No matter who says it, CBC News is responsible for statements made on its airwaves.
The Office of the Ombudsman received several complaints about the coverage of a controversial art exhibit on Fredericton’s Radio One morning show, Information Morning Fredericton. Three complainants asked for a review. As their complaints were very similar, this review will address all three.
In April of this year, a local art gallery mounted a month long exhibit entitled “A Child’s View of Gaza.” The exhibit was co-sponsored by two organizations: Fredericton Palestine Solidarity and Jews For a Just Peace Fredericton. The gallery featured 26 drawings and 10 additional photos supplied by the organization Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East. The exhibit, which has appeared in about 30 locations across North America, features the art work of children who were living in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008-2009.
There has been controversy over the exhibit – both over the authenticity of the drawings, and on whether it is fair to exhibit one side of the conflict alone; but that is not the subject of this review. In fact, the Fredericton morning show had tried to present views for and against the exhibit, and it was the statement of the person supporting the exhibit that caused the complaints to this office.
The morning show coverage had two elements on the broadcast the day the art show opened: Host Terry Seguin read an email from a listener, written in response to an earlier interview with the president of the board of the gallery about the decision to go ahead with the exhibit after delaying the opening for a week. The email was in favor of the exhibit but did not express any view about the politics of the region, or the reasons for the controversy. The listener talked about the value of art as a means of expression for traumatized children.
After that, Seguin introduced the next segment of the coverage: “CBC’s Melissa Oakley spoke to people on both sides of the debate over whether to show the art work.” The segment had portions of two recorded interviews, one with someone against the exhibit, and the other with someone who supported the showing. The segment ended with Seguin soliciting further comment or opinion from the audience.
It was a statement in the recording of Tracy Glynn, a representative of the Fredericton Peace Coalition, and a supporter of the exhibit, that attracted the complaints from listeners. In putting the case for the exhibit she said:
“So we think it is really important that Canadians become educated. The exhibit depicts one of the most brutal events that happened in the history of Gaza with the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead which killed over a 1000 people in Gaza including 320 children. So this exhibit done by children who survived that air raid, use of chemical weapons, it depicts what they see happening in their lives. It depicts what happens as well as the aftermath.”
The complainants all objected to the reference to chemical weapons, and the fact that it went unchallenged. Writing directly to the head of news, Jennifer McGuire, Richard Blaquiere said: “….Tracy Glynn’s reference to Israeli use of chemical weapons on children in Gaza during a recent CBC Fredericton interview on the exhibit crossed the line. It is a lie designed to push her agenda that Israel is an evil political entity. She accused Israel of war crimes. No one at CBC caught it and damage has been done.”
Donald Lapowich and Marc Koplowitz also asked that there be a review. Their objections were the same. Koplowitz said the reference to chemical weapons was a “horrendous and scurrilous allegation.” Lapowich said, “Such irresponsible broadcasting obviously generated because of the Assad matters is atrocious, hideous and worthy of the greatest contempt.”
All three demanded a retraction and on air apology.
The General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, responded. She pointed out that the story was about the controversy around the exhibit itself, and that CBC Fredericton had run a number of stories about that, expressing a range of views. “This story was no exception: It contained three views. One woman pointed out the psychological benefits of artistic expression to children who had experienced war. A prominent local academic, Israel Unger, who had originally and publicly objected to the exhibition, articulated at some length his passionate view that it should not be displayed. Ms. Glynn followed briefly outlining her reasons for supporting the exhibition.”
Dealing specifically with the chemical weapons reference in Ms Glynn’s segment, she explained that Tracy Glynn was likely referring to the use of white phosphorus munitions in Gaza. “Its use attracted wide media coverage at the time. White phosphorus, of course, is an allotrope of the chemical element phosphorous and has been categorized both as an incendiary and chemical weapon.” She added that no one has ever suggested either side used any kind of nerve gases or weapons of mass destruction.
She went on to explain the latitude allowed interviewees and the responsibility that hosts and reporters have to challenge what they say. “What CBC journalists state as fact must be accurate and provable. However, it is clear that statements by interview subjects and those we ask to comment cannot be forced to meet the same test, although we do make an effort to ensure the honest opinions expressed on our programs are grounded in fact.” She felt the segment had achieved its goal of providing a range of views so that Canadians could make up their own minds “about the nature or quality of the views expressed.”
CBC news management defends the use of the clip that referred to chemical weapons on two grounds: One, that in a broad sense, white phosphorus can in fact be considered a chemical weapon. The other is that the interviewee was expressing her opinion and CBC provides a wide range of views so that the audience can consider and evaluate both the view and the quality of the information being conveyed.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international organization with 188 member states, provides a definition of these weapons:
The general and traditional definition of a chemical weapon is a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell.
The Convention defines chemical weapons much more generally. The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves.
The toxic chemicals that have been used as chemical weapons, or have been developed for use as chemical weapons, can be categorised as choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents. The most well known agents are as follows: choking agents—chlorine and phosgene, blister agents (or vesicants)—mustard and lewisite, blood agents—hydrogen cyanide, nerve agents—sarin, soman, VX.
It is not clear that white phosphorus, which is highly incendiary, actually does qualify. But it is almost beside the point. I think it would be safe to say that most people hearing the term “chemical weapon” do think of the nasty gases and nerve agents referred to in this brief explanation. While there was a lot of attention paid to the use of white phosphorus used by the Israelis, (although they announced they will no longer do so), the criticism centred around its highly incendiary nature and its use in densely populated areas.
On the Fredericton morning show, there was no context and no discussion of what was meant in this case. The format worked against it – the host was introducing a pre-packaged statement from Ms Glynn. In a live situation, he could have asked for an explanation or challenged the use of the term. But someone did record and prepare that statement for broadcast.
There are at least two CBC policies that are at play here. The commitment to Balance states:
We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.
On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.
At the end of the segment, the host solicited audience reactions to what had just been broadcast, and to the opening of the art exhibit itself. While no reaction to the show was forthcoming, the next week CBC management received several complaints. The program could have responded on air to those complaints and pointed out the concerns about using the term chemical weapons.
CBC programmers are given latitude on a “reasonable period of time” but it is widely understood that on highly controversial matters, there is more urgency in the need for a response. This was a questionable use of the term, and it did elicit audience response.
Ms McGuire explained that while journalists need to be accurate, there is more latitude when it comes to interview subjects. That certainly is the case – hearing what interviewees believe can be useful to help Canadians make up their mind about the point of view and trustworthiness of an individual. And it simply isn’t practical to be able to verify, especially in a live interview, every single fact. So there is some latitude, and it is reflected in the policy on Interviews.
Under “Responsibility and Accountability related to Interviews” it states:
CBC takes responsibility for the consequences of its decision to publish a person's statements in the context it chooses. When we present a person's statements in support of our reporting of facts, we ensure that the statements have been diligently checked. In the case of comments made by a person expressing an honest opinion, we ensure that the opinion is grounded in facts bearing on a matter of public interest.
The interviewee also takes responsibility for his or her statement. As a general rule, we offer the interviewee no immunity or protection from the consequences of publication of the statements we gather.
In this case, the statement was not in support of a statement of facts CBC journalists were reporting. This was a supporter of the exhibit being given a chance to present her views, which is perfectly acceptable. But while expressing that opinion, she stated something that had no context, and was certainly highly controversial. As Ms McGuire stated, no one has ever accused either side in the Middle East conflict of using gases or weapons of mass destruction. Without context, the audience likely would have thought they were hearing exactly that accusation. The policy says “CBC takes responsibility for the consequences of its decision to publish a person’s statement in the context it chooses.” In this case, CBC news did not live up to that responsibility.