The Grey Zone: Analysis and Opinion

The complainant, Mark Patterson, thought that a column by Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald condemning the Canadian government’s response to the jailing of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy in Egypt crossed the line into opinion. I agreed that it did, and it violated policy which does not allow news or current affairs staff to do so.

COMPLAINT

You complained about an analysis column, entitled Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian injustice and Canada’s spineless response, written by CBC News Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald. The piece dealt with the Canadian government reaction to the sentencing and jailing of Canadian journalist Mohammed Fahmy. Mr. Fahmy, who works for Al-Jazeera, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment along with two other reporters.

You asserted that the piece violated a number of CBC News policies dealing with expression of opinion, impartiality and balance. You cited multiple sections of CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices on Opinion that appeared to have been breached in Mr. Macdonald’s essay. You explained:

Under “Values – Impartiality” is the following statement – “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” Clearly, this is a matter of public debate - one needs only read the comments on the story to see that there is considerable debate about this topic, with significant passion for both sides of the debate. However, it is equally clear that the story DOES promote a particular point of view - namely, that the Canadian government’s response is insufficient/unacceptable. The general tone leaves no doubt that this is the author’s view, as does specific phrases such as “spineless” to describe the Canadian government’s position. Other examples include the sarcastic use of “seriously” and the final statement in the article – “you’d think Canada could do better for one of its citizens.”

Under “Values – Balance” is the following statement – “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.” Again, the use of “spineless” and sarcastic mockery (see again the use of “seriously”) does not treat the government view with respect.

Under “Opinion - Expression of opinion” is the following statement – “When we choose to present a single point of view it is clearly labeled, and it does not misrepresent other points of view.” In this case, the piece is not labelled as an opinion piece; indeed, part of the title of the piece is the word “analysis,” which implies the exact opposite (i.e., that the piece is objective and does not include the journalist’s opinion). Further, included on the web page on which the article is published is an “About the Author” area that notes that Mr. Macdonald is the senior Washington correspondent for CBC News, again implying that this is an objective news piece and not an opinion piece.

Under “Opinion - Expression of Opinion” is the following statement – “Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.” I cannot imagine how anyone could argue that this article does not express Mr. Macdonald's personal opinion on a matter of controversy.

Under “Opinion - CBC/Radio-Canada News and Current Affairs Staff” is the following statement – “CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.” Again, I cannot imagine how anyone could argue that this article does not express Mr. Macdonald’s personal opinion, nor how anyone could argue that Mr. Macdonald is impartial in this article.

Under “Opinion - Expression of Opinion” is the following statement – “When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.” I have reviewed the cbc.ca website and read it from time-to-time and am unaware of where I can find the promised “diversity of perspective.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Brodie Fenlon, the managing editor of CBCNews.ca, responded to your concerns. He apologized for taking so long to answer your complaint made in June. He explained he had inadvertently filed away your email.

He agreed that CBC journalists must refrain from giving their personal opinions. He added that CBC policy does not “preclude experienced journalists from bringing their knowledge and background to bear on a controversial issue and drawing conclusions based on evidence.” He said CBC journalists are able to make judgment calls; “they are free to reach conclusions, to develop a point of view, if you will, based on facts, on the evidence they collect.” He thought that this article fell within that category.

He added that these pieces are labelled as “analysis” to signal to the reader that there will be a point of view, and that the article is different from regular news coverage. He explained that in analysis pieces, the headline will express that point of view, and attribute it. The reference to “spineless” response was attributed to Mr. Macdonald, who had come to that conclusion based on the facts of the case.

He also told you that Mr. Macdonald’s take on the Canadian government response to Mr. Fahmy’s conviction was not the only one available to CBCNews.ca users.

REVIEW

CBC News policy is clear about its expectations of news and current affairs staff when it comes to expressing opinion. As you cited in your complaint, they are not to do so. The reason is a sound one:

CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.

Balanced against that, the policy does allow reporters to draw inferences and conclusions, based on the facts. That can occur in news reports, and it can be more expressly done in analysis pieces. The challenge is that there is a grey zone where analysis blends into opinion. It is a judgment call in each case. The objective of good journalism is, as the policy itself states, to “provide our audience with the perspectives, facts and analysis they need to understand an issue or matter of public interest.”

Reporters can and should synthesize facts and draw conclusions. In matters of controversy, they are obliged to provide alternate perspectives to that conclusion. But even that is a judgment call. Not all perspectives are equal. One of the criticisms of daily journalism is that it reduces complex and controversial matters to a “he said, she said” argument that gives weight to a set of facts that really don’t bear scrutiny.

The case of Mohamed Fahmy and two other journalists did prompt a strong reaction from many countries which value a free and independent press. The facts presented about the state of the Egyptian judiciary and democracy in general are accurate. Mr. Macdonald highlighted the reaction of other governments, notably the United States and Great Britain, which has been much more pointed and forceful. He raised a legitimate concern that the Canadian government had not been strong enough in its protest, given the kind of justice served out in this case, and what is known about conditions in Egyptian prisons.

Mr. Macdonald also does present the Canadian government reaction, taken from a written statement from the junior minister of consular affairs. While criticizing this approach in some pretty strong language, he does provide a rationale for the Canadian approach and provides another point of view on the Canadian response:

The most charitable explanation is one offered by a Canadian I know with deep diplomatic expertise in the Middle East.

He posited that the government of Canada, lacking the raw power of Washington — which ensured that American citizens facing charges were quietly allowed to leave Egypt — has perhaps been conducting back-channel talks with the Egyptians, and has secured some sort of face-saving deal to free Fahmy once the uproar has died down.

Mr. Macdonald is a forceful writer. And while the facts are here, and other perspectives are present, it is the tone and choice of language that pushes this outside the realm of analysis and puts it within the boundaries of opinion. The word “spineless” in the headline sets the tone and frames the debate in a way that can only be described as opinionated.

Mr. Macdonald supplies sufficient facts to make the case that Canada’s public response was tepid, but spineless goes much further than that. It is legitimate to ask why Canada’s response had been so muted, legitimate to question the wisdom of this approach based on the known facts and the reaction of other countries. It is not legitimate, within the context of CBC policy, to characterize it as the headline does. It does not treat with respect other perspectives or interpretations of the facts. It is the expression of an opinion. Mr. Macdonald raises the possibility that there was behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Unless there was proof that was not the case, the language and tone of this piece overstates the conclusion.

You also questioned whether CBC News provided other articles or program segments that provided other perspectives on this issue. In fact, they did do so. On the same day, June 24, an article entitled “Mohammed Fahmy: Dual citizenship can complicate diplomatic protection” was posted. In it writer Mark Gollom examines the challenges for the Canadian government when dealing with citizens who also carry another passport. Canadian government officials, including the Foreign Minister, are extensively quoted. A day later, on June 25, there is an article that reports on the Prime Minister’s defense of Canada’s response:

Asked by reporters in Quebec why the Canadian government hasn’t intervened more strongly, Harper said Ottawa has provided consular services to Fahmy as best it can under the circumstances. It’s sometimes difficult to provide consular services to dual citizens because many countries don’t recognize more than one citizenship.

“We have been very clear on our concerns, deep concerns, about not just the verdict but about this process from the beginning,” Harper said.

“We have expressed those to the authorities. We have attempted and have provided, and have attempted to provide, consular service wherever possible. Obviously there are some difficult circumstances here, but the Egyptian authorities are very aware of the position of the government of Canada and we will continue to press that position going forward.”

Other articles on the case present both the government’s position and criticism of its approach. This article veered into opinion, and so violated CBC policy. Overall, CBC News provided balance over a reasonable period of time in its other coverage of the Canadian government response to this case.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman