Russia and Ukraine on As It Happens: Talking about one side's position is not an endorsement, it's an exploration

The complainant, Piotr Jasiobedzki, thought Carol Off, host of As It Happens, took a pro-Russian stance in her interviews on the conflict. He thought so because he didn’t like her questions or the program’s choice of guests and focus. He may not have liked it, but the interviews were appropriate and informative.

COMPLAINT

You first wrote to complain about an interview As It Happens host Carol Off conducted with a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. You felt the interview contravened the “clause on full, fair and proper representation” in the Journalistic Standards and Practices. You believe that Ms. Off shows a bias toward Russia and “made false statements disguised as questions.” You provided several examples that illustrated your belief.

You said that Ms. Off asked leading questions that implied that Russian President Vladimir Putin had little or no control of the Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

You pointed out that she also said the West was sending weapons to Ukraine, which is untrue. You also noted that the interviewee, former ambassador John Herbst, corrected her.

You thought it inappropriate that Ms. Off twice “raised concerns” about the deaths of Russian soldiers if the conflict were to continue with Western military aid:

Ms. Off somehow forgot that Russia is the aggressor fuelling terrorism that has already caused death of 5,400 people and Ukraine is the victim.

You were concerned that Ms. Off did not raise the issue around the way Russia is attempting to cover up the fact that it has troops in eastern Ukraine:

Media reports indicate that the draftees are not given written orders, but instead have to sign-in (sic) first and leave personal and military identifications before entering Ukraine.

You also thought that she did not pay enough attention to the plight of the citizens of eastern Ukraine who are the victims in the conflict.

You found further evidence of bias in the fact that Ms. Off referenced the “grief of Russian mothers”:

Ms. Off was quite sympathetic and commented twice about grief of mothers’ of Russian soldiers killed fighting in Ukraine. However, she failed to mention that the mothers’ organization has been classified as “foreign agents” for demanding to know what happened to their sons (the ambassador did raise this point). She didn’t think that detaining one of them, a 73-years old Lyudmila Bogatenkova, under made up charges was relevant to this topic. And what about Ukrainian mothers’ grief – is it not related to the topic, either?

You rejected the answer you got from the executive producer of As It Happens. You properly pointed out it had taken far too long to receive your response. You said the interview was too narrowly defined and focused, and rejected the explanation that there had been a range of coverage.

You cited three other interviews broadcast between the February 12 interview with Mr. Herbst and April 14. One of those interviews was with a New York Times correspondent who had witnessed the retreat of some Ukrainian soldiers on February 18. The next interviews related to a local controversy. On April 7, Ms. Off interviewed the head of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as well as pianist Valentina Lisitsa, after the orchestra administration had cancelled her concert. The controversy arose when there were complaints about Ms. Lisitsa’s social media activity criticizing Ukrainians.

The final interview in the period, on April 14, was with a member of the Russian Duma, following an announcement by Canada’s defence minister, Jason Kenney, that Canada would be sending military personnel to train Ukrainian forces. All these interviews only reinforced your belief of bias. They did not present a wide enough range of views and you felt in several cases Ms. Off “used her interview skills” to create a false impression of the situation.

You said you have respected Ms. Off’s work in the past and are quite sure she is biased in this case:

I am quite concerned about this type of biased reporting. The fact that this is coming from a renowned journalist and broadcasting corporation is particularly worrying. Being familiar with her previous outstanding work, I don’t believe that Ms. Off came to this interview unprepared or that she does not follow the news. I cannot imagine either that she was provoking the ambassador and playing a “devil’s advocate” – this was not a comedy show. Killing of thousands of civilians is not a laughing matter. Ms. Off has allowed her personal beliefs to adversely affect her reporting standards putting the Canadian broadcasting and specifically CBC into disrepute.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, responded to your concerns. First she provided some context for the interview. She told you the program producers decided to interview the ambassador because there had been an announcement earlier that day of a ceasefire agreement to take effect two days later. The leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine had been meeting in Minsk. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had characterized the impending ceasefire as a “glimmer of hope.” Ms. Smythe explained:

Although not a party to the talks, U.S. President Barack Obama had publicly thrown his support behind the German diplomatic efforts. But at the same time support was growing in Washington, including among some Republican legislators and the incoming defence secretary, for a plan to supply military weapons to Ukraine.

Against that background, and to help us assess the deal and its chances of success, Ms. Off spoke with John Herbst. He is retired now, but for some years was the American ambassador to Ukraine, a man deeply familiar with Ukrainian politics and the bloody conflict that had killed thousands over the past year.

She added that the questions about the degree of control Mr. Putin had over the separatists were asked in that context – the probability of the ceasefire working. She explained that what Ms. Off was asking was “. . . can Mr. Putin deliver on the ceasefire agreement he signed?” She explained that probing how much control and influence Mr. Putin has over these forces was legitimate. She added:

But it is not a “leading” question. Asking it does not suggest or imply an answer. After offering some context, Ms. Off simply asked in substance, how much control does Mr. Putin have over the separatists? Mr. Herbst replied immediately: “He has more than ever”.

She disputed that Ms. Off said “the West is currently sending weapons to Ukraine.” She noted the question could have been clearer:

Ms. Off said Ms. Merkel firmly believes that for Western countries to send weapons to Ukraine will only escalate the conflict, not resolve it. She asked Mr. Herbst what he thought was the solution. The solution he said lies in raising the cost to Mr. Putin of Russia’s aggression. He went on to suggest that could be done in two ways: By stiffening sanctions and by providing Ukraine with “defensive weapons” in order to increase the number of Russian casualties.

Following his reply, Ms. Off summarized his recommended strategy this way: “So, the idea of sending more weapons to Ukraine is that if you send more Russian soldiers home in body bags that you will put pressure on Vladimir Putin”. The question is set against Ms. Merkel’s view that no weapons should be sent to Ukraine. “Sending more weapons” is a reference to increasing the number or quantity of weapons in the country.

As for your point that Ms. Off twice raised her concern for the death of Russian soldiers, Ms. Smythe suggested that you may have misunderstood. She noted that Mr. Herbst had proposed that it was necessary to raise the cost to Mr. Putin for his aggression in Ukraine, and one of the ways to do that is to have more Russian dead. Ms. Smythe explained that Ms. Off was summarizing Mr. Herbst’s position, and then was probing to get further explanation of his position. She also pointed out in all the questions you are concerned about, including this one, the interviewee was able to give full answers, explaining his position or pushing back on Ms. Off’s characterization.

As for your concern that Ms. Off did not mention the invasion of Eastern Ukraine and the hardship of the people there, Ms. Smythe reiterated that the interview was narrowly focused and that As It Happens and other CBC programs and platforms have provided extensive coverage of the situation on the ground.

She explained that the reference to Russian mothers was also in the context of the discussion in the interview about the level of pressure on Mr. Putin resulting from Russian casualties, and how that might affect the search for an end to the conflict.

She pointed out that overall As It Happens has provided a range of views and perspectives on this conflict.

REVIEW

You rightly point out that CBC news and current affairs content must provide a range of views and perspectives. The policy states, however, that commitment should be fulfilled “over a reasonable period of time.” There may not have been enough of a range in the stories you sampled, but As It Happens is not the only platform or program on CBC providing information and perspectives on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. I will return to a more specific discussion of the interviews you cited later in the review.

Concerning the interview with former ambassador John Herbst, as Ms. Smythe explained to you, context does matter. As It Happens isn’t driven by the daily news agenda as much as a newscast, but typically the first section of the program is devoted to the news of the day. That was the case here. The news was of an impending ceasefire brokered in Minsk. The purpose of the interview was to explore the probability of the ceasefire working. The interviewee was an American diplomat, a former ambassador to Ukraine. He also had a particular point of view, different from Angela Merkel, who had announced the deal. That was the basis for the discussion. Ms. Off asked this question first:

Ambassador Herbst, we heard German chancellor Angela Merkel describing this deal in Minsk. She has described it as a glimmer of hope. How much glimmer is there?

Herbst: I think glimmer is about the right way to describe it. Certainly the fact that Mr. Putin was ready to sign, or rather approve, another peace agreement is not a bad thing. However, everyone is right to be a little skeptical because Mr. Putin approved the first Minsk agreement and then he violated it . . . So we are not certain he’s going to make sure this agreement is carried out.

The follow-up question was about how much control Mr. Putin had over the rebels. It was not leading. It was a legitimate follow when discussing the probability of a ceasefire occurring or holding.

You are right that it is untrue the West is sending weapons, so technically it was wrong to say “more weapons.” Ms. Off was not clear, as Ms. Smythe indicated. But again, in context it is understandable. This was in the flow of the interview and if you hear it in context, it is pretty clear she means adding more weapons into the mix. As you yourself have pointed out, Ms. Off is an accomplished journalist. There would be no reason to deliberately insert false information. She is after all only human, and while the interviews are recorded earlier, they are not scripted. Looking at the exchange, the context is pretty clear:

Off: What would finally put pressure on Mr. Putin? Angela Merkel doesn’t believe that escalating the conflict through arms will do it. What would stop Mr. Putin from continuing his campaign?

Herbst: Well first of all we need to understand that Ukraine does not have a military solution to this conflict, but Mr. Putin thinks he does and we have to persuade him otherwise. He’s the one that has escalated half a dozen times since the spring. Even though there has been no importation of weapons from the West to help the government under siege . . . So what we need to do is raise the cost of aggression for Mr. Putin. We can do that two ways. First is by sanctions. There are pretty strong sanctions on right now. If it were possible to strengthen the sanctions that would be wonderful but at a minimum we need to maintain them when they come up for renewal. The second thing goes back to providing weapons to Ukraine, defensive weapons, weapons meant to prevent Russian-led forces, Russian-financed forces from taking more Ukrainian territory. If we provide weapons there will be more Russian casualties. The Russian people have said in numerous polls they don’t want their soldiers fighting in Ukraine. Mr. Putin is lying to his people; he says they are not fighting in Ukraine. He’s burying his dead in secret. If there are more Russian casualties, it will become known in Russia that Mr. Putin is sending Russian soldiers to fight their fellow Slavs in Ukraine and that will not be a popular thing.

Off: So the idea of sending more weapons to the Ukrainians is that if you send more Russian soldiers home in body bags that you will put pressure on Vladimir Putin to stop this conflict. Is that what you are saying?

Herbst: That is correct. And we are not saying send more weapons to Ukraine because we are sending no weapons now. We are saying some weapons designed to prevent additional aggression in Ukraine.

Reading this portion of the interview, and hearing all of it, it is pretty clear that Ms. Off does not raise Russian deaths in a vacuum. Imposing the meaning that she is disregarding Ukrainian deaths does not make sense. And I want to emphasize a point made to you by Ms. Smythe – asking a question to explore a position is not an endorsement of the information of the question. It is, in fact, bringing other perspectives.

There is always a judgment call about how much background information should be provided in every instance. There has been a considerable amount of coverage of the conflict, including that provided by CBC reporters on the ground. That Ukrainians are also suffering is not cancelled out by talking about Russian deaths, especially in the context of this interview.

When Ms. Off brings up the issue of Russian mothers, it is to point out that even a protest from them has so far had no impact on Mr. Putin. The interviewee provides more information about the impact of the mothers’ group. Some of the information you cite is in fact included in the interview:

Off: And if you think more Russian mothers bury their sons then this will end the conflict?

Herbst: I can’t say for sure. I know this. I know that Mr. Putin would have to reverse course so he’ll become much less popular.

Off: He has shown so far, we know from the Russian mothers who have found out that their sons died in Ukraine, it hasn’t affected him, that he has still sold this conflict as one of national pride, one of greater Russia. So I am just asking you how many do you think would have to die before this would end.

Herbst: Your question I think is a little bit misplaced. Because you have to look at the fact that it has already affected his tactics. You know he sent his army in to fight directly with the Ukrainians at the end of August. And that’s when the head of the mothers’ organization of Russian soldiers announced that there were 15 thousand Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. As a result of that he calls the organization a foreign organization and puts certain limits on its activities. He didn’t want the Russian people to know about this . . . He doesn’t want them to die because he knows the political problem this will create. But the point is if Ukraine is better defended, in order to achieve his aggressive designs in Ukraine, which involves killing Ukrainian civilians as well as soldiers, he would have to risk his own troops. So you are focusing much too much on Russian casualties as opposed to the casualties of the victims, of the Ukraine.

Off: No, actually I’m thinking about all the people who would die on both sides, that this is what Angela Merkel has said . . .

Interviews are not polemics. You may not have liked the issues Ms. Off raised throughout the interview, but they were in context and appropriate. In listening to this segment, I heard a very strongly put case for raising the stakes by providing weapons and thereby making the aggression more costly for Mr. Putin. I heard the interviewer probing why that might be the case. The purpose of interviews is to enable members of the public to make up their own minds, based on what they hear, and any other information they choose to find. It can’t be As It Happens’ or any one program’s responsibility to provide all information in every episode. That is simply not how daily journalism works.

You cited several other interviews, wondering why those stories and not others were chosen. The answer in all three cases is that they were driven by the news agenda of the day.

The first one was an interview with Andrew Kramer, a New York Times correspondent on the ground in the midst of fierce fighting. This was just days after the ceasefire, yet the fighting was so heavy, an encircled group of Ukrainian soldiers was forced to break out and withdraw to Ukrainian lines from Debaltseve. Once again, you felt Ms. Off asked the wrong questions and did not emphasize the role of the aggressor in this case. The interview painted a picture of what had gone on and explained the enormous difficulty faced by Ukrainian troops. Clearly that was because they were facing fierce fighting. You are entitled to your view of how to conduct the program, but there certainly was no violation of policy here.

The same can be said for the other two interviews. One was a local angle on the conflict involving the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel a piano performance because the artist had been using social media to denigrate Ukrainians. The issue was around use of social media and freedom of expression – perfectly reasonable and valid editorial choices.

The final interview was with a member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, to seek a Russian reaction to the announcement that the Canadian military would be training Ukrainian troops. You thought Ms. Off was not effective or persistent enough in challenging his “lies.” I listened to that interview, and heard a great deal of persistence. Her first question to Mr. Nikonov was to ask how this looks in Russia. This is not endorsement – it is journalistic pursuit to hear from one of the players in the conflict. From that point on, Ms. Off repeated her question, sometimes over the interviewee who would not respond to her or stop talking. Here are some examples:

Mr. Nikonov, is it not true that Russian soldiers and Russian support is behind those Russian supporting soldiers inside Urkaine? Are you saying there is no legitimacy to giving Ukraine some help in defending itself against Russia?

And at a later point:

What about the mothers of Russia who have buried their sons, who have given interviews about their boys coming home from being killed in Ukraine? What about the stories in your own media who have interviewed tank crews….I mean the argument that NATO gives is that there are at least 12 thousand Russian troops that have been fighting in Ukraine. Others are even saying that’s even an underestimation.

You characterize these attempts as futile. Ms. Off can’t force words out of an interviewee’s mouth. She can ask questions. It is hard to understand why you would believe she is showing bias.

As It Happens’ editorial choices through the period you cited do not denote any kind of bias. They reflect the news agenda and the mandate of the program. That program and CBC News have extensively covered the story from Ukraine, Russia, Washington and here in Canada. The story is ongoing. I have no doubt As It Happens will continue to seek out interviews and angles on the story going forward. There was no violation of journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman