Olympic opening colour commentary

The complainant, Peter Adler, complained that Peter Mansbridge had injected biased and inappropriate comments into his remarks during the opening ceremonies of the Rio games. The political message was the work of the organizing committee. The commentary addressed the events unfolding at the stadium. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You complained about the “lack of journalistic standards of integrity and objectivity” during the live coverage of the Olympic opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro on August 5th of this year. You said that Peter Mansbridge, who was providing coverage along with Scott Russell, made several “uncalled for and inappropriate” comments.

Mr. Mansbridge's commentary concentrated on all kinds of political angles, including the plight of refugees, climate change, etc., instead of commenting on what was happening at the Maracanã Stadium at Rio de Janeiro.

You stated Mr. Mansbridge was providing opinion and not facts.

In a later email you questioned CBC’s lack of coverage of a story that appeared in The Jerusalem Post about an International Olympic Committee reprimand to the head of the Lebanese delegation because his athletes did not allow Israeli athletes to ride on a bus with them.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He told you that “while elements of the presentation were political, especially the last segment, the hosts’ commentary was not.” He noted that Mr. Mansbridge was reacting to the segment of the opening ceremonies that dealt with human impact on the environment and on global warming. At the end of that segment he told you Mr. Mansbridge had said it was a “powerful statement”. Mr. Mansbridge commented that the opening ceremonies ‘were not supposed to be political’ and wondered what the reaction to this portion of the event would be.

As for the reference to refugees, he said it was part of the various comments made as each delegation entered the stadium. He said that in addition to providing specific information about some of the delegations, he mentioned that the team of refugees would enter the stadium last. Mr. Spandier added:

The hosts’ brief comments added context and background -- colour, if you will – intended to enrich the event viewers could see unfolding in the stadium. Viewers have consistently told us it’s the kind of information that increases their enjoyment, understanding and appreciation of the games. I regret that you felt differently.

He acknowledged that the story on the Lebanese team you cited was an interesting one, especially to people who are interested in issues in the Middle East. He explained that it is a judgment call regarding what stories are covered in any given day, given the volume of material coming out of the Olympics. He pointed out that CBC provided extensive coverage a few days later when an Egyptian judo competitor refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent. He added: “As you know from your decades of involvement in journalism, every day offers a different set of circumstances to challenge the skills of editors and producers.”

REVIEW

You rejected Mr. Spandier’s explanation which provided context for Mr. Mansbridge’s comments. You questioned why he repeated what you had seen on the screen and concluded was opinionated and inappropriate.

You are free to reject it - but what was actually said and its context are in fact the crux of the matter. Mr. Mansbridge did not arbitrarily introduce the topic of climate change into the discussion. He introduced it because the next segment of the opening ceremonies viewers would see dealt explicitly with that subject. Mr. Mansbridge introduced the presentation this way:

There’s a transition in the show coming here. This has been a party. We will soon be coming to the after-party -- after “the” party, and the consequences. The message here is the ways in which human society organizes itself has had a profound impact on the balance of life on earth. And some effects are irreversible.

What came next was a full screen graphic which says “CO2”. Then there is a satellite map with colours swirling. The Olympic narrator said:

This is carbon dioxide from the oil and coal we are using. Yes - it collects in the atmosphere

It continued with graphics that flashed the words “Global Warming”, “the melting of the polar ice cap”, and narration that provided information about the increase in temperatures and the impact on the environment and, in particular, on coastal cities. The segment ends with an announcement that 11,000 seeds will be planted by each Olympic athlete as he or she enters the stadium. It is in this context that Mr. Mansbridge commented:

So following that very powerful statement about climate change and the impact of it. Olympics are not supposed to be political, but this was political, a very strong statement on behalf of the Brazil committee running these Olympics. It’s going to be interesting to see the reaction to it. A call for action.

CBC journalistic policy states, among other things, that “We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.” It also states: “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

Mr. Mansbridge does not give a value judgment about the correctness of what the Brazilian Olympic organizing committee had chosen to present. His observation is fact-based. His comments that human activity has some irreversible impacts on the environment is backed up by solid scientific evidence that has achieved such a large consensus, to provide an alternative view would be to create a false balance.

As for your concern about Mr. Mansbridge’s comments about refugees: when they entered the stadium, Scott Russell noted “there are the refugees.” Mr. Mansbridge added “this is the loudest cheer we have heard. It will only be eclipsed by the next cheer,” referring to the fact that the host country Brazil would be entering last. Mr. Russell related an anecdote about meeting one of the ten refugee athletes, who told him it was like a dream to be in Rio. Mr. Mansbridge replied “It sure is.” Later on a recap on The National itself, Mr. Mansbridge recounted that only one delegation, the home team Brazil got a louder ovation than the refugee athletes. He added:

Nobody is expecting any of them to win medals. They will be watched. They will be adored. They will be loved. They will be cheered throughout these games. Pretty special when you consider what they have been through.

The commentary provided by Mr. Mansbridge in no way advocated for a cause or a position, nor could it be construed as opinion. It is hard to understand why this statement may be offensive. This was not a discussion of refugee policy or how refugees are determined. This is a comment about a group of athletes who were enthusiastically greeted by the people in Maracanã stadium. The commentary on the topics you cite was appropriate and benign and in no way violated any CBC journalistic policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman