Refugees

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Discussion about refugees on The Current, October 2009

You wrote to complain generally about coverage of immigration issues and, more particularly, about The Current's program of Tuesday, October 20, 2009. After providing some of your analysis of the immigration question you moved on to The Current. You wrote that the program “devoted a half hour to the arrival of the 76 recently-arrived boat people. It chose 5 guests to interview. Typical of that programme, 4 of the 5 were chosen to create sympathy for the 76 boat people. And typical of the CBC, about 29 minutes of the 30 minute programme were given to the 4 guests who presented views that were sympathetic to the 76 boat people.” You noted that the one other guest, retired diplomat Martin Collacott, was given about a minute.

You wrote that “if ever a journalism instructor wanted to show students a case of blatant partisan reporting in the CBC or any other branch of the media, this is the one to choose.”

The Acting Executive Producer of The Current, Aaron Brindle, responded. He said, in effect, that the program segment was not about the arrival of the 76 Tamils, about whom there was little information at that point. He said the program wanted to “bring some fresh perspective to the story (by talking to) five people who offered individual knowledge, insight and diverse views on the broader issue of refugees.”

He expressed the expectation that “we will hear more (views) over the coming weeks and months.”

You were unsatisfied with his response and asked me to review the matter.


It is probably useful to review the basic principles I use as guidance in doing reviews. From the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices:

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.

To these basic principles we should add what the policies have to say about balance:

CBC/Radio-Canada 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.

The program segment at issue is actually composed of multiple segments, reflecting in various ways the historical experience of arriving in Canada by ship and seeking refuge. In fact, the segment did not really deal with the instant issue of the Tamils off the coast of British Columbia.

The first segment was a narrative from a man named Michael Lin who spoke about dealing with “snakeheads” and arriving in Canada as a potential refugee. Since it was a personal story, there was no need for challenge or opposing views.

The next segment was an interview with two men who have dealt with rather famous incidents of people arriving by boat: Irving Abella, a professor of history at York University, who wrote about the 900 Jews who arrived from Germany on the eve of World War II on the MS St. Louis and were turned away; and Ali Kazimi, who made a documentary film about the Sikhs who attempted to seek refuge in Canada in 1914 after arriving on the Komagatu Maru.

Mr. Brindle cited the views of Martin Collacott as a separate item, but, in fact, his pre- recorded statements were included within a segment featuring Sharry Aiken, a professor of law at Queen's University and past president of the Canadian Council of Refugees. After an opening question and response from Ms. Aiken, the tape of Mr. Collacott's views was played. In it he argues that in recent years “thousands” of Tamil “terrorist sympathizers” have been allowed to enter Canada and that the system needed to be overhauled in order to screen out potential terrorists.

Mr. Collacott was not questioned. The segment returned to Ms. Aiken who was, I think it fair to say, dismissive of Mr. Collacott's views. I should also note that her view that terrorists would not arrive by boat but would travel “first class” was not questioned or challenged either.

As a listener, it would have been useful to hear a person of Professor Aiken's background and knowledge discuss the issue with Mr. Collacott, or someone else of similar viewpoint. As it stood, a contrary opinion was, in effect, dropped in and then dismissed.

Ms. Tremonti, throughout, performed to her usual high standard, questioning and probing where appropriate and possible. However, the structure of the last segment did not really allow her to bring as much context to bear as would have been helpful to a listener.

The preceding segments of personal narration and reliable history provided the perfect background for a solid and challenging discussion of the framework of refugee vetting. The way the segment was constructed prevented that from happening.

Conclusion

An intelligent and well presented menu of items about the experience of potential refugees by ship was undermined by the absence of genuine debate over future policy that seemed to be called for after the effective presentation of background material. The presence of some countervailing views saves the item from being in violation of policy, particularly in light of the producer's statement that they would be returning to the subject.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman