Xenophobia on The Sunday Edition

The complainant, Mary Macdonald, accused Michael Enright of shutting down debate and free speech when he referred to xenophobia and hatred in the context of the discussion of the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact he talked about a small minority who react out of hatred and was not labelling all who disagreed in that fashion. The distinction seemed clear in a highly opinionated essay he delivered at the start of a program.

COMPLAINT

You objected to the language used by The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright in his opening essay on the September 13, 2015 edition of the program. Mr. Enright begins every episode with a commentary and on this Sunday it dealt with the question of Syrian refugees. You thought his language was “inappropriate and inflammatory.” You said that he had “crossed a line of civility.” You believe the language used violated the principles of objective journalism:

He argued that tens of thousands of Syrian refugees should be allowed into Canada. He described those who disagree as “xenophobes” and “haters”. This is divisive mean-spirited language that Enright uses to describe Canadian citizens who are debating this issue. I believe the use of such language by a CBC journalist in describing Canadians to be unprecedented. It is insulting to Canadians. It is a method of stifling open debate and free speech.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Sunday Edition, Susan Mahoney, replied to your concerns. She told you that Mr. Enright was not labelling anyone who disagreed with him as “xenophobes” and “haters.” She said he stated “there is a small minority of xenophobes.” She explained the context of the piece – that the opening essays are opinion pieces, and they must be “fair comment based on fact.” She quoted some anti-Muslim reader comments posted under a story by reporter Nahlah Ayed on CBC News’s own website as an illustration of the fact that some objections to allowing in refugees are hateful and xenophobic:

Sadly, some Canadians are responding to the idea of bringing Syrian refugees here with hatred. As I am sure you are aware, most of the refugees are of Arab ethnicity and belong to the Muslim faith. The people Michael was referring to, are those who lump all Muslims together, ascribing terrible characteristics and motives to them. That is almost the textbook definition of racism.

She told you that the essay included a quick review of Canada’s history dealing with people fleeing war and persecution – some positive and some not. She added that there was no intention to stifle free and open debate and that future programs would feature responses from listeners who disagreed with Mr. Enright’s point of view, “but who do not exhibit the blanket condemnation of an entire religion or race of fellow human beings.” It was those who do that Mr. Enright was characterizing as xenophobes, not those who have other reasons to disagree with allowing in a large number of refugees.

REVIEW

Part of your concern is that Mr. Enright’s language “violates the principles of objective journalism.” CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP) does not use the term objective journalism, nor do many journalistic codes. The idea is rather to present, over time, perspectives and points of view that help citizens draw their own conclusions. These ideas are captured in the code’s commitment to fairness, balance, and impartiality. JSP allows journalists to draw conclusions based on facts and expertise.

In terms of the context, the piece begins with a personal reflection. Mr. Enright shared his thoughts as he sat in a park near Toronto’s waterfront which contains a memorial to Irish immigrants who came to this county in the 19th century, many of whom died on arrival. He went on to reflect on Canada’s checkered immigration history, citing the example of Sikh immigrants who were turned back, and to the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution who were also turned away. It was in that context that he linked his remarks to the public debate on Canada’s response to the crisis of Syrian refugees. This is what he said:

The vision of thousands of refugees coming to Canada may upset many people, but that’s all right. Change and the challenge of change take a while to reach a comfort level. There will be that small minority of xenophobes who can’t abide the notion of strangers in their midst. That’s all right too. Yes, there are haters in this country, as there are in any other place, in any other time.

In this context, it is not a blanket condemnation of those who do not wish for Canada to accept refugees. He calls xenophobes a “small minority” – clearly not all who have objections. Ms. Mahoney provided a selection of comments from the CBC News website that made the point that some objectors cross a line to a position that might rightfully be called xenophobic or hateful. She said that Mr. Enright was thinking of those people and not everyone with reservations about accepting more refugees. In your response to Ms. Mahoney you dismissed the evidence of the comments. You said:

I have read at least one of Nahlah Ayed’s opinion articles posted recently on the CBC news website. I disagreed with its content. Does that make me a xenophobe or a hater?”

There is an important distinction to be made. This is the very point Ms. Mahoney made to you, and I would reinforce it. It is not the disagreement that makes one a xenophobe or hater, as there are many perspectives about what is an appropriate response to the current crisis. Rather Mr. Enright used the terms to label those who disagree in a particular way. And that includes the use of ad hominem attacks or racial slurs. The examples Ms. Mahoney cited (and these are not all of them) illustrate the point. Frankly, I am surprised they found their way past the moderation process:

More crap from the disillusioned arab reporter. God, I wish she would just move there and shut up.

How many of your favorite 1 million muslims are sponging on welfare in this country ? as seen daily around the world islam is a plague like locusts or grasshoppers a veritable parasite that moves into an area and makes it uninhabitable then moves to another area , keep the people - dump islam it is feces in a nutshell

This pushy religion causes a lot of problems, and winter is coming.

Ms. Mahoney told you the program would publish a response from a listener to Mr. Enright’s essay, and they did so in the next edition of the program. This is what he read:

The more people I talk to the more I am convinced you do not speak for the majority no matter how much CBC tries to sway public opinion. Maybe you yourself can sponsor a few Syrian families and you yourself can cover the health care costs and then house their relatives they also want to bring to Canada. They will do what many immigrants have done in the past – drain our systems, send their money back home and maybe even move home when they have finished taking advantage of our country. Maybe it’s time for Canada to take a break in our open door policy and to focus on internal problems before worrying about foreign countries and foreigners.

The program, over a reasonable period of time, provided another perspective. Ms. Mahoney states that Mr. Enright’s essays are opinion, and the standard by which they are judged should be whether or not they are fair comment, based on fact. Mr. Enright used strong language, but he did not close the door to debate nor brand all those who might disagree with him as haters. His qualified use of the words you objected to is a reasonable characterization of some extreme positions.

There is a separate issue with the essay overall, and its call for a specific course of action – a pledge to bring in 50,000 refugees by Christmas – even though it is one that was already in the public discourse. Journalistic Standards and Practices also has policy dealing with opinion. It states:

We are guided by the principle of impartiality.

We provide our audience with the perspectives, facts and analysis they need to understand an issue or matter of public interest.

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.

We maintain the same standards, no matter where we publish - on CBC platforms or in other media outside the CBC.

The principle of impartiality states that CBC news and current affairs staff “do not promote a particular point of view on matters of public debate.” Mr. Enright is a senior and respected CBC journalist, and for that reason he is given some latitude. The scope for CBC employees is narrow and in calling for a specific course of action at the end of his essay, even if it is based on his analysis of the situation, he crossed the line.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman