Covering Omar Khadr.

The complainant, Murray O’Regan, thought CBC radio news was indulging in tabloid journalism talking about the Khadr settlement. The item on the hourly newscast focused on the controversy over the Canadian government’s compensation deal with Mr. Khadr. Mr. Murray thought the report did not provide context about his guilty plea at Guantanamo Bay. He had a point - but there were other stories that day which provided more detail.

COMPLAINT

You objected to the phrasing of some radio news reports which aired through the morning of July 5, 2017. David Cochrane was reporting on the reaction to an announcement the Canadian government had agreed to a $10.5 million payment to Omar Khadr to settle his civil suit over mistreatment and breach of his charter rights. You said that it was inaccurate to state that Omar Khadr “admitted to killing” a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. He admitted guilt as part of a plea bargain, and was under duress. You also thought the news story was not clear about the reason Mr. Khadr was compensated. You thought it stated that the payment was for what happened on the day of his arrest, rather than his treatment at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. You noted that on the hourly newscast at 10:00 a.m. that morning, Mr. Cochrane varied his script slightly by stating “whatever he admitted to”, and this too was problematic:

Lastly the use of the word whatever by David Cochrane is a classic use of the word to deflect responsibility to what is stated or to deflect incoming information that one isn't willing to process.

You felt the news stories were “tabloid in nature” and further inflamed public opinion on a controversial matter.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC News, Paul Hambleton, replied to your concerns. He pointed out that the stories you referred to were very brief reports on the compensation and the reaction to it. In such a short time, he explained, it is “sometimes impossible to elaborate on every nuance of a complicated story such as this.”

He agreed that the news report stated that he killed an American soldier. He added that this is a factually correct statement because Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty, and while there is controversy over the plea bargain, it remains a fact. He also said that the one phrase you cited should be seen in the context of the complete report:

Even at its short length, our report made clear that there are those who challenge his confession and conviction. And we made it abundantly clear that the compensation related to the treatment he endured after his capture.

He noted CBC News has provided extensive coverage of Omar Khadr’s “incarceration, mistreatment and legal victories in the Canadian Supreme Court” over the years and that this short news story should be viewed in that context.

REVIEW

There were two different iterations of this story run on Radio 2 between 9:00 a.m. and noon.

One was a section of a slightly longer version lifted from a talkback David Cochrane did with the host of World Report. On the earlier hourly newscasts, this is what listeners heard:

Omar Khadr may be getting 10.5 million dollars from the federal government but this lawsuit really raises questions as to whether he will be able to keep any of that money. Tabitha Speer is the widow of Christopher Speer, that's the soldier Khadr admitted to killing during that gunfight in Afghanistan, and Layne Morris is the other soldier who was wounded, he lost an eye, and that pair has already sued Khadr in a U.S. court and have been awarded damages of more than 130 million dollars, but the issue is that court award can't be enforced in Canada without separate legal action in this country, and that's what's happened. The lawyer for Speer and Morris told the Associated Press he has filed separate action here in Canada, arguing that if Omar Khadr gets this money he should give it to his victims.

A second version of the report ran at 10:00 a.m.:

Khadr supporters argue he was a child soldier, coerced into an adult war and no matter what he admitted to in his guilty plea, the legal issue here is what they say is that it isn’t what Khadr did in Afghanistan, it’s what Canada did in violating Omar Khadr’s rights.

Your broader concern was that people listening would not have the proper context to understand the nature of the guilty plea nor the reason for the compensation. There is always a tension in such brief news bulletins to focus on the newest information and the need to consider the controversial and nuanced details of the story. The news team focused on the growing reaction to the settlement, which has divided Canadians. In particular, the focus was on a lawsuit launched by the widow of a soldier who died in the firefight as well as another wounded soldier. The introduction makes that clear:

Good morning, I’m Marion Warnica, the Federal government’s deal with Omar Khadr is proving to be divisive. Ottawa will give Khadr $10.5 million dollars and offer an apology for his treatment, after being captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Now, the families of two U.S. soldiers have filed a lawsuit against him. CBC’s David Cochrane explains.

The ongoing story of Omar Khadr is a polarizing one. Supporters and detractors have a particular narrative about what happened and who is culpable, and there is an insistence that that narrative alone be the one that is used. Reality is a bit more complicated. The journalistic questions here are ones of accuracy, balance and clarity. It is technically accurate to say he admitted to killing a U.S. soldier - he did so as part of a plea bargain. In that sense, he admitted to the killing. To capture the reasons why he agreed to that plea bargain or to reference the Supreme Court decisions about his treatment by Canadian authorities and his time in Guantanamo is almost impossible in the format of an hourly newscast. The hourly newscasts focus on the latest information, and presume a certain amount of knowledge. The second version of this story alluded to those issues, as did the longer version that ran on that morning’s world report. The focus here was around the Canadian government’s settlement.

Given the controversy surrounding the plea bargain and Mr. Khadr’s treatment at Guantanamo, there is value in thinking about how to compress a little more context into the guilty status when reporting on this story. Mr. Hambleton is right that the World Report version of the story is clear and that there are those who challenge Mr. Khadr’s conviction and confession and what the payment was meant to redress. Some of the hourly newscasts had no such clarity. Accuracy is a key value; so is clarity. I do agree with Mr. Hambleton that the coverage of Mr. Khadr on all CBC platforms over time has been thorough and represented a range of perspectives. In this instance, presuming at least some knowledge of the background of the case is realistic.

The other matter that concerned you was the use of the word “whatever” in conjunction with what Mr. Khadr admitted to. As you can see from the transcripts, that word was, in fact, not used. David Cochrane stated said “no matter what he admitted to” and the context is putting the position that no matter what he admitted to in the guilty plea, that is not the issue. As noted, this version of the story addresses both your points - that there was both a plea bargain and compensation for violation of his rights.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman