A Universal Language

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant had concerns about the documentary A Universal Language.

While there was no violation of policy, CBC should have included information about the funding of the comedy tour that was the subject of the documentary.

Complaint from Thomas Woodley, President, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East

COMPLAINT

Please find the review of your complaint about the documentary A Universal Language which ran on CBC’s digital documentary channel on April 18, 2013.

On behalf of your organization, Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, you began writing to express your concerns about this production in June 2012, which is when it became widely known the film would be made and aired on CBC’s digital documentary channel. The production documents a tour, spearheaded and organized by Yuk Yuk’s founder and CEO, Mark Breslin, of six Canadian comics performing and travelling in Israel. They performed in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and East Jerusalem, an area annexed by the Israelis, but internationally recognized as occupied territory.

You were very concerned because the comedy tour was funded and facilitated by a Canadian based lobby group, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

You were also concerned about statements Mr. Breslin had made in various print interviews about the tour, in the Canadian Jewish News and in some Israeli papers. Although the documentary was not yet made, you were concerned about how the encounter in East Jerusalem would be characterized and wanted to ensure that there were balancing perspectives. At a minimum, given CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, you wanted assurances that the film would acknowledge the funding source for the comedy tour. You also questioned the funding of the film itself and wondered if it would not violate the policy on point of view documentaries.2

In March of this year you wrote again, elaborating on your concerns that the film would present a biased view of events in the Middle East. You felt the bias would violate the “CBC Television Manual for Program Standards and Practices with regard to Opinions on Controversial Matters Expressed on Entertainment programs.” The line between information and entertainment programs is becoming increasingly blurred. The Corporation has no wish to arbitrarily restrict the evolution of program formats but it expects that where entertainment programs deal with areas of controversy or opinion, the Corporation's Journalistic Standards and Policies on balance will apply.

This refers to programs where guests are invited to comment on current political or social questions or when their comments on controversial matters are unsolicited.

Producers and hosts are expected to ensure that programs of this type do not enter into controversial areas unless it is done within a planned format.

You felt that this documentary, given the public statements of one of the principals featured in it, was a point of view documentary. Furthermore, CBC has criteria for airing point of view documentaries and you felt this work was disqualified under those criteria. You wrote: “While CJPME is not aware of the funding source for the production of the documentary itself (Is the CBC aware of its funding source?), it is a fact that the comedy tour which is the subject of ‘A Universal Language’ was proposed by the Government of Israel, financed by the advocacy group Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, co-sponsored by the Government of Israel, and undertaken by the tour’s leader with the express purpose of using his particular skills as a comedian and an entertainment entrepreneur to help Israel.” Here is what CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices says about Point of View documentaries:

From time to time, we air documentaries created from a single perspective.

We air these point of view documentaries for some of the following reasons:

1) There is a compelling first person narrative that provides insight into an issue or perspective.

2) The creator has special knowledge, expertise or a body of work that has artistic merit, and/or is recognized as an expert in a field.

3) There is a compelling argument, well presented, for a single point of view that provides insight into a controversial subject and may provoke public debate.

4) The production is not financed by an advocacy group, lobby group or government agency.

We label point of view documentaries as such when they are aired.

We ensure balance over time by publishing other perspectives and opinions on the same subject in other programs, program segments or platforms. When the subject is highly controversial, we consider scheduling additional programming with alternate opinions, in an appropriate time frame.

When Bruce Cowley, Creative Head, Digital Channels, Commissioned and Scripted Programming, acknowledged your concerns and told you the documentary would be aired, you responded: “Be advised we continue to object to CBC broadcasting ‘A Universal Language’

because it does not conform to CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices with regard to Point of View Documentaries. Breslin’s own words suggest that it’s a public relations infomercial, not a documentary.” At this point, about two weeks before the scheduled air date, you also asked me to intervene. I explained that this office is independent of programmers and does not have a say over programming decisions, and invited you to share your concerns once you had seen the production.

After “A Universal Language” aired, you asked me to review the matter: “A comedy tour proposed by the Government of Israel and financed by the advocacy group Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs clearly fits within the prohibition intended by subsection 4 of the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices with regard to Point of View Documentaries. A documentary whose sole subject is this comedy tour should not have been allowed to pass, even it if arranged to have the production of the documentary itself funded by other sources.”

You also objected to the performance in East Jerusalem, designed, you felt, to be provocative because one of the comedians begins his performance by saying, “We’re having such an incredible time here in Israel.” You felt this was deliberate and when the audience reacted negatively, you think this was portrayed in a negative light and needed context and explanation.

Since you and Mr. Cowley had already corresponded, this went right to the review process.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

In his response to your first inquiries in March 2012, Bruce Cowley explained it was premature to reply as the work was still in production: “If I understand your letter correctly, you are concerned the planned documentary will be unfair or take a partisan position in the Middle East conflict. As a result, you ask that it include what you see as certain ‘key facts’ and ‘primary source material’, in part at least taken from Israeli and Canadian newspaper stories.”

When you wrote to elaborate and reiterate your concerns, especially concerning the funding of the trip, Mr. Cowley informed you: “While the film does follow people on a trip that may have been financed by interested parties, the film-maker was independent of those ties and the film was not funded at all by third party interests. Further CBC has strong editorial and creative leadership to ensure that the content is appropriate to the assignment and that it is fair and balanced, bearing in mind that the film is but one small part of CBC’s significant coverage of Middle East issues.”

REVIEW

The documentary production A Universal Language follows Mark Breslin and six Canadian comics as they travel and perform in Israel at locations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. The film combines a glimpse at some of the most recognized and iconic spots in Israel, as the troupe moves around the country. Its focus is a series of performances and the reactions of the local audiences, as well as the perspective of local comedians. The film also explores the reactions of this disparate group of Canadian performers, which specializes in a kind of edgy, often graphic and obscene brand of comedy. They come up against cultural differences and struggle to connect to their audiences. They talk about the impact the experience of being in Israel has on them personally, including the performance in East Jerusalem. As portrayed in the documentary, one of the comedians opens the show by saying,

“We’re having an absolutely incredible time here in Israel.” The tension is palpable. The performer, uncomfortable and trying to move along, adds, “I was hoping this show would start off as awkward as possible and I think I accomplished that.” One table of guests walks out, and the show continues. It also includes a Palestinian comic who makes pointed jokes about occupation.

Nothing in the Middle East exists in a vacuum, and it is all fraught and, I suppose, ultimately political, and that is something perhaps the performers learn. But to my eyes, after several viewings, this sequence can be taken at face value. The performer was woefully ignorant and unwittingly caused offence. Another comedian tries out a joke which relies on a pun in Hebrew, which also falls flat.

This was not an exploration of the issues around occupation requiring positions from each side.

I do not agree with your view that “...this is clearly a political statement constituting a premeditated violation of CBC Television policy…” Elsewhere in the documentary, as the group discusses what was an uncomfortable and embarrassing experience, one of the performers says “I was at that show that we did in East Jerusalem and that was kind of weird because I thought it was, I was ignorant, I didn’t read anything about Israel before I came and I really thought it was part of Israel and I found out it is supposedly considered Palestine. And that was an honest mistake.”

The results in the other venues are mixed as well. The troupe fares slightly better in their first performance in Jerusalem, which also shows guests walking out and stony faced reaction to the humour. Quite a lot of the film is taken up with the comics understanding the boundaries for their brand of humour, and local comedians both explaining and taking comfort from the iconoclastic approach of the group. The origins of the comedy tour, as you noted, arose out of Breslin’s unhappiness about the controversy around the twinning of Toronto with Tel Aviv during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Festival organizers had decided to twin the cities and showcase some Israeli films. This stirred quite a lot of controversy. Some film makers withdrew their entries; a petition was circulated to protest the presence of the Israeli films. Other film makers accused the protesters of wanting to impose political censorship. You feel that it was important to explore in detail what actually happened at that Festival. The purpose of this documentary was to portray a comedy tour and the reference to the film festival explains the motivation for the tour. It is not reasonable to go into detail about what happened at the time, as it is not the subject of the documentary. Clearly Breslin did not approve – and the reasons he gives are because he does not believe in censorship in the arts: “Then I started to think what if I had an Israeli comedy festival here at Yuk Yuk’s – would these people want to boycott me? If anything is going to provoke change, if anything is going to promote dialogue, it’s going to be the artists of the country.” The documentary also acknowledges that he approached the Israeli Embassy and the project arose from that meeting.

Igal Hecht, the documentary film maker, says he heard about the plan and approached Breslin’s partner, Jeff Silverman. They agreed on the project. Both the film maker and production executives at CBC are clear that neither Yuk Yuk’s, the Israeli government nor CIJA funded the production of the film. The film maker and CBC had full creative control. Breslin and Silverman are listed as Executive Producers, but I am told that this was a pro forma acknowledgement.

In fairness to the film maker, the news release for the film states: “…with the help of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, he led a group of six Canadian comedians on an uncompromising and uncensored tour that aimed to bridge years of conflict through the common medium of comedy.” The funding for the tour was never hidden

and, as you point out, Breslin mentioned it in many interviews. While Breslin’s public statements in press interviews in Israel and in the Canadian Jewish News are background, he did not make the film. And the film needs to be judged against CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices by what it shows and says.

While there is no violation of policy, CBC management should have prominently included the information of the funding of the tour in the interests of full disclosure and transparency.

Audiences have come to expect a very high degree of openness. One of CBC’s core values is integrity. I believe providing this information would reinforce that value. With that information, a viewer would have an important bit of context to understand what is shown, and to make up his or her own mind how much influence it had on the outcome.

This documentary made no pretense to take on the big issues of the Middle East. Nor do I see a hidden agenda attempting to do so. Given that it ran on the Documentary Channel, given that its subject is a comedy tour, it is not reasonable for it to take on the bigger picture, or expect it to provide equivalence of all major points of view.

CBC policy about Opinion also says:

We ensure balance over time by publishing other perspectives and opinions on the same subject in other programs, program segments or platforms. When the subject is highly controversial, we consider scheduling additional programming with alternate opinions, in an appropriate time frame.

CBC programs don’t only publish other perspectives and opinions on the same subject – they also tell stories from different perspectives that illustrate that subject. The issues you raise –

the occupation of East Jerusalem, the TIFF controversy in 2009 for example – all have been and will continue to be treated widely and as appropriate. The reference to highly controversial subjects requiring additional programming does not pertain in this case: the conflicts in the Middle East might qualify, but the narrow focus and subject matter of this documentary does not.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman