy Douglas in '61 when medicare was introduced.

REG SHERREN: I guess that Tommy rubbed off on you?

BOB ERB: Well, I don't know. You know, I always root for the underdog, you know, and…

REG SHERREN: Look out for the little guy?

BOB ERB: Yeah, and … and, you know, help somebody that their lot in life is not as fortunate as yours.

To continue reading this column, please visit ombudsman.cbc.radio-canada.ca, where it was originally published.

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