The Last Supper: Was it wrong to use the image of the Prime Minister superimposed on the painting to illustrate a story about a spoof of a politician?

The complainant, Michael Helland objected to a CBCNews.ca story which featured images of religious paintings like the Last Supper with the face of Prime Minister Harper photo-shopped on to the body of Jesus. He found it deeply offensivel. He said this was blasphemous in the eyes of Christians and evidence of a double standard because CBCNews has declined to publish images of Mohammad in the past.

Complaint

You were “shocked and sickened” when you read a story on CBCNews.ca which included illustrations with photo-shopped images of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Jesus and other Conservative politicians as the disciples in a painting of the Last Supper. You believe there is a double standard because CBC declined to publish the prophet Mohammad cartoons during coverage of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, but in this piece it published images offensive to Christians. You quoted a statement made by David Studer, Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices at the time of the controversy over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. At the time he said in an internal staff memo:

We are being consistent with our historic journalistic practices around this story, not because of fear, but out of respect for the beliefs and sensibilities of the mass of Muslim believers about images of the Prophet. Similarly, we wouldn’t publish cartoons likely to dismay or outrage mainstream followers of other religions.

You added that the images in the story were “genuine blasphemy” to Christians and should not have been shown since the reason given for not showing the Mohammad cartoons was that they were considered blasphemous by mainstream Muslims. You are concerned that there is a double standard.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler responded to your complaint. He provided some context for the decision to run the story. He explained that a Conservative Member of Parliament, Wai Young had made a comment that compared her party to Jesus, saying: “I want to share with you what I think our government is doing in the same vein [passage of Bill C-51] - Jesus served and acted to always do the right thing, not the most popular thing.” Mr. Nagler told you that the remarks generated quite a bit of reaction:

Critics of the government made light of Ms. Young’s analogy, writing a series of tweets with the hashtag #CPCJesus. This hashtag spread rapidly enough so that it drew the interest of our journalists.

They published a story under the headline Holy tweets: B.C. MP compares Conservative Party to Jesus. The story described Ms. Young’s remarks, and the “viral” nature of the #CPCJesus tweets. It included examples of some of the more provocative tweets, which included photo-shopped images placing prominent figures from the Conservative Party of Canada into depictions of religious iconography, such as The Last Supper.

Mr. Nagler told you the criteria used to judge what to include in a story and rejected your notion of a double standard. In this case, he said the editors asked two basic questions “Were the images necessary to tell the story and how great is the level of offence in showing the images.”

He went on to explain that the decision was that the images were “fairly intrinsic to the story”. He explained it was the satiric images, and the growing number of people commenting on them or adding others that made the inclusion necessary. He added:

I respect that some would be personally offended by these images, our producers judged (correctly, I believe) that the mainstream would not be greatly offended on religious grounds. They poked fun at politicians, not at Jesus or any other Christian icon.

He told you that CBC News is obliged to treat all religions with respect and that your comments are a reminder of the need to reassess the decisions that are made.

REVIEW

Your complaint raises important issues about the choices journalists make about the material they use to tell a story. As I pointed out in the review I did in response to a complaint about a double standard in the reporting of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the first principle of journalism is its obligation to get at the truth. That means telling a story and using sound and images that in all likelihood are going to be offensive or objectionable to some people. It is not a principle of journalism to avoid being offensive. It is a principle of sound journalistic practice and one laid out in CBC’s Journalistic standards and practices to weigh the competing needs and values for good story-telling. Where the line is or what judgment to use in assessing the offense is imprecise. The Journalistic Standards and Practices provides some guidance. In the policy entitled: "Respect and Absence of Prejudice” it states:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived...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.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

There is another relevant policy. And while it talks about “words that shock”, it would equally apply to images:

To describe certain realities or report adequately on certain situations, it is sometimes necessary to use expressions or quotations that may be shocking to part of the audience. In these circumstances, we limit ourselves to what is necessary for understanding, we attribute the statements where applicable and we take care to present them in proper context.

We ensure that, taking into account the context in which the words are published, they are not likely to expose anyone to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or physical or mental disability. We refer to senior editorial management in case of doubt.

We respect the audience’s degree of tolerance, with due regard for society’s generally shared values.

The story that CBC News chose to include in its lineup was about a trend on Twitter, a regular feature of the online news pages. In this case, what was trending was critics of the government playing off M.P. Wai Young’s comparison of the party to Jesus by photo-shopping the faces of the prime minister and other politicians into well-known religious paintings. The story would have been fairly meaningless without the use of the images. The context of the story is an important consideration of what material to use.

Mr. Nagler explained that the news editors involved did not feel the use of these images crossed a threshold of being disturbing and unacceptable to a wide segment of the audience. That is a judgment call and it is an acceptable one within the context of the policy which says ”we respect the audience’s degree of tolerance, with due regard for society’s generally shared values.” You and some others disagree that this would be within the bounds of acceptable to most Christians, and that view needs to be heard and considered in making these choices. However, to point to this as some sort of double standard is not necessarily the case if one judges that different segments of society have difference experiences and levels of acceptance of insults to religion. The choice made by CBC is not one you agree with. It was one taken within the context of CBC policy. I am going to quote again, as I did the last time I reviewed a similar complaint, from an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star written by University of Guelph philosophy professor John Hacker-Wright. It was written in the context of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the different choices made about showing the Mohammad cartoons. He points out there is in fact a different cultural and historical context that deserves consideration when judging what might be acceptable and what might not:

Many Westerners have a high degree of tolerance for insults to religion, for a variety of reasons. Some have no religious commitments or very casual commitments. In part, this is due to financial prosperity and the fading importance of religion as a source of meaning. Even among deeply religious individuals in the West there seems to be a relatively high tolerance for insult, and this has historical roots that go back to the Reformation…

The gradual march toward liberalism has generated a noisy and impartially offensive public sphere: no one is spared from insult.

Prof. Hacker-Wright added that we have learned to simply block out offensive depictions of religious figures in the context of our “particular, Western history”, one that is not shared by people whose experience is in other traditions.

In a liberal society, we have a tradition of free expression. For better or worse, there is a tolerance for something we as individuals might find offensive because there is strong commitment to openness and free speech. For better or ill, where the tipping point is remains unclear. And for better or ill, in the age of social media, the free marketplace of ideas has become even more raucous. That is not a justification for the lowest common denominator, but it does put into a broader context what the policy means and what journalists consider when considering what is meant by generally accepted social norms.

There are times when there are misjudgments -where the hurt would outweigh any justification for using the images. In this case, I do not find a violation of journalistic policy. I note that Mr. Nagler told you that your complaint was a helpful reminder to continually reassess the decisions made in cases like this. I too want to reinforce the importance of taking into consideration the value of a story or the images used in it against the harm it may cause.


Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudman