Middle East peace talks

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Report about Middle East peace talks, August 2010

Complaint from Mike Fegelman, Executive Director, HonestReporting Canada

I am writing with regard to your complaint August 23, 2010, and request October 27, 2010, for a review of a CBC Radio report August 20, 2010, concerning the imminent resumption of Middle East peace talks.

Let me apologize for the time it has taken to review this matter. When I was appointed in November, I helped incumbent Ombudsman Vince Carlin start to tackle a substantial backlog before the conclusion of his term in December. The work on the backlog continues.

Since you submitted your complaint a new CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy has been issued. But because your complaint preceded its introduction, the former policy book applies to this review. I should add, though, that the revisions would not change my findings.


CBC Radio's World Report carried a report August 20, 2010, by correspondent Ben Knight of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It noted that Middle East peace talks were about to resume. Knight asserted that it was “fair to say there are not high hopes for this new round of peace talks,” that “neither side appears to be a willing participant” and that “both sides have been dragged back to the table by Washington.”

The report asserted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was being asked to make concessions on such issues as settlements, water rights, and the future of Jerusalem that his coalition government was “unlikely to accept.”

The reporter asserted that the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, was caught between pressure from the White House to participate in talks and “anger amongst Palestinians” that he would participate even though Jewish settlers continued to build in the occupied West Bank. The complainant wrote CBC News August 23, 2010, to assert that Israel was not an unwilling party to the resumption of talks. He asserted that Netanyahu had made two statements in the last year calling for talks without so-called “preconditions.”

The complainant said Palestinians would only participate if Israel met its preconditions, and he asserted CBC had “negatively and subjectively implied” that Israel was not a willing participant in talks.

The complainant also asked that freelance reports be properly introduced so listeners do not infer they are CBC staff journalists.

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote the complainant October 26, 2010, apologized for the delay in replying, and asserted that the report was accurate in its assessment of the reluctance of the participants.

She asserted that, while Netanyahu had offered in 2009 to talk to the Palestinians, he had identified conditions necessary for his participation, including that Jerusalem be the undivided capital of Israel, that there be no halt to building settlements, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” and that any Palestinian state be demilitarized and without control of its airspace.

She said it was a fair comment for Knight to assert neither party was a willing participant. He used his experience to make such a judgment.

The complainant asked for a review October 27, 2010. He asserted that Enkin had no evidence to support her assertions about Netanyahu's conditions. He said the Israeli government expected all of those issues would be dealt with in face-to-face negotiations. He asserted that the list of conditions Enkin articulated were simply a “core list” of issues that would be resolved through negotiations.

He asked whether the program had erred in not identifying Knight as an ABC correspondent, not a CBC reporter. He also asked if there was anything that could be done to expedite the process, given it had taken two months for CBC News to reply to his original letter.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time intersected with the complaint.

On the issue of accuracy, the policy called for “careful and thorough research” and “a disciplined use of language” in its reports. On integrity, it said the information must be “truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion.” On fairness, the policy said information must report or reflect “equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view” and deal “fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.”

The policy said CBC journalism must not only have breadth and range but “there must also be depth, the capturing of dimensions and nuances.”

Conclusion

In this review it is necessary to assess if the minute-long radio story met the tests of accuracy, integrity, fairness and quality expected under CBC policy. It is not to determine if the Israeli position was one of establishing preconditions for talks.

Much has been written about Benjamin Netanyahu's 2009 two-state speech, but the general conclusion was that it provided recognition for a demilitarized Palestinian state on the condition Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Analysts generally concluded the speech created a new set of positions that would make it more difficult to bring the parties together. He further stated that Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem was indisputable, a move criticized by the Palestinian negotiator.

Knight was reporting what had been evident for some time: political roadblocks to the peace talks existed for both parties, their participation would not come easily, and the United States had spent considerable effort coaxing them to the table. The public record from that time is replete with this tone of coverage. His choice of language to describe the matter, and his exercise of judgment based on his experience, was conduct well within CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

The matter of how Knight was identified is a news management matter. I could find no breach of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in the way he was identified.

Knight has been one of several journalists employed by allied news services used by CBC, particularly in regions of the world where seven-day-a-week staffing is not practical or economically feasible. This is a common practice in many major organizations.

It is true that some organizations mask their commitment by using resources over which they have no control and claiming them to be their own. Optimally it is necessary to identify content originating with other providers when it was published or broadcast under their brand. But this wasn't the case. Knight created a story distinctly for CBC. In that instance, CBC is bearing responsibility for the content. Identification of the journalist as a staff member is not, in this case, a material matter and failing to note he was not a CBC staff member did not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On the matter of the duration of the complaint process, it is a fair point. CBC News has taken steps to improve its response time and it is not lost on this Office, either, that every effort needs to be made to review disputes swiftly.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman