Interview about Komagata Maru

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant asserted that an interview on CBC.ca and CBC Radio's North by Northwest was imbalanced and biased. While there was no violation of policy, I concluded there was room for improvement.

On July 19, 2012, CBC Radio's North by Northwest featured an interview on its website with Ali Kazimi, author of Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru, An Illustrated History.

In 1914, the ship Komagata Maru set sail for Vancouver on a passage from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama with 376 passengers seeking asylum from India, including 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus, all of them British subjects. The ship was not permitted to dock and forced to leave after two months off the coast of Vancouver. Of the passengers, 20 were permitted into Canada.

Some 356 were refused entry on the basis of Canadian policy that prohibited arrival from other than an uninterrupted route from one's originating country. In effect, critics said, this was a provision directed at residents of India because that country's ships typically required fuel stopovers in other countries en route to Canada.

Host Sheryl MacKay interviewed Kazimi for more than a half-hour and the exchange was posted on the program's website. A 13-minute version appeared July 22 on the CBC Radio program.

Kazimi discussed what drew him to the project, what the episode of the Komagata Maru informed, and what contemporary comparisons exist in the treatment of immigrants. From his first encounter in Canada with immigration officers, he said, he has been intrigued with the power of the “gatekeepers.”

Kazimi said Canada has a history of overreacting to the arrival of ships bearing those from other countries, and the paths of Canada and India connected with the Komagata Maru incident.

The issue of race was central to this history and it continues to make Canadians uncomfortable, he asserted. Kazimi said Canada was in its earliest times, by policy, a white settlement, and this fact needs to be acknowledged.

Kazimi recounted the “blowback” within the British Empire in the Punjab for white-settlement policy and the Empire's decision not to risk losing India through such an approach. Kazimi said Canada had to devise its own policy to defy British direction.

Canada still has reluctance and discomfort in discussing the issues surrounding race, he told the program.

MacKay said she was ashamed and angry in reading the book. Kazimi responded that the ship incident informs our history but is still unknown. He said it's important for Canadians to look at themselves and recognize the need for a real conversation on immigration.

Kazimi said he does not aim to induce guilt or shame and it is important to get beyond that. The interview concluded with Kazimi asserting his “unease” about the current situation that provides more discretionary power to the federal immigration minister. “Discretion is not transparent as process,” he said, noting it was something to “keep a close eye on.”

MacKay said the book deserved to be read across Canada and to be in classrooms.

The complainant, Dan Murray, first wrote the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission about the matter shortly after the program aired.

CBC is not a member of CBSC. CRTC deemed his correspondence a journalistic matter, and as such it was a matter for handling by CBC. The exchange of correspondence with CBC was forwarded to the Office of the Ombudsman

Murray wrote that the program “made absolutely no attempt to present any counterpoint” to Kazimi.

He criticized the absence of context involving the history behind elements of the interview, in particular the backdrop of the policy on continuous travel to Canada.

He said the program host was “like most of her colleagues at CBC Radio Vancouver: a propagandist for the immigration lobby.” He said she disparaged the federal immigration minister's policies and he complained that Mackay suggested every Canadian classroom should have a copy of the book.

Laura Palmer, the executive producer for current affairs at CBC Radio Vancouver, wrote Murray on September 10. She said CBC hosts are expected to conduct “engaging, informative and, as appropriate, challenging” interviews to ensure different perspectives are presented.

She said the focus of the interview was on the ship and not on the historical backdrop, so some of Murray's complaints about the lack of background were not germane.

“That said,” Palmer wrote, “we agree that there may have been areas of more informed inquiry throughout the interview, where a deeper exploration of the times, the thinking and the reasons for the government of the day's behaviour might have provided better understanding for all our listeners.”

Palmer said MacKay did not intend to disparage the federal minister and that CBC had reviewed the program with this criticism in mind.

She added: “Sheryl may have gone too far in suggesting this specific book be in classrooms across the country. But the sentiment that B.C. students should learn about this significant and relevant aspect of B.C. history in our schools is not objectionable.”

Murray wrote again November 11 and asked for a review by this Office.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for even-handed, respectful treatment of individuals and for a range of perspectives to be provided over a reasonable period. The policy calls for its journalists to learn, understand and present clear, accurate information.

CONCLUSION

In repeated listening, it was clear the host's mission was to exhibit the book rather than debate its contents or the author's beliefs. This is not unusual in long-form interviews, which often take shape as softer conversations to offer a more comfortable presentation of someone's views. As journalism they are better sessions of exposition than accountability.

On matters of some controversy or public policy, though, the CBC standards indicate a preference for hosts to engage their guests. When guests appear alone, it is left to the host to ensure that any other significant perspectives form part of the line of inquiry. When they don't, the segments don't necessary violate policy as much as they fail to optimally meet it.

In this instance CBC acknowledged the host could have done more to challenge the guest's views and to provide greater historical insight. The complainant raised some legitimate points that suggested the audience would have benefited from a deeper understanding of the earlier and current policy contexts and from challenges to his views. Even so, I could not find an inaccuracy in the content.

The journalistic policy has latitude to permit CBC an opportunity to balance the guest's views with other segments across its platforms within a reasonable period. As a result, a segment of this sort is not a violation, although I agreed with CBC there was room for improvement.

Additionally, CBC acknowledged that the host might have gone too far in suggesting classrooms study or have copies of the author's book. I agree that caution has to be exercised in these instances because statements of that nature could be inferred as partiality on a topic. Again, while it was not a violation of policy, the host's appreciation of the book might have been differently expressed.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman