Complaint from Mr. Shahen Mirakian, Chair, Armenian National Committee of Toronto
I am writing with regard to your complaint June 7, 2010, and request October 5, 2010, for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning an April 24, 2010, CBC News Network interview segment on Turkish-Armenian relations.
I want to thank you for your patience in dealing with this request. The Office is a small one with a large volume of work and, as I assume the role in the next few weeks, I am helping incumbent Ombudsman Vince Carlin deal with the substantial backlog.
The April 24 segment on the CBC News Network comprised an opening narration of a background on the issues and an interview by CBC News host Nil Koksal of Vahan Kololian, the chairman of the Mosaic Institute, and Demir Delan, a former president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations.
Significantly, the segment was broadcast on the day of remembrance for the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during and after World War I. April 24 was the day 250 intellectuals and community leaders were taken from their homes, the first major step in the tragedy Canada has recognized as a genocide through passage of a private member's bill in 2004.
The extent of the mass killing remains in dispute, but has been generally estimated at between one million and one and a half million people. Most historians and scholars have supported this view and characterized the killings as genocide.
Turkey has asserted that the losses were part of a war effort, has not conceded they were systematic destruction of a people, and has not accepted the term “genocide” to describe what happened. It advocates further scholarly study of the issue.
Relations between the two communities remain strained and the border remains closed in the absence of a common description of their shared history. Diplomatic efforts to normalize relations have faltered.
In her opening narration, Koksal noted the dispute between Turks and Armenians in how they characterize the mass killings and pointed out that more than 20 countries (including Canada) considered the campaign as genocide. She mentioned two Canadian incidents in the 1980s as signs of Armenian unrest with Turkey's refusal to acknowledge genocide and said the disputed event causes “anger and tension” to this day. While attempts had been made to create official protocols between the two governments, she noted that the Armenian Parliament had that week suspended their ratification.
In welcoming the guests, she said it was great to see both communities come together – it was unclear if she meant in the television studio or in the wider world. Koksal identified herself as the interview began as a Canadian of Turkish descent who grew up in the middle of the dispute and who had friends in both the Turkish and Armenian communities. She made no mention of her personal view – in particular, of her acceptance or rejection of the term “genocide” – and stated the focus of the segment was “how the two communities can move forward, at home and abroad.”
She asked five questions in the seven-and-a-half minute segment. They concerned:
- What can be done by the communities in the absence of a common acceptance of the term.
- Whether the focus should be on opening the border and not “going over” the debate on the term.
- What young people can do to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey.
- How concerning it was that harsh views were being passed down from generation to generation.
- How “can we go forward” without using the word genocide.
Kololian, whose institute plays a role in reconciling disputatious parties, was most prominent in the interview. Among other things, he said that:
- Dialogue was necessary even in the absence of an acceptance by Turks of a genocide he characterized as proven.
- Harsh feelings were being passed on to younger generations and he was passionately concerned about it.
- It was not possible to persuade Delan in the time they had on-air that the mass killings constituted genocide, but Kololian felt that eventually Turks will recognize the question of genocide.
- It was important to promote open borders.
Delan was less prominent in the interview, but he said that:
- Canada had missed an opportunity to build upon its role to arbitrate between Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
- It was not acceptable to present a position to Turkey to accept the term genocide and move on.
- Genocide had not been proven in a court of law or had been the basis of a consensus internationally.
- There was “no doubt” Turkey could not move ahead using the term, and that attempts at other dialogue with Armenia had been “stifled.”
In your complaint you asserted that Koksal's ethnicity as a Canadian of Turkish descent would “give rise to perceptions of partiality,” as articulated in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook. (This handbook has since been updated, but because those standards were in effect at the time of your complaint, they serve as the guide for this review.)
You further asserted that Koksal's statement about relations between Armenians and Turks was not supported. You argued that the framework of the discussion was flawed because there has “long ceased to be any debate about the historical reality of the Armenian genocide,” other than among the Turkish government or groups it supports.
Your complaint indicated genocide was “trivialized” in being reduced to a debate between two ethnic groups.
In response, Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, said the focus of the segment was not on the appropriateness of the term “genocide,” but on how the two communities could move forward.
She disputed your claim that there weren't hard feelings between Armenians and Turks. (Your complaint used the terms “conflict” and “hatred,” while Koksal used the terms “anger” and “tension” in the segment.) Enkin said the host's remarks were fair.
And she argued that your assertion of partiality by the host was unsupported by examples or evidence.
On that latter point, Enkin wrote that Koksal declared her background as the interview segment began so viewers could “make their own evaluation.” In instances where it was not possible to avoid the appearance of impartiality, she said, CBC expected its “journalists to be transparent and fully disclose what may be seen as potential bias or conflicts of interest.”
Enkin also noted that while Koksal was the host, she was also part of a wider production team for the CBC News Network segment.
In subsequent correspondence to the Office of the Ombudsman, you said CBC News should supply the identities of all its employees involved in the segment's production to contend with any perception of bias.
You further asserted that Koksal had been a speaker at a conference sponsored by the Council of Turkish Canadians, a lobby group you cited for its efforts to persuade government to reverse its policy on the characterization of the mass killings as a genocide.
The CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook in effect when the segment was broadcast intersected in a few ways with your complaint.
On the issue of credibility, the handbook called for “avoidance by both the organization and its journalists of associations or contacts which could reasonably give rise to perceptions of partiality. Any situation which could cause reasonable apprehension that a journalist or the organization is biased or under the influence of any pressure group, whether ideological, political, financial, social or cultural, must be avoided.”
The handbook continued: “In the engagement and assignment of persons working in information programs, the organization must be sensitive to their published views, their personal involvements and their associations and backgrounds in order to avoid any perception of bias or of susceptibility to undue influence in the execution of their professional responsibilities.
“In order to maintain their own credibility and that of the CBC, on-air personnel, as well as those who edit, produce or manage CBC programs, must avoid publicly identifying themselves in any way with partisan statements or actions on controversial matters.” The handbook said a journalistic organization “should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed.” It advocated nuance, depth and the capturing of dimensions as part of an approach of changing dynamics and weight of opinion.
CBC News has released new guidelines in recent weeks and they articulate variants on some issues while maintaining and enhancing the core principles.
On the issue of integrity: “We avoid putting ourselves in real or potential conflict of interest. This is essential to our credibility.” On impartiality: “Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.”
On conflict of interest: Employees “must carefully consider what organizations they are publicly associated with. They should be mindful that public statements, whether face-to-face or through social media, may create the impression of partisanship, or of advocacy for a cause.”
It goes on: “In particular, if an employee is asked to participate as a speaker, panelist or moderator for an outside group or professional association, approval is needed from editorial management. This includes unpaid as well as paid participation.”
The new guidelines also remind employees of overriding corporate policies. On the issue of conflict of interest, the corporate code of conduct stipulates that employees perform their duties and arrange their affairs to “prevent actual, apparent or potential conflicts of interest from arising.” It goes on: “Employees are expected to act in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny in all dealings related to the (CBC) or their responsibilities as employees.”
Sensitive topics obviously deserve the greatest care and handling by news organizations, and few issues are as challenging as this one for journalists and managers. The parties involved on these issues are strenuous, aggressive advocates of their positions and they tenaciously scrutinize media conduct as part of their effort to increase public support. Their efforts contribute generally to a greater understanding of policies and history and can compel more accountable journalism.
This complaint raises important questions on the approaches taken to produce this segment and how those approaches might have been seen in the eyes of the public. CBC News has established clear and strong principles. As a public broadcaster, it holds particular status with Canadians. It takes its role seriously.
To choose as a discussion framework “how” parties can move on from historical grievance is to assume there is no longer an “if” in looking past their fundamental disagreement. In making that step, it compelled sensitive handling and time for a more thorough talk. In this instance, the attempt to steer the conversation into a what-happens-next focus kept returning to a what-has-and-hasn't-happened reprise. Time allotted may have been inadequate to the ambitious task, but the discussion did not violate CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.
I agree with the executive editor of CBC News that the statement about lingering tension and anger between the Turkish and Armenian communities was fair comment. Similarly, there were no grounds for your assertions that the genocide was trivialized in the discussion or that the framework was flawed. The focus was not on the genocide but on how – or how difficult it would be – to move forward. Varying perspectives were presented accurately and fairly on live television within challenging time constraints in keeping with CBC standards and practices.
It is tacitly unfair ever to suggest that one's ethnicity serves reflexively to disqualify a journalist from conducting a fair discussion. Assertions of this sort unnecessarily cast aspersions. It does not, therefore, serve the public interest to pursue the call for background checks on the production team's ethnic origins.
It bears noting that the host had spoken months earlier at an event sponsored by an organization that has, as part of its mandate, a stated purpose of lobbying the federal government to back away from its 2004 recognition of the mass killings as genocide. (One of the panel participants also spoke at this event.)
Many journalists serve as role models in our communities and are called upon to participate in public events, most of them positive in generating goodwill and showcasing the intentions of their organizations to strengthen ties where they serve. But in view of policies, Koksal ought
to have sought managerial approval of the speaking invitation beforehand to permit CBC News to evaluate if her participation might raise concerns about impartiality. While the extent of her disclosure did not suffice in this instance, it is also important to note that nothing she did in the interview violated standards and practices.