The New Great Game

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the accuracy, fairness and impartiality of the second part of a three-part documentary that appeared on CBC Television's The National. I did not find a violation of journalistic policy.

On its editions October 13, 14 and 15, CBC Television's The National carried The New Great Game, a three-part documentary from filmmaker Alexandre Trudeau. The same documentary was shown on Radio-Canada.

In broad outline the documentary was described as “how the movement of oil is shaping a new world order.”

Trudeau traveled into the oil-rich Middle East and elsewhere as a freelance journalist for the documentary, which featured several interviews with political officials and scientists, economists, other scholars and commentators on the wide-ranging issues.

The public complaint focused on the references to Iran and Israel and the relationship between the two countries.

Trudeau said of the Iranian weapons and Israeli concerns: “While there is no proof that Iran has even made the decision to start a nuclear arms program, America's closest ally in the Persian Gulf also speaks of danger.”

On the Iran-Israel dynamic, Trudeau said: “Israel's nuclear arsenal would largely outgun whatever weapons Iran might acquire.”

Then: “For Israel, the threat is significant enough that the prime minister hints at attacking Iran on suspicion alone, with or without American approval.”

And: “The goal would be outright destruction of all Iranian nuclear capacity, civilian or otherwise. But from the vantage point of Iran, it is the one being threatened, not the one doing the threatening.”

At one point in the documentary, Trudeau says of Iran: “Lacking the ultimate deterrent of nuclear weapons, Iran only has conventional forces to defend itself against an attack. Iran could respond by firing missiles at Israel. Or it could target Hormuz. Mines and fast boats fitted with rockets could be deployed to sink oil tankers . . . The flow of oil would be stopped.”

Several minutes later in the documentary, after several interview subjects had been critical of the spectre of war with Iran, Trudeau observed: “The threat of war serves Israeli leaders to distract from their own Arab problems, to force Americans into a harder stance. It serves the American leaders to remind the world of the country's might. It serves the Iranians to unite their population and win popular sympathies throughout the region.”

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, is executive director of HonestReporting Canada, an organization that scrutinizes Middle East coverage. Fegelman wrote October 29 specifically about the second part of the documentary and its characterization of Iran's nuclear program.

Fegelman said the documentary element “singled Israel out for exclusive opprobrium while downplaying the grievous threat that a nuclear Iran poses to the Jewish state, the U.S., and the world.”

He noted Iran's hostility to Israel and said Trudeau “seemed to be implying that Iran needs nuclear weapons only as a means to bolster its weak national security infrastructure.”

He also expressed concern about the documentary's financial support and editorial independence. Fegelman said the documentary's credits online indicated it had been produced in association with Iran's Press-TV, Al-Jazeera Arabic and the U.S.-based Media Education Foundation — groups he asserted were hostile to Israel. CBC had not properly disclosed the sources of funding as is common for point-of-view documentaries, he wrote.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Fegelman on November 20. She said Iran Press-TV “did not finance the film. It did not have control over its editorial content. Nor did it – as you imply it did – have any influence whatsoever on the documentary's perspective.”

Enkin said the documentary was produced in association with 12 broadcasters worldwide, with the Iranian one the smallest of them. “Press-TV did not buy a broadcast licence. It was licenced through barter in kind. Mr. Trudeau has said the Iranian broadcaster saw a rough cut of the documentary — well after the thesis had been established — and traded footage of Iranian naval exercises in the Persian Gulf for a broadcast licence. There was no financing, no editorial influence.”

Enkin said CBC did not present the documentary as a point-of-view presentation, which would have carried an audience alert, production credits and perhaps financing information. Rather, it was “reportage” from a freelance journalist.

Enkin said she strongly disagreed with the suggestion that the documentary featured a range of anti-Israel comment. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney were featured, as were historians Niall Ferguson, Gerald M. Steinberg and James C. Kraska.

“I appreciate that as a paid supporter of Israel and of a particular point of view, you might disagree with some of the views expressed in this documentary. However, I am sure you understand that there are those who hold equally valid views different than yours,” Enkin wrote.

“It is the CBC's responsibility to offer a range of views on matters of public interest and concern, and ensure that Canadians are given the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds on the important issues of the day. I believe we are doing that.”

Fegelman wrote November 30 to seek a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy calls for impartial, accurate, fair and balanced reporting. The policy states CBC News does not “promote any particular point of view” on matters of debate. It does not permit its staff to express opinions in its journalism — although they can reach conclusions based on expert analysis of information — and its policy on impartiality covers all its reportage.

It adds: “We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence.” That concept extends to the financing of its content.

CBC News can choose to present a point-of-view documentary when the creator has a special knowledge or expertise or when a particular argument might stimulate debate. When it chooses to do so, it clearly labels it and presents other views over a reasonable period. Such documentaries may not be financed by an advocacy or lobby group or government agency.

Conclusion

I agreed with CBC News that the report was not a point-of-view documentary. It was analytical in nature and featured proportionate information to support its observations and conclusions. As a result there was no need under its policy for an audience alert, production credits or financing information to be provided in the broadcast.

That being said, CBC policy calls for independence from financial and political influences to ensure impartiality.

The documentary, produced by longtime production house Mundovision World Network of Montreal, was financed through broadcasting licence fees in several countries. I am satisfied that freelance journalist and filmmaker Alexandre Trudeau was not editorially influenced by any distributor or broadcaster, including Iran's Press-TV, which bartered footage but had no creative or financial input. Trudeau was practically finished the documentary when access to the Iranian footage was secured.

The complainant expressed concern about the characterization of the Iran nuclear threat. In 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors rebuked Iran following an IAEA report that Iran had undertaken research and experiments that could be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. The controversy involving Iran's nuclear program concerns its failure to declare certain enrichment and reprocessing activities. While some argue these developments indicate a movement toward a weapons program, there has not been any “proof,” so Trudeau's statement in the documentary was not inaccurate.

On the issue of balance: I found a range of voices in the documentary. While some were critical of Israel, others spoke in its defence. It was to be expected that Israel's significant role in the region would be explored in a documentary of this nature, and I did not conclude it was disproportionately discussed or that the range of expert opinions were inappropriate to the subject matter. This satisfied CBC journalistic policy.

I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman