Interviews about re-branding Israel

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

You wrote originally to complain about the October 7, 2008, edition of The Current. On the day in question, the program carried an interview with Amir Gissin, the Consul General in Toronto of Israel. The interview centered on his efforts to “re-brand” Israel as a tourist destination. He said that too much emphasis was placed on the negative aspects of the turmoil in the region and not enough on the positive aspects of life in Israel.

This interview was followed by an interview with a person you termed “a woman who had written a book critical of Israel's policies to its Arab citizens.” You said her comments were “irrelevant to the branding issue and inserted and out of the blue in order to have an opportunity to attack Israel.” You referred also to a statement that the author, Susan Nathan, an Israeli, made concerning the actions of the Jewish National Fund. You said that she referenced the JNF as controlling 93% of the land that is held in trust for Jews. You said this was not a fact and that this “canard” had been mentioned before on CBC.

The Executive Producer of The Current, Pam Bertrand, responded saying that the program's host, Anna Maria Tremonti, had questioned Mr. Gissin about the effect of Israel's relationships with Arabs both in Palestinian territories and within Israel's borders. Mr. Gissin appeared to agree that there was a problem, that there have been changes and improvements, but that information on them does not always reach the people.

Ms. Bertrand went on to point out that the second guest, Israeli writer Susan Nathan, said that she did not “entirely disagree” with Mr. Gissin's views, but that he had not touched on what she thought were significant issues that might relate to a “rebranding”: “he hasn't touched on the Israeli Palestinians and the terrible discrimination they suffer…and I don't accept that you can re-brand the country without first ending the occupation.” Ms. Bertrand underlined that the views expressed were those of Ms. Nathan. She also said that Ms. Nathan's reference to the JNF involved a complex and controversial matter that was beyond the scope of the interview.

The third interview subject was Edward Comor, a professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. He is an expert on “country branding” and you did not appear to have a problem with his presence on the program. As Ms. Bertrand noted, Prof. Comor also mentioned the potential drawback of internal policies that might be viewed negatively outside the country: “…no amount of marketing will overcome people's impressions based on substantive policies on the ground.”

Both Prof. Comor and Ms. Nathan acknowledged that Israel had many positive things to put forward.


My task is to assess whether the interviews met the tests of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. The three underlying principles relating to CBC journalism are:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

Those are rather basic statements that must be explicated through experience and common sense. What CBC journalists state as fact must be accurate and provable. However, it is clear that statements by interview subjects cannot be forced to meet the same test. The purpose of an interview program such as The Current is to expose a wide range of views, often conflicting. Demanding that the CBC prove the truth or falsity of every subject's statements would spell the end of intelligent discussion. In fact, the view that journalists have a positive obligation to present opposing views without proving their truth or falsity has been endorsed by Canadian courts in recent cases.

You appear to be arguing that the program itself was biased against Israel by carrying what you think was an irrelevant segment (the Nathan interview) within the three-interview package. Given the range and nature of interviews carried on The Current over the years, the general charge is not sustainable. The question then becomes whether this individual segment somehow violated policy. It is not my job to substitute my own editorial judgment for programmers when the material in question does not clearly violate policy. Pointing out what may be significant challenges to a “rebranding” of Israel does not appear to be out of place in this segment, so the programmers would be within policy to carry a significant interview.

You also said that “the only ‘fact' I heard was that 93% of the land is owned by the Jewish National Fund in trust for Jews.” In fact what Ms. Nathan said was that the Israeli Land Authority and the Jewish National Fund control 93% of the land. By my rough calculation of the available numbers, that would appear to be correct. But as Ms. Bertrand said, that broader issue—as well as the Supreme Court decision and the attempts to overcome it— were beyond the scope of that interview.

The question of whether Israel's relationship to its Palestinian citizens is pertinent to the topic of “rebranding” is an editorial one, not a policy one. The topic itself was raised quite prominently during the recent election in Israel and the presence of Avigdor Leiberman in the cabinet underlines its importance.

Conclusion

The three interview segments explored a number of aspects of a possible “rebranding” of Israel, as suggested by Mr. Gissin. While the two other interview subjects agreed with Mr. Gissin on the main thrust of his project, both raised other issues that they felt needed to be addressed. I can find no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman