Speculation vs. Fact

CORRECTION: Please note that there was an error in the posting of this review. There has been a change in the Complaint section. It was written in such a way that did not accurately reflect the complainant's statement regarding making assumptions about the neighbours' religious identification. Apologies for the error.


On September 5, 2017, As It Happens aired an interview concerning the murder of a gay activist in Jamaica. Dexter Pottinger was killed in his home. Programme host Carol Off interviewed a friend of his to find out what had happened and its impact on the LGBTQ community. Your concern was that much of what the interviewee said was speculation with little fact to back it up. You pointed out that motivation of the murder had not yet been established, nor the reason why neighbours had not responded to cries for help. You thought the death was the result of a robbery gone bad. You felt there was no proof it was because they disapproved of his activism. You said the fact they used to call the police when there were parties is irrelevant:

Also, the motivation of the neighbour(s) who did not immediately call the police was not definitively established. Those neighbours who regularly call to report parties may have been away the night of the murder and the neighbour who did eventually call may have been an elderly person who had difficulty getting to the phone. For this reason he/she may have initially left the task to the neighbours who regularly call the police.

You were concerned that there was an assumption the neighbours were Christian:

“Also, the religion of the neighbour who did not immediately call was not definitively established and may in fact have been of the same religion as Mr. Tomlinson. To imply that the neighbour was Christian, because most Jamaicans identify as Christian, is simplistic.”

The guest’s comment that they were not living up to their Christian duty was uncalled for. You were concerned it could lead to intolerance of Christians. You said the goal of the review would be to ensure that the programmers “avoid the kind of speculation that leads to intolerance.”


The Executive Producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, responded to your concerns. She explained the main purpose of the interview was to provide an obituary for Dexter Pottinger, “as a way to remember a man who became the face and the voice of the LGBT community in Jamaica.” She said the interview was Mr. Tomlinson’s view of what had happened, based on what was known at the time. She pointed out that Ms. Off’s questions were neutral and not leading the interviewee into speculation. She explained the motivation for talking to a friend of the murdered man:

We try to get as close as we can to a story, at As It Happens. That means that while we often talk with a guest who has a point-of-view, we also rely on those closest to the stories we tell for their thoughts, opinions, knowledge and expertise. In this case, Mr. Tomlinson is best-placed to try to explain what has happened, to raise questions that still remain about Mr. Pottinger’s death, to remember his friend, and talk about the impact his death will have on the LGBT community in Jamaica.


As Ms. Smythe explained, As It Happens frequently tries to interview people who are closest to a story and have a particular perspective. It was not framed as a news debrief, nor was the guest, Maurice Tomlinson, presented as a journalist. CBC Journalistic policy indicates the importance of giving relevant information about the interviewee so the audience can take into account what he or she may bring to the conversation. That is made quite clear in this interview through the introduction:

He wasn't just out — he was outspoken — as a voice for the LGBT community in Jamaica, in a country where being gay is still dangerous. Last week, Dexter Pottinger was stabbed to death in his home in Kingston. According to reports neighbours, who heard screams did not help him, nor did they immediately call the police. Maurice Tomlinson is a Jamaican Canadian gay rights activist. He knew Dexter Pottinger. We reached Mr. Tomlinson today on the island of Dominica.

Ms. Off’s first question was “Where does the death of Dexter Pottinger leave the LGBTQ community in Jamaica.”

Regardless of the motive of the murder, Mr. Pottinger was an outspoken member of a community that has experienced discrimination and persecution. I can understand why you would infer, from the answer that Mr. Tomlinson was saying he was killed because he was gay. However, what he was referring to was that according to other media reports, there had been indifference to his cries for help:

The sad reality is that for many of us, we are accustomed to deaths of this nature happening to members of our community. So while we are very sad, and shaken, especially by the response, or lack of response of his neighbours when Dexter was crying for assistance, the fact that they let him die and didn't call the police or anything — that shook us up. But we also know that, that is sadly how we are viewed — our lives are not considered important enough. So we just have to continue fighting.

When Ms. Off probed further, asking what was actually known about the murder, the guest replied that there was an eyewitness who saw someone put something in a car and drive away later. A television was missing from the house, and the car was later recovered. Based on those facts, it is possible that robbery was at least part of the motivation. There is enough information given for listeners to judge for themselves. Your speculation about which neighbours were involved or why they did not call is your interpretation. The perspective of a friend and fellow activist is different. It is notable in any context when bystanders don’t act when there is someone at risk. This was an informed person’s interpretation.

You were also concerned about his assumption and reference that the neighbours were Christian. Again, the context here is critical. Here is the full exchange:


It was this stabbing death and it appears that a number of things were stolen from his house — is that right?


Correct, correct. A number of things — and his car was also stolen.


And when talking about what culpability there is, is there anything that the neighbors themselves who heard the screams and didn't call the police — are they culpable in any way because of that?


Well, in law, no, you know, sadly there isn't. But morally there certainly should be some level of culpability. And in Jamaica most Jamaicans identify as Christian, and you would think that their Christian conscience would you know require them, just like the good Samaritan, to help when someone is in trouble. But we know that also the fact of Dexter's orientation would have made it less likely for them to get involved, because he used to have parties at his home and they would quickly call the police to stop his parties — his gay parties. But hearing him call murder and call for help — they did not respond because, of course, this is probably somebody they didn't really want in their community.

This is clearly the view - based on knowledge of Jamaica, Mr. Pottinger’s activism, and the lived experience of LGBTQ people in that country. It is his commentary. This interview was designed to get the views of a friend of the dead man and his reaction to it. He was also asked to put in the broader perspective of the ongoing and well-documented struggle for human rights of the gay community. There was no violation of policy.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman