Impending flotilla into Gaza Strip

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

On June 27, 2011, CBC Television's The National presented a report by Alexandra Szacka on the impending flotilla into the Gaza Strip.

Szacka was aboard a Canadian-financed ship, the Tahrir, but the report made clear it was unable to divulge the ship's location or outward appearance until it sailed in the days ahead.

Szacka interviewed some of the 30 Canadians scheduled to participate in the flotilla in what she termed a “dangerous mission.” (Ultimately the ship was prevented from sailing by Greek authorities.)

Szacka noted there were no berths, no showers and only a small kitchen to accommodate the 50 onboard during the three-day trip across the Mediterranean Sea.

She interviewed Kevin Neish, who had participated a year earlier in a flotilla that was raided by Israeli commandos. Nine activists were killed and several wounded in the raids; there were several Israeli woundings in the incident.

Neish said he witnessed killings of people he knew aboard, but said it was important to return “because the job is not done” to open the Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade.

She also interviewed Mary Hughes-Thompson, who had participated in a 2008 flotilla that reached the Gaza. Hughes-Thompson said she couldn't “think of a better cause” to support, even if it meant dying in the process.

Dylan Penner, identified onscreen as representing a group called Independent Jewish Voices, said the ship was preparing to withstand armed attack.

Szacka said an Arab ship might now be joining the flotilla, a move that would make Israel even more nervous and the mission even more risky.

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, is the executive director of HonestReporting Canada, a watchdog on Middle East issues “dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the media.” He is a regular correspondent with CBC News and this Office. His organization's website critiques media coverage of the Middle East and encourages financial and other support for its efforts.

In this instance Fegelman wrote CBC News July 7 and directed it to one of his posts on the HonestReporting Canada website to learn the nature of his complaint.

“Her report was framed in such a way that viewers could only be sympathetic to the activists and the potential dangers that they may face in a possible confrontation with Israeli soldiers,” he wrote. “No Israeli perspective was given in this report, nor was there any relevant context about the reasons for the Israeli blockade of Gaza and nefarious agendas of these activists.”

Fegelman noted several reasons behind the blockade and its legal international framework.

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back November 22 and apologized for the time it had taken to respond.

She said Szacka had “unusual access” to the Tahrir and that it was “one aspect of a far larger story, but one that helped shed some light on those involved in the protest.”

She noted: “There are other relevant aspects to the story, of course, but it would be impractical to include questions about all of them (or all the information you included) in every story we do. As you well know, this was one of many stories CBC News carried about the flotilla. Those stories included a range of views, certainly including Israeli views and those closer to yours.”

Fegelman asked for a review November 29 and wanted to specifically understand if CBC News had provided countering views of “close to equal scope and length.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy calls for openness and respect of different perspectives and their representation “over a reasonable period of time.” It counsels weighing the public interest value of material featuring violent or unlawful organizations.

Conclusion

The concern the complainant seeks answered is whether The National provided “close to equal scope and length” the views defending the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip as it did to the flotilla seeking to breach it. In the circumstance of CBC journalistic policy, I don't consider this the appropriate question.

In any journalistic framework involving any instance of action, the reaction to it is often going to occupy a lesser position in the dynamic. To properly make the audience aware, a proportionately large time must be spent presenting the action to raise awareness. Thus a mathematical calculation of the allocation of time to each point of view is a faulty measure. Equality would almost certainly provide a false balance.

Rather, the test is whether the audience is made sufficiently aware of the context of the issue and whether there is an equitable treatment of differing views. These are subjective qualities to a great degree, more difficult to quantify, and journalistic policy at CBC and elsewhere offers a wide berth for their fulfillment.

CBC policy permits these perspectives to be provided across its platforms over a reasonable period, different than the complainant's assertion that this balance should be achieved within an individual program.

In this instance the report was limited in scope as to what motivated these Canadians to participate in the flotilla. Given that it was about a demonstration, its emphasis was bound to be on the ambitions of the protest and the achievements it seeks.

While the piece might have benefited from more background, CBC News did not violate its Journalistic Standards and Practices. It furnished several other stories across its platforms around that time to contextualize the flotilla and give voice to the reasons behind the blockade.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman