Alleged war crimes during Gaza incursion

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Complaint from Paul Michaels, Director of Communications, Canada-Israel Committee, about treatment of the issues of alleged war crimes during the Gaza incursion on As It Happens

You wrote initially last year to complain about the treatment of the issues of alleged war crimes during the Gaza incursion on the program As It Happens. There has been a series of delays in response that I will not detail here, except to say that I am sorry for my adding to the problem.

The stories at issue relate to claims by a group called Human Rights Watch that Israel had committed specific “war crimes” during its invasion of Gaza, and a report issued by Judge Richard Goldstone, the Head of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, on the question of whether war crimes had been committed by either side during the conflict. Judge Goldstone reported that “war crimes” were committed by both sides in the conflict, although the bulk of the attention was on the actions of Israel.

You complained to the producers that the coverage of the issue was unbalanced in that three interviews were done on the subject: two with representatives of the organization Human Rights Watch and one with the report's author Judge Goldstone. The two HRW representatives, you argued, had already expressed their conclusions on the subject even before the Goldstone report. You noted that none of these interviews, conducted in July, August and September, 2009, was balanced with anyone from the Israeli government.

The program's producer, Lynda Shorten, responded that it was not incumbent to balance within a single program, but that balance could be achieved over time. She went on to say that “with regard to the three specific interviews you mention, I am afraid we will have to agree to disagree with regard to Richard Goldstone. He was a principle character, as the man behind the UN Report, and therefore someone who falls clearly within the As It Happens mandate. The report found both parties to the conflict guilty of war crimes. As such I don't believe it is inherently biased to have had him on our program.

“With regard to the other two interviews, we spoke to both individuals not in their individual capacity but as spokespeople for Human Rights Watch, which has journalistic credibility….I think that both interviews have to be viewed with the larger context of As It Happens coverage.”

Ms. Shorten also listed the items dealing with Israel and the Middle East over the course of a year.

You asked me to review the matter, pointing out that you had not argued that Justice Goldstone should not be interviewed, but that a reflection of the Israeli position was required under a “balance” guideline.

Again, my deepest apologies for the delay.


At the risk of redundancy, I am going to revisit the policies we find in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. The basic principles are these:

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.

In addition, under Balance we find this language:

CBC programs dealing with matters of public interest on which differing views are held must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of view. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance. There are two sources of balance and fairness in information programming, one provided by the journalist and the other provided by the CBC as a journalistic organization. Journalists will have opinions of their own, but they must not yield to bias or prejudice. For journalists to be professional is not to be without opinions, but to be aware of those opinions and make allowances for them, so that their reporting is, and appears to be, judicious and fair. When an appropriate representative of one side of the story cannot be reached, the journalist or producer should make every effort to find someone who can represent that point of view and, if unable to do so, should announce the fact in a simple and direct manner.

Ms. Shorten is undoubtedly correct that there is no requirement to immediately balance within one edition of As It Happens. However, I think it fair to say that on a subject as fraught with controversy as this, most listeners would have found it appropriate to hear a reflection of Israel's position sometime in the aftermath of the report's release. Even if an Israeli government spokesperson were not available, we see in the policy the admonition to “find someone who can

represent that point of view…” On some subjects, this might be difficult, but in the realm of Mideast affairs, I cannot see how this would have been a problem.

Of course it is not within my purview to make a judgment on the Goldstone report itself. Certainly its provenance and the reputation of its author give it some credibility, but, as journalists, we are required to approach all subjects with appropriate skepticism. We should test and question received “wisdom” wherever it appears. And that testing and questioning is a hallmark of As It Happens, although it appears that the producers believed that Judge Goldstone summoned up his own “balance” since he found fault on both sides. I cannot agree with that belief. The program should have sought credible Israeli viewpoints on the report.

I also note that over the course of the year, As It Happens sought out all manner of viewpoints on events in the Middle East, from various points of view within Israel to voices from other parts of the region. It does not appear that there is a deliberate effort to keep official (or unofficial) Israeli viewpoints from being aired, the lapse in the instant case standing out for its exceptionality.

Conclusion

It is a clear violation of the intent of the policy on context and balance to not carry an interview with someone from the Israeli government, or someone who could credibly reflect its view on the subject of alleged war crimes.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman