Interview with flotilla participant

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This complaint arose from a June 24 segment on CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia about Israel and pending Canadian involvement in a Gaza Strip aid flotilla. The review found a policy violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On June 24, 2011, CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia program carried a 12-minute interview segment with Miles Howe, a recent Haligonian planning to participate in a flotilla sailing to Gaza to provide aid to Palestinians experiencing a blockade by Israel.

Howe was to board the Tahrir, the Canadian-organized ship in the flotilla. (A week later, the ship was not permitted to sail from Greece.)

Host Don Connolly started the interview by noting Howe was Jewish. Howe said he had lived on a kibbutz in 1999 when he was 20 and observed “inequalities” and “some of the inherent racism” against Palestinians while working in restaurants in Tel Aviv.

He related a personal anecdote about how an Arab was not permitted as a fellow worker to be visible at the restaurant or to stay in Howe's room at his hostel. He repeated “there's a very inherent racism” against Palestinians in Israel.

Howe said he was “tired of watching Judaism . . . being used as a justification for unspeakable crimes” and that he wanted to reclaim its reputation as an activist and journalist.

Connolly noted a recent CBC interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he defended Israeli measures as necessary in the circumstances. Howe said he hadn't seen the interview, that he considered watching Netanyahu as the equivalent of “drinking toxins,” and that “I just can't fathom what I consider to be lies.”

He asserted Israel bore responsibility for the conditions of the difficult situation it now confronts, but that Netanyahu's explanation does not suffice in reconciling “war crimes, murders, attacks, killing of civilians, (saying Israel was) doing what we have to do.”

He said Israel had used excessive force against a “largely unarmed” flotilla a year earlier. In a raid of the MV Mavi Marmara, nine activists were killed and several wounded, including several Israeli commandos. Howe said it was a “massacre in international waters” and a “bloodbath.”

(A United Nations report in July 2011 concluded the Israeli blockade was legal but that it had used excessive force in the raid. It criticized Turkey for not doing more to prevent the sailing. It also said there were serious questions about the conduct and true nature of the flotilla organizers.)

Howe said it was important that the medical aid get into the region and that people in the Gaza have the same rights as others.

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 complainant with this Office. His organization's website critiques media coverage of the Middle East and encourages financial and other support for its efforts.

Fegelman wrote CBC News on the day of the Howe segment to say he was permitted to make “baseless and inflammatory statements on air without any real critical challenge.”

Fegelman acknowledged that racism exists everywhere, including Israel and Canada, but said it was “outrageous” to make such a generalization about Israelis or to suggest state-sponsored racism. He said activists on the Mavi Marmara were armed with lethal, automatic weapons.

Fegelman also said CBC's online link to Howe's blog from the region was problematic and that CBC should make clear it neither endorsed nor approved of its content.

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

Enkin said Howe expressed his “gradual disillusionment with what he began to see as that country's racism,” why he disagrees with Israeli policy, and why he was taking part in the flotilla.

“This interview was not intended to set out opposing views, but to help listeners understand why one city resident felt so strongly about the issues that he was prepared to risk his life for them,” Enkin wrote. “I appreciate that you do not share Mr. Howe's views, but CBC does have an obligation to expose a wide range of views on controversial issues, including Mr. Howe's.”

Enkin noted that on July 6 the program interviewed Jon Goldberg, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council and the regional director for the Canadian Jewish Congress. “Mr. Goldberg had listened to the interview with Mr. Howe and expressed a rather different perspective.”

In that interview, Goldberg called it “a sad day” to see Canadian participation in a flotilla he termed a “provocative exercise by Hamas or Hamas' subsidiaries,” a reference to the political party ruling the Gaza Strip.

He said he had never heard of Howe locally and that he'd been in Halifax 65 years. “There's a number of anti-Israel, anti-anarchists, anti-American people in Halifax who consider themselves, call themselves, Jewish. They may or may not have been born Jewish, but that doesn't necessarily in my mind make them a part of our Jewish community.”

Goldberg asserted that the flotilla was deemed illegal under international law, unless authorities were able to inspect the ships at an Israeli port. He said Hamas “cannot be trusted” on such issues because it was in armed conflict with Israel.

Goldberg said recent reports indicated there was no shortage of food or medicine in Gaza. He called unemployment in Gaza “the fault of the Arab people” used as political pawns by anti- Israel “oligarchs.”

Throughout the interview, Connolly challenged Goldberg to support his assertions.

In seeking a review November 16, Fegelman said more context about the Middle East and the flotilla issues in the segment would have helped listeners of the Howe interview.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy calls for equitable treatment of perspectives, but it provides room for particular opinions to be expressed without opposing views in the same program segment.

“Our programs and platforms allow for the expression of a particular perspective or point of view. This content adds public understanding and debate on the issues of the day,” the policy says. “When presenting content (programs, programs segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.”

It counsels programmers to “avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

Conclusion

Hosts and producers know they must be alert, particularly in live interviews, to challenge questionable generalizations. Typically, producers prepare the host for any contentious views to permit aggressive questioning during the appearance.

In this instance the guest employed impressionistic anecdotes a dozen years old to support some harsh, blanket contemporary characterizations. His qualifications to do so could have been substantially questioned and his views immediately confronted to avoid violating journalistic policy.

Correctly, the program recognized that and two weeks later produced a more reasonable exchange with a more conventional line of inquiry. In doing so it met the test of journalistic policy for equitable treatment of controversial issues by presenting different perspectives.

When CBC News links to third-party online resources it can create a perception that it values that content if it does not provide some sort of disclaimer. In the alternative its best practice is to link to a range of resource perspectives.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman