Spying on Brazil

On The Lang & O’Leary exchange Amanda Lang and her guest co-host Bruce Sellery talked about reports of Canada spying on the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy. The tone was humorous although the point that it was serious if true was made. Humour is subjective, and the complainant, Ricardo Barros, thought it wasn’t at all amusing. He said Mr. Sellery was disdainful and disrespectful of Brazil in his remarks. I did not at all share that interpretation of the exchange.

COMPLAINT

While watching the October 7th edition of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, you were offended by the tone used by a guest host, Bruce Sellery, during a conversation he and Amanda Lang had about reports of a Canadian spy agency targeting the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy.

You felt that Mr. Sellery was mocking Brazil, implying there would be no reason for Canada to do so. You took his comment that he wanted to talk about this story for half an hour as further evidence he was being sarcastic and implying that Brazil was not worthy of the efforts, that nothing could be gained by snooping on the activities of a Brazilian ministry:

I am utterly surprised with CBC's male commentator during your show on October 7th in regards to Canadian spying allegations in Brazil..... ‘From all countries, I am surprised Brazil’... with a condescending tone of voice. Then he sarcastically stated: I want to comment on this for 30 minutes", passive aggressively suggesting this subject matter has not importance.”

You noted that Brazil is a strong economy and has significant trade and investment with Canada, and should not be mocked.

In early October, a program on Brazilian television reported that a Canadian spy agency, Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), was able to map email traffic and phone calls in and out of the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy. The story was based on material leaked by Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked a huge volume of documents which revealed electronic eavesdropping by many countries. The CSEC gathered metadata; it is unclear whether emails were actually read. The Brazilian government reacted angrily. In the course of their discussion about the incident, Amanda Lang read (in translation) a tweet from Brazilian president Dilma Roussef:

This is unacceptable between countries that are supposed to be partners. We repudiate cyber warfare.”

Ms. Lang and Mr. Sellery briefly discussed the incident as one of five stories that comprised the opening feature of the show. The feature, “Big 5,” is a daily digest of the top stories of the day. They are chosen for their news value and for what the hosts can add to them. The format of the segment enables the hosts to provide some analysis to the stories, and to interact in a lively and informal fashion.

You cited Ms. Lang’s response to Mr. Sellery’s question, “Do you like this story?” – to which she replied, “I like all the stories. I pick them,” as proof that she felt Mr. Sellery was being disrespectful about Brazil. You felt an apology was in order: “Brazilians are of kind and respectful nature and don't deserve to hear condescending and sarcastic allusions about Brazil as a nation.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Robert Lack, said he was sorry you were offended by Mr. Sellery’s comments. He assured you that no such condescension or sarcasm was intended, nor did he see or hear any evidence of it. You had quoted Mr. Sellery as saying “From all countries, I am surprised Brazil” as evidence of his mockery. Mr. Lack explained that was not exactly what he said:

What Mr. Sellery actually said during the segment was this: I cant believe this…. the idea that Canadians would be spying on the Brazilian Mines and Energy.” As I watched, I took this to mean that Mr. Sellery was surprised that Canada would be spying on anybody – not that he felt Brazil was not worthy of spying on. I asked Mr. Sellery about this and he confirmed that was what he meant.”

He added that Mr. Sellery was “horrified that anybody had interpreted his comments as negative toward Brazil.” He added that he actually meant what he said when he commented that he wanted to continue talking about the story. As Mr. Lack explained to you:

“…he DID love the story when compared to the other stories we did that day. He had explained why earlier in the segment when he said: "I like this one (story) because it makes it seem like James Bond could actually be Canadian." He felt it was a fun and exciting topic that touched on the stuff of movies, at least more so than the other topics he and Ms. Lang talked about that day.”

REVIEW

The tone and pace of the discussion between Ms. Lang and Mr. Sellery was high energy and somewhat irreverent. Aside from any information imparted, there was a significant amount of banter between the two as they discussed the report on the targeting of a Brazilian Ministry by Communications Security Establishment Canada. While the allegations are serious ones, a point Ms. Lang made, Mr. Sellery found humour in the fact that Canada spies at all. His emphasis, presumably with some degree of irony, is that it gave Canada “cred, street cred” because we actually were caught up in the Snowden spying revelations.

Humour is subjective and, without context, can be open to interpretation. You heard it as a sarcastic commentary on Brazil. If you read the transcript, it appears that if Mr. Sellery is being condescending about any country it would be Canada. He is playing off the image of Canada as bland and low key. For example, he didn’t say, as you remembered “from all countries, I am surprised Brazil.” And Mr. Lack didn’t get it quite accurately either. Here is the exchange, including Ms. Lang’s introduction:

AL: The Snowden papers continue to ruffle feathers. Reports now suggest OUR spy agency was actually spying on a Brazilian agency, in this case the Ministry of Mines and Energy which in this case has caused some consternation there.

BS: I just can’t believe it. Like I read this and I think I CANNOT believe this.

AL: Which part?

BS: The part that says Canadians would be spying on the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy.

AL: Well we know that spying is going on. We have a spy agency.

BS: Here’s why I like the story. I like that it raises our cred , our street cred. I like this story. The stories I don’t like I kind of yawn a bit and they are not fun to chat about . . . I like this one because it makes us seem like James Bond could actually be Canadian.

AL: Like we’re kind of tough. We’re tougher than you might think.

BS: Tough but cool.

I capitalized certain words to show emphasis. When Ms. Lang asks Mr. Sellery what it is that he doesn’t believe he replies “that Canadians would be spying on the Brazilian ministry,” and then goes on to talk about James Bond and Canada’s cred. You are concerned he is showing disrespect to Brazil. Taking the whole exchange, it is just as easy to argue that the joke is on Canada. And since Mr. Sellery has clearly stated he was not referring to Brazil in a disrespectful manner, there is no reason not to take him at his word, especially since his words do not explicitly or even implicitly suggest Brazil is not worthy of spying on.

The rest of the transcript, including Mr. Sellery’s comments about loving the story, puts the remarks in context. He doesn’t take the story very seriously on the face of it, but there is no phrase that leads me to conclude he was disdainful of Brazil. And Ms. Lang does insert enough context so that viewers will understand the issues involved. She mentions Brazil’s status, not in response to her co-host saying anything to the contrary, but because it was important information to understand the impact of the incident:

AL: This has damaged our relations with one of the most dynamic economies on the planet. So if it is true, that’s a pretty big oops. If our spy agency was spying on . . . first of all were they spying on other ministries, or just that one, and what was it about? Is it about our corporate interests there . . . what is the actual national security reason to be spying on that agency? Or do we just spy. Does everyone just spy on everything.

BS: Maybe everyone just spies on everyone.

AL: See I am not down with that.

BS: Check your phone.

AL: That’s not okay.

BS: Did you like that story?

AL: I like all the stories. I pick them.

BS: I love this one. Can we spend the next half hour talking about this one? Because I love this story the best.

AL: No, because I already got in trouble for the amount of time we spent talking about the plane. (One of the previous stories).

Ms. Lang then moved the program along to the next segment.

You thought Ms. Lang also believed Mr. Sellery was being inappropriate when she told him that she chooses the stories every day and this one was very interesting. As you can see in the transcript, she was affirming what Mr. Sellery had already said – that he too liked this story. There does not seem to be any subtext, just more of the bantering tone employed throughout. Ms. Lang confirms she did not think Mr. Sellery was being disdainful.

You mentioned in a subsequent e-mail to me you found Mr. Sellery’s humour inappropriate. I can only assess his comments and the item in the context of CBC policy. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices cautions against stereotyping groups of people. In the policy on Respect and Absence of Prejudice it states:

“We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.”

There is no evidence of that kind of language in this broadcast. Nor does this discussion violate CBC’s value of fairness.

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.”

Once again, there is nothing to suggest that there was any unfairness in the segment. The interaction between the hosts was lighthearted, involving a fair amount of bantering. The information conveyed was accurate and fairly presented. I acknowledge you found it inappropriate. But there was no violation of CBC journalism policy or any apparent criticism of Brazil.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman