Iranian nuclear program

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


This review involves a analysis November 21 on the Iranian nuclear program following a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the independent intergovernmental forum on nuclear energy. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On November 21, 2011, posted an analysis about Iran's nuclear program titled ANALYSIS: Iran really is on nuclear brink, written by Janet Davison with files from The Associated Press news agency.

The item followed a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the intergovernmental forum created by and independent of the United Nations on the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy. Its report earlier that month examined Security Council resolutions involving Iran in connection with the implementation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The analysis noted how there had long been international speculation that there was more than “peaceful, civilian purposes” behind Iran's nuclear program. It cited the IAEA report as the “strongest signal yet that Iran wants to develop a nuclear arsenal.” Davison said the report says Iran “is, indeed, on the brink of developing a nuclear warhead.”

Davison quoted two Canadian academics in the analysis, political scientist and professor Aurel Braun of University of Toronto and international security expert and political studies associate professor Christian Leuprecht of Queen's University.

Braun indicated that the IAEA had previously “bent over backwards to provide excuses for Iran,” so its report had to be appreciated. Braun said the IAEA was not eager to draw this conclusion, but “I think the accumulation of evidence has been overwhelming.”

Leuprecht said the picture was coming together of a country with the elements of a weapons program and that “it would appear the Iranians are getting closer to where they're looking to be.”

Leuprecht noted that the West had, in fact, helped Iran get started. Even though it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Leuprecht said there have been indications of a covert program of development. He noted a recent computer worm, likely launched by the United States or Israel, had hobbled centrifuges at an Iranian uranium facility and set the program back some months.

Davison said many countries want to use the IAEA report to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. Israel and other countries have not ruled out military intervention, their fears being that a nuclear-armed Iran could launch an arms race in the region and particularly threaten Israel.

Braun said sanctions would be effective if there were a united international effort. Leuprecht said Iran's economy was in shambles and the country was having trouble borrowing on international markets because of existing sanctions. Braun said Canada could play an important leadership role on this matter.

The complainant, Terry Greenberg, wrote November 30 that the piece was “unbalanced” and had “all the hallmarks of pure propaganda” and that its pro-war tone left out important material. Greenberg took issue with the use of the word “really” in the headline.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back December 12. She noted the IAEA report for the first time indicated Iran was conducting secretive experiments to build a weapons program.

Enkin said Braun and Leuprecht held “two points of view on a very complex and emotionally charged issue. They are not the only ones. It is CBC's mandate, part of its obligation under the federal Broadcasting Act, to carry different points of view on controversial matters like this one. It is a concept that lies at the heart of the notion of fairness in journalism. Of course, it is not reasonable or even desirable to carry all points of view or all the information available in one story, but that does not mean the story is biased or ‘unbalanced.'”

Enkin said that “other stories, different points of view and additional information might have been covered in previous stories or may well be picked up in future ones. CBC has broadcast hours of thoughtful, thorough and innovative coverage that has offered a range of opinions” to help Canadians make up their minds about the issue.

Greenberg wrote back and identified several issues. He said Braun had been a frequent and harsh critic of Iran, even though Greenberg said it was not Braun's academic area of expertise, and that this article was akin to the unsubstantiated fears raised in advance of the military attack on Iraq nearly a decade ago.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for fair treatment of issues “by reflecting a wide range of subject matter and views.”

It notes: “On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”

CBC says it achieves balance “by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion. It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person's perspective.”


The complainant said it was exaggerated to suggest the report found Iran was “on the brink” of developing a nuclear warhead. But I concluded the analysis fairly reflected the IAEA report, which identified an extensive range of problematic activities in Iran's rapidly developing nuclear program. As a result, it was fair to express a concerned tone throughout the analysis.

The report was strongly worded in many respects. The agency said it had “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions” in Iran's nuclear program, that it had information Iran “has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” It urged Iran to address a list of concerns arising from information provided to the agency “without delay.”

An annex of the report identified “nuclear explosive development indicators,” including the structure of its program management, procurement activities, nuclear material acquisition, components for an explosive device, detonator development, initiation of high explosives and associated experiments, hydrodynamic experiments, modeling and calculations, a neutron initiator, testing, integration into a missile delivery vehicle, and fuzing, arming and firing.

The tone of the report was quite clear: IAEA had information that Iran could not refute pointing to breaches of its non-proliferation promises, and Iran's program included distinct militaristic characteristics giving rise to international concerns about an impending conflict. I concluded the headline and text were not unfairly phrased.

The two academics asked for comment had strong political science qualifications. Braun has extensively written on Middle East issues in his career and Leuprecht is a recognized authority on conflict. The analysis might have been helped by more background of the two academics' expertise, but there was no violation of policy that permits CBC to feature a range of perspectives over a reasonable period and not necessarily within one article.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman