Power & Politics: The interview of Jagmeet Singh.

The complainant, Eleanor Riley, objected to the line of questioning Terry Milewski used in an interview with the newly-elected NDP leader. She considered it racist to ask him about Air India and issues relating to the Sikh community. Mr. Singh has associated with those issues over the years and a public leader is accountable for his views. The interview might have been better structured, but there was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You complained about an interview conducted by guest host Terry Milewski with the newly-elected NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh. You objected to a question relating to the Air India bombing in 1985. Specifically, Mr. Milewski asked him to condemn the displaying of posters of Talwinder Parmar at some Sikh temples and events, and his characterization as a martyr by some members of the community. You said it was “a racist attack by a racist journalist with a racist axe to grind about this issue.” You thought it was a “bizarre question” to ask someone who was a child at the time of the bombing. You thought the staff of Power & Politics should apologize to Mr. Singh and invite him back on the programme to be able to talk about his policies and ideas going forward.

You were one of about 20 people who thought it wrong to ask Mr. Singh about this matter because it left the impression he was being held accountable for an act of violence simply because he shared the religion of the perpetrators.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Amy Castle, the Executive Producer of Power & Politics, replied to your concerns. She pointed out that as a newly-elected leader, Mr. Singh was interviewed and asked for his position on a range of different issues, and where he planned to take the party. She said it is reasonable to ask politicians about their background and their history. She explained:

New leaders can bring fresh energy and a new perspective to their parties, but they also bring with them a background and history.

Understanding that can offer insight into the way they will approach issues in their new positions. That’s why we ask about issues that have informed their politics in the past.

She added that it was in that context - that Mr. Milewski put the question about Talwinder Parmar to Mr. Singh. She said he asked “about an issue that has informed his [Mr. Singh’s] politics in the past” since he had been public in his support of the grievances of the Sikh community against the Indian government. She cited the fact that as an MPP in Ontario, twice Mr. Singh drafted a motion to declare the 1984 riots in New Delhi against Sikhs as an act of genocide against that community. The first attempt was not adopted but the second one was. She also noted that Mr. Singh enjoyed support from the Sikh community, so it was valid to ask him about a segment of it. As Mr. Singh would now take this perspective to a national political stage, she said it was appropriate to pose the question because a national leader might have to address the issue in an international context. She also noted that it might have been better set up and that it lacked context in the way it was presented. She noted he asked Mr. Singh if he thought some Canadian Sikhs went too far when they honoured Talwinder Parmar as a martyr of the Sikh nation. He asked if it was appropriate that his posters be displayed at some temples:

Mr. Parmar, as you may know, was identified in court and by the official inquiry as the instigator of the 1985 attack on the Air India flight that killed 329 people, mostly Canadian citizens. Photographs of Mr. Parmar are still displayed in some Sikh temples and commemorations in Canada.

This is a fair question to ask of Mr. Singh, although as I said, we could have done a better job of offering more context to help frame the issue in such a way as to help viewers better understand the reason for the question. In view of what seemed to be Mr. Singh’s careful answer, it is also a question he may well find himself facing again.

REVIEW

The allegation is that it was racist to ask this question of Mr. Singh because he is Sikh. I accept the explanation that he was asked this question because he is a national leader who has taken positions on issues related to the Sikh community and its ongoing grievances against the Indian government. It was a relevant journalistic question in that context. In your response to Ms. Castle, you stated “if this is your line of questioning, ask ALL (sic) leaders to condemn the actions of the communities that support them.” Other leaders have been questioned about groups that have supported them, especially if they are strongly on one side of an issue or another. Mr. Milewski is not generalizing about the entire Sikh community. The question was not seeking condemnation of an entire community, but rather a specific faction - and the man widely believed and identified in a court of law and by a national inquiry to be the architect of the Air India bombing - nor was Mr. Milewski asking about the Air India bombing as such. Mr. Singh made his condemnation of that attack clear. Mr. Milewski was asking about his position vis-à-vis a radical segment of the community - those who revere Mr. Parmar and display his posters. Mr. Milewski was asking Mr. Singh to distance himself, or at least comment on the appropriateness of that behaviour. He was not being held accountable for Air India - there is a difference. It might not be top-of-mind of issues to ask the new NDP leader, but based on Mr. Singh’s own activities, it is not singling him out simply because he is also Sikh. Mr. Milewski also points out that over the years he has challenged other leaders when they have associated with members espousing that same radical view. As Ms. Castle pointed out, it would have been much better had Mr. Milewski framed his question more clearly. It would have been useful to provide more of a preamble and explanation for the turn to this matter. It also might have been made clearer why Mr. Milewski thought it important to seek Mr. Singh’s view of Talwinder Parmar. This is the exchange in its entirety:

TM

I wanna ask you finally about the fact that you have long identified throughout your career with the grievances of the Sikh community against the Indian government and you supported, for example, labelling the 1984 terrible riots in Delhi as a genocide of the Sikhs. Some people go further than that, don’t they. Do you think that Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Parmar as a martyr of the Sikh nation, when they put up posters of him as a shahid, a martyr, when he was the architect of the Air India bombing. Do you think that’s appropriate?

JS

Well, I think it’s so important that we really clarify a misconception that exists. There has been a lot of work and seems to be creating a conflict that’s between Hindus and Sikhs and for me that’s something that really offended me. I grew up with a lot of close friends and a lot of family friends that were from the Hindu faith that told me stories of how they actually put themselves at risk to save their Sikh neighbours and so for me one of my goals was to erase this false narrative of the Hindu-Sikh conflict and what I really believe in …

TM

Forgive me, but you could do that right now by saying “no, it isn’t appropriate to put up posters of Canada’s worst-ever mass murderer as a martyr” – do you think that’s appropriate?

JS

Well, let me clarify your point here. It’s so important that we rid this notion that there’s ever been a conflict between the Hindus and the Sikhs. It’s never been the case. We’ve been living in existence as neighbours …

TM

the third time of asking, is it appropriate …

JS

Let me just finish my sentence. So the community has lived together, co-existed in peace and harmony and we need to celebrate that. So naming something as genocide takes the blame off of a community and puts it on the government. That’s the facts, it was the government that initiated this, there’s been great reports that point that out, there’s been a lot of investigations and commissions, like really clarify that was the government, not the people. I think that we need to make sure that we never inappropriately accuse the people of doing something when it was not their fault. This is something that’s always been a government initiative, not the people, and so that’s what I really believed in, making sure it was named a genocide and not a riot.

TM

What about putting up posters of Parmar, the architect of the Air India bombing as a martyr? Is that appropriate – yes or no?

JS

So it is so unacceptable that the violence that was committed, the heinous massacre that was committed, is something that Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, all denounce. The violence that was perpetrated against Canadian lives is something that we all denounce. I regularly denounce it on the anniversary, it’s something that we all collectively are opposed to, there is no question about this, that innocent lives were killed and it is completely unacceptable and it needs to be denounced as a terrorist act.

TM

So you won’t denounce those posters of Parmar?

JS

I don’t know who is responsible, but I think we need to find out who’s truly responsible, we need to make sure that the investigation actually results in a conviction of someone who is actually responsible and we need to, as a society, collectively, unequivocally denounce any time innocent lives are lost that it’s totally unacceptable, that all Canadians stand together united against any forms of violence, terror against Canadians and in fact against anyone around the world.

TM

I have to leave it at that. Thanks for taking the time, I appreciate it, congratulations on your win.

There was a series of questions that preceded this final one which covered the usual range of issues put to any federal leader. Had this been the primary focus of the interview, that would be inappropriate. The impact of the question was amplified by Mr. Milewski’s repetition of it. He had asked something very specific, and Mr. Singh chose to take the conversation elsewhere. It is not unusual for experienced interviewers to repeat a question if he or she does not believe it is being addressed. Public figures and political leaders are held to account for their statements and their actions. Mr. Milewski was persistent in his questioning, and that is uncomfortable for some, but it is not prohibited in any way. I understand that asking these questions can be seen to be motivated by Mr. Singh’s religious identity, and that can, in some contexts, be harmful or seen as harmful.

In this case, given Mr. Singh’s own public positions, it did not cross a journalistic line. Raising the question is a journalistically-defensible one. It was based on knowledge and expertise, and the programme staff judged it was relevant. CBC Journalistic policy states that journalists use their “professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” Mr. Milewski has been following the ongoing issues that arose from the Air India bombing and its impact on Canada for decades. That grounding led him to put the question. Journalists have to be able to ask uncomfortable questions, and hold those in position of power accountable. I agree with Ms. Castle that the whole discussion might have been better framed there had been more context provided.

Another CBC Journalistic policy addresses the question of race and its relevance in its policy on language:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

The allegation is that it was racist or unfair to ask this question of Mr. Singh because he is Sikh. He was asked this question because he had just become a national leader who has taken positions on issues related to the Sikh community and its ongoing grievances against the Indian government. It was a relevant journalistic question.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman