Television report on Syrian strife

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant asserted that a CBC Television report on The National suggested a connection between Israeli geopolitics and international non-intervention in Syrian strife. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On June 12, 2012, CBC Television’s The National presented a report on the ongoing civil strife in Syria, including the diplomatic challenges the conflict presented for western countries, particularly the United States.

Neil Macdonald, the Senior Washington Correspondent for CBCNews, examined the state of the conflict and why there had not been international intervention.

The National’s host, Peter Mansbridge, said “considerable time” had been spent by CBC News debating what to show in the broadcast and he warned that the “images are awful.” Macdonald indicated an “endless gallery” of disturbing images was coming from the country, including those of mutilated and dead children. He said the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had taken a “ghastly interest in children.” A United Nations representative in the report asserted that children were being used as human shields.

Macdonald noted that Syria was also depending on Russia for support. The report showed U.S.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern that Russia might be supplying military helicopters to the regime, a move she said would intensify the conflict.

Macdonald said Syrians were alone in their battle with the government and there were “several answers” why. He then featured Clinton in the report saying “there is no doubt” the Assad regime “needs to go” but that it was important to “create a transition that gives at least some possible reassurance to those who fear what comes next.” Macdonald said Clinton “pointed specifically to Israel. She said what comes next matters drastically to that country.” Macdonald noted that the Israeli-Syrian border had been quiet for 40 years but that might not continue were Assad replaced with a “Sunni Muslim regime with a fundamentalist tinge.”2 The complainant, Alexander Budlovsky, said the report suggested Israel was to blame for the continuing bloodshed in Syria and was the “bad guy” in the conflict because the West was citing Israel’s interests in not intervening. He called this an “obscene insinuation.” Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back July 19 to say Macdonald’s report was simply echoing what Clinton had said that day and earlier told Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Macdonald “did not portray Israel as the ‘bad guy,’” Enkin wrote.

“With a shared and disputed border between them, what happens in Syria is a very real concern to Israel, a concern Israeli government spokesmen have voiced repeatedly. But in this instance, the connection was made by Ms. Clinton,” she added.

Budlovsky wrote August 10 and said he was concerned about “innuendo” in the report that linked Israel’s interests to the slaughter of Syrian civilians. He wrote August 12 to ask for a review and said the report asserted “Israel is the puppet master behind the American inaction in Syria and that if Israel were not in the way, the U.S. would likely do more to support the rebels.” CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for impartial, even-handed treatment of individuals. The policy calls for respectful journalism that does not “feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt” and a range of views on issues across its platforms over a reasonable period.

Conclusion

The report conveyed the delicate and sometimes beguiling rationale of diplomacy in tense situations. Given the expectation that the United States would be a principal in international intervention —either on its own, as a significant player in NATO, or as part of the United Nations — it was newsworthy to hear from its Secretary of State on the context of its approach.

Several media reported on her public remarks and her discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres on the issue.

I can understand the complainant’s concern that Israel not be identified as a culpritfor continued bloodshed, but I did not conclude that was the case. Rather, I found that the report simply reflected Hillary Clinton’s argument of the importance of minimizing harm by not intervening without attention to the possible consequences —clearly among them, a rekindling of Israeli-Syrian conflict.

While the report might have benefited from a more extensive itemizing of diplomatic factors — it would have demonstrated that Israeli-Syrian issues were only part of the strategic considerations —I did not infer any “innuendo” or “insinuation” that might give rise to concerns about a breach of journalistic policy. The Clinton-Peres discussions and her public 3 remarks that day put the focus on Israel, so the report was appropriate, timely, analytically sound, and within CBC policy.

I should note that, while the complaint did not identify a concern about the disturbing imagery, CBC took strong measures to alert the audience about them, in keeping with its policy. That was a commendable approach.

There was no violation of Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman