Raising religion: It's delicate but sometimes necessary

A number of people wrote to express their concerns about an interview Evan Solomon did on a Power and Politics episode. He was talking with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird about the appointment of Vivian Bercovici as the ambassador to Israel. Mr. Solomon asked about the decision to name a non-diplomat to the post, as well as someone who had expressed strong public views about the mid-east peace process, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The question that raised concern was one in which he asked if the fact that the appointee was Jewish could create a perception of bias. When the Minister responded he didn’t even know her religion when he appointed her, the host challenged that statement. The complainants felt it was wrong to raise her religion and that Mr. Solomon was saying that her appointment was inappropriate. One complainant, Steven Scheffer, asked for a review. While it is a sensitive issue, CBC policy allows for inclusion of ethnic or gender description when it has editorial relevance. I found that in this case mentioning the religion of the new ambassador did not violate the policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to an interview Evan Solomon did on the January 8, 2014, edition of Power & Politics with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, about his government’s appointment of Vivian Bercovici as ambassador to Israel. You felt Mr. Solomon “conspicuously and maliciously” made Ms. Bercovici’s religion an issue. You also thought that Mr. Solomon deliberately mispronounced her name to draw further attention to her religion:

“Not only did he suggest the inappropriateness of her appointment because she was Jewish, he attempted to stress her Jewishness four times by referring to her as Vivian Bercovitch and then had the temerity to question Mr. Baird's honesty. Fortunately Mr. Baird was more than capable of destroying Mr. Solomon's premises.”

You asked for a public apology to the Minister, Ms. Bercovici, the viewers of the CBC and the Jewish community of Canada.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns.

He began by acknowledging that your sensitivity to the raising of the ambassador-designate’s religion was understandable. He disagreed, however, that what Mr. Solomon had done was suggest that the appointment was inappropriate because of her religion. He added: “Mr. Solomon’s job as an interviewer is to seek accountability from public officials. That is all he did.” He explained the context of the interview was set at the outset, which was to ask the Minister if the government was sending a signal with its selection of Ms. Bercovici:

“Mr. Solomon posed questions to ask the federal government: why, for such a sensitive position, would it choose to hire someone who was not a professional diplomat, and who had such strong public views on the Middle East?

He also noted the reality (and however much we wish it weren't true, it is a reality) that some people would think sending someone who's Jewish to this region creates a perception of bias. Asking the minister whether that's a problem does not say anything about Ms. Bercovici. It explores what factors the government takes into consideration for such an appointment.”

He said that Mr. Solomon did not in any way suggest that Ms. Bercovici was not qualified for the position. Rather he “expressed skepticism about Mr. Baird’s claim that he was unaware of her background,” given the level of scrutiny prospective diplomats must go through before the government appoints them. Mr. Nagler explained it was appropriate to ask the follow-up question to the minister, and that the audience of Power and Politics would expect Mr. Solomon to do so.

REVIEW

CBC has policy that addresses the use of a person’s ethnicity, religion or disability. In essence, it discourages use of these references for descriptors unless it has editorial relevance. The policy on “Respect and Absence of Prejudice” states:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.

On the January 8 broadcast of Power and Politics, Mr. Solomon set up his interview with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird about his announcement of a new Canadian ambassador to Israel, Vivian Bercovici. He began the interview this way:

Canada has a new ambassador designate to Israel…This morning the Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, appointed Vivian Bercovici to that position. Vivian Bercovici is a Toronto lawyer. She’s an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority and the militant group Hamas, which Canada designates as a terrorist organization. She’s the first non-diplomat this federal government has appointed to Israel but others have appointed non-diplomats. Remember Norman Spector was appointed as the ambassador to Israel by Brian Mulroney. As Stephen Harper prepares for his trip to Israel, his first trip to that country and also to the Middle East later this month, what signal does this appointment actually send? Why did the government choose an ambassador with such publicly strong views about the Palestinian Authority? Joining me now, the Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird…

You appointed a non-diplomat, in fact a lawyer and a columnist, former board member of the CBC; published strong criticisms of Palestinian Authority in places like the Toronto Star before, just ahead of the Prime Minister’s first visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah. Why did you appoint Vivian Bercovici?

The Minister provides a detailed answer and is able to put his government’s position clearly:

She’s smart. She’s talented. She’s capable. I think she’ll do an excellent job of representing Canada. She’ll be our ambassador to Israel. Yes she has criticised both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. The good news is that the Palestinian Authority, like Israel, is back at the negotiating table seeking peace. Both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu show great courage in returning to the table and obviously we are doing all we can to support that.

The interview then moves on to the question that you and others who contacted this office took exception to. Mr. Solomon raises the issue of a perception of bias because the new Ambassador is Jewish:

Solomon: Why not appoint someone from the diplomatic corps? I mean obviously this is a very sensitive position. Vivian Bercovici is Jewish and so there are going to be some questions, why not appoint someone who doesn’t even have the perception of any kind of bias?

Baird: Evan, I didn’t ask what religion she was. I didn’t ask…

Solomon: You must have done your research. To be fair. Is that disingenuous?

Baird: No her name looked Italian. No in fact before we offered the position I in fact personally did not know she was Jewish. That’s not the way our government runs. We look for people who are talented and capable who can do the job, regardless of what religious background they have. In Canada in fact, Evan, it’s actually illegal for employers to do just that. She has a unique amount of experience as a lawyer, someone who has lived in the area, someone who knows the file and someone who will advance Canada’s position with great vigor. This is not the first time, just in the last twenty years….

Solomon: Hang on. I get that you don’t want to do the religious questioning of people but are you being serious or are you being disingenuous that you didn’t

know…

Baird: I did not…

Solomon: …the religious background when you appoint someone to a sensitive position like this.

Baird: No. Neither did I ask nor did I know before she was offered the position. That’s not the way our government operates.

Solomon: Does this appointment then, now that, maybe you’ve been surprised by the revelation…

Baird: I was not surprised because I don’t care what someone’s religious background is.

The exchange goes on for some time because Mr. Solomon probes Mr. Baird’s statement that he was not aware of Ms. Bercovici’s religion. That is what he is emphasizing. It may have caused more focus on the fact than intended, but there is nothing to indicate that Mr. Solomon personally believed or was putting forward the position that this made the ambassador an inappropriate choice for the post. In fact he put heavy emphasis on the word “perception” of bias.

The point of Mr. Solomon’s questioning was not to challenge the appropriateness of Ms. Bercovici’s appointment because of her religion, but to question the minister on his statement that he did not know her background. Mr. Solomon also questioned the Minister about the fact that she was not a career diplomat and was on the record with some pretty strong views on the Middle East and the peace process.

You believed that by using her name repeatedly, somehow Mr. Solomon was drawing attention to Ms. Bercovici’s religion by mispronouncing it. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird used the same pronunciation and he didn’t know she was Jewish. It is how his office told CBC News that it is pronounced, despite the spelling. It is in fact how she pronounces it.

That Mr. Solomon has the “temerity,” as you phrased it, to question Mr. Baird’s statement he did not know Ms. Bercovici’s religion is why he has the job. It is the purpose of reporters to question and take nothing at face value. It is also their uncomfortable job to ask the difficult and awkward questions. You can challenge the phrasing of it or the number of times asked, but given the context of the interview it was not inappropriate and violated no CBC policy. Mr. Baird was more than capable, as you also point out, of refuting Mr. Solomon’s questions.

I, too, understand the sensitivity around raising anyone’s religious affiliation. I agree with Mr. Nagler that, sadly, in the minds of some it could be an issue and therefore makes it acceptable to raise in the context of this interview. News organizations face the same challenges when posting reporters in some countries, and members of the public make assumptions about points of view and religion. The overall context of the interview was to question Mr. Baird on his government’s decision to make a somewhat unorthodox, although not unprecedented, ambassadorial appointment.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman