Mention of “pro-Israel lobby” in a listener's letter
You wrote initially to complain about a letter from a listener that was read on The Current in February of this year. Unfortunately, there have been long delays in both the response from The Current and in this review. My apologies.
You felt that the letter in question claimed “that the pro-Israel lobby controls the media.” You said “this rhetoric is fitting of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and is clearly anti- Semitic commentary.” You asked for an on-air apology.
The letter was written subsequent to an interview with Tony Burman, Managing Director of Al Jazeera English. He made the point that Al Jazeera English is broadcast in more than 100 countries, including Israel, but not here. (I should note that Mr. Burman is a former head of CBC News).
Eventually Pam Bertrand, Executive Producer of The Current, responded, disagreeing with your contention. She quoted the relevant portion of the letter, said it was the writer's view, not the program's and that he appeared to be making colourful, if hyperbolic, reference to the work of lobbying groups in North America.
You rejected her explanation and asked for a review.
In CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices we find this language:
4.2 RANGE OF OPINIONS A journalistic organization, to achieve balance and fairness, should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed. Almost any opinion may contain a grain of truth that helps to illuminate the whole truth. But proper account must also be taken of the weight of opinion which holds these views and its significance or potential significance. The challenging of accepted orthodoxies should be reported but so also should the established views be clearly put.
The letter in question said this:
“North America not only has a right to Al Jazeera, but a fundamental need for the network. The filtering system America's pro-Israel lobby forces on the media is used only to promote Israel's agenda against people of the Middle East. And anyone opposing the Zionist agenda is seen as anti-Semitic. Thousands of Jewish people in Israel also opposed the atrocities in Gaza. We must learn to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism, networks such as Al Jazeera help the common person to understand this and should be accepted as an important part of our media.”
It would appear that hyperbole was not just the province of the letter-writer. It seems to me that comparing this forceful if tendentious comment to the hateful Protocols of the Elders of Zion falls in the same category.
Lobby groups, particularly pro-Israel lobby groups, have been a subject of discussion in North America for some time, and not just on the fringe. More mainstream political and academic debate has been going on about the relationships of aggressive and well-funded lobby groups to senior American and Canadian politicians. There is nothing inherently nefarious about aggressive lobbying, but the subject cannot be removed from the rough and tumble of debate.
The letter-writer, as Ms. Bertrand noted, may not have expressed his views as clearly as he might have, but he clearly did not say that the Israel lobby “controls” the media, but that they try to “filter” information to serve their interests. That, of course, is the purpose of lobbying.
However, I would hasten to add that it is not the lobby groups' fault if media allow themselves to be manipulated. It is their job to sort out spin from substance. It is also their job to probe deeply into the relationships of elected leaders with the representatives of various groups. I have noted in my correspondence that such probing is often characterized as prejudice, rather than good journalism. It would be useful to the society as a whole if such exchanges were on the basis of fact, rather than emotional charges.
At the same time, programmers must be alert for those who would use “code” and smear as a cover for bigotry. “Anti-Zionism” has become a popular term in some circles for opposing the policies of the State of Israel. While there is no doubt historically that there had been a healthy debate in the Jewish community itself over “Zionism”—most often on religious grounds—today's climate is quite different. There remains a small minority of Jews who oppose the secular state, but any real debate today is over specific policies of the government of Israel. Often, those outside who oppose the State of Israel use the word Zionism, hinting that the State were somehow illegitimate.
All that being said, programmers must base decisions on the basic foundation of free speech and the exposing of a wide range of opinions. Opinions may be puerile, or wrong headed, but not criminal. The best way for journalists to deal with them is to bring them up for debate. It would appear that The Current was doing just that in its sampling of listener opinion.
While programmers must always be on guard for material which falls into the category of “hate” speech, the basic principle is the broadcasting of the widest range of views on matters of controversy. There was no violation of CBC's policies in this broadcast.</p>
<p class="author">Vince Carlin<br/><em>CBC Ombudsman</em></p>