Context gives balance.

The complainant, Gregory Duffell, thought a segment on CBC TV programme The Weekly lacked balance and asserted that an international news service, RT, was a tool of the Kremlin without providing any proof. The segment fell short in providing some of the background for so viewers could form their own conclusion.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a segment on the CBC TV programme, The Weekly, which aired January 21, 2018. You said it demonstrated “questionable broadcast journalism practices.” The item was about RT, formerly known as Russia Today, a television service available to some cable subscribers. Your concern was that host Wendy Mesley began the segment with a statement which described RT as “a Kremlin backed propaganda channel.” You said the episode offered no proof that was the case:

Ms. Mesley "teased" the segment by stating: "...What is Larry King doing on a Kremlin-backed propaganda channel?..."

After a few minutes Ms. Mesley revisited this question that, as far as I heard, was never answered. Instead of asking a representative of RT, or Larry King himself, in order to find out, Ms. Mesley dredged up former RT America host Liz Wahl who gained attention almost four years ago when she resigned on-air.

You added there was “little proof put forward that the station was a ‘propaganda’ channel any more so than the CBC could be viewed as, for instance, a Canadian Parliament state-funded propaganda channel, or that the BBC is a British Parliament state-funded propaganda channel.” You said the only proof Ms. Wahl provided were references to stories on RT critical of the United States. You felt the same way about clips aired from various RT programmes. You thought that they were in no way “insidious messages” nor did they indicate that the Kremlin interfered with the editorial process at the television service. You pointed out U.S. based journalists participated in the programming. You thought Ms. Mesley’s body language showed disapproval, and that the entire item was infused with her impatience and contempt.

You wondered if there was not a conflict of interest, since RT is in competition with CBC News Network:

It is a fact that CBC News Network is in competition with RT for viewers and for subscription fees coming from those paying for cable television. Is "The Weekly", and by extension the CBC, attempting to start a movement to have RT banned by the major telecoms on their cable TV packages by intimating that they too are Kremlin agents because they are in some sort of business relationship with RT? It certainly sounded like that to me.

You were concerned the Executive Producer of The Weekly was also in violation of CBC policy because he has blogged and tweeted extensively about the Trump-Russia connection which you characterized as “focused almost exclusively with conspiracy theories about how Russia somehow elected Donald Trump as President of the United States.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Weekly, Zev Shalev, replied to your concerns on May 2, 2018. He told you the focus of the segment was the “widespread availability of RT … in Canada and the nature of its programming.” He added the introduction to the piece mentioned that RT is included in many cable packages in Canada, and that there was an anomaly in its relationship with the cable providers. He noted that while cable companies pay other news channels like CBC News Network or Fox News to offer their services, there are reports that RT is actually paying those cable companies to makes its service available across the country. He said that while RT looks and sounds like other similar services what distinguishes it “is that some see it as a mouthpiece for the Russian government.” He explained Ms. Wahl was interviewed because she worked for the station and shared that view - having quit over what she considered the distorted coverage of the Crimean crisis. He noted that there is other evidence of the Russian government influence on RT:

In a January, 2017 report “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution”, the U.S. intelligence community said that in its view both RT and Sputnik operate as part of the Kremlin’s propaganda arm, offering multiple examples to make the case. (https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf). As a result RT has had to register in the United States as a “foreign agent”.

He also acknowledged that others do not share the view that RT is an instrument of the Kremlin, that the management of the service says it has editorial independence, and that should have been mentioned in the segment. He also apologized for the delay in responding.

REVIEW

If the episode on the programme would have used some of the language and explanation Mr. Shalev provided in his response to you, there would not have been an issue. He acknowledged that RT is controversial and seen by many as an instrument of Russian foreign policy, but that its management states it is independent. While the interview with Ms. Wahl provided some insight, it did not provide enough context or facts to help viewers make up their own minds.

In his letter Mr. Shalev mentioned the fact that RT has been required to register as a foreign agent in the United States. You mentioned it in your correspondence as well - but in the context of an attack on freedom of the press. It is not the Ombudsman’s job to re-report a story. I will note, though, that virtually every intelligence agency in the United States has come to the conclusion that there was indeed some level of interference in the U.S. election process. In addition, the regulatory authority in the United Kingdom, Ofcom, has sanctioned the service for biased or misleading articles on numerous occasions. Supporters might argue that RT merely provided and continues to provide an alternate viewpoint, which happens to align with Russian foreign policy. Ms. Mesley alluded to that fact in her interview with Ms. Wahl:

WENDY MESLEY

So, I mean, we’ve heard so much about Russia meddling in the American election, people are sort of familiar with Russian propaganda ideas now, but back then, I guess when you were working there it could have been seen as fair game, it’s just free speech, another viewpoint. Is that what you thought when you first went there?

LIZ WAHL

It was yeah, and for the most part it actually was that. They pitched it to me as an organization, a news organization that covers stories that the mainstream media ignores, and in a lot of ways we really did focus on those stories. What I have discovered is that it was almost like we were growing an audience in times of peace and when Ukraine happened, in my experience, that’s when it became actually very propagandized and used as a weapon.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allow for journalists to draw conclusions based on facts and expertise. There are limits to that principle, however. Precisely where the line is, like most journalistic matters, is a judgment call. In this case it would have made for a clearer and more balanced presentation if the segment had provided more background information to contribute to people’s understanding. This is a case where it was necessary to show the steps and thinking that went into the conclusion. It would have been fairer, since the management of RT asserts that it has editorial independence, to have at least mentioned that fact at some point in the presentation.

I do not agree that there was contempt or body language that conveyed a particular point of view. Ms. Mesley is an animated and engaged presenter. Her performance is consistent through the programme, including a variety of hand gestures. There is nothing to convey a point of view in her presence.

You also questioned the Executive Producer’s impartiality, citing his blog, narativ.org, is a journalistic endeavour. The articles are fact-based analyses. You are correct he has written and reported extensively about Russia and some of its interference in various election campaigns - that does not disqualify him from working on a show which addresses the same questions. I note also that Mr. Shalev’s last entry is November 2017, before the programme went to air. He is aware of the CBC requirement to refrain from expressing opinion and to bring rigor to exploration of controversial matters.

Mr. Shalev apologized for the long delay in answering. I would ask programmers to be more diligent. This was an unacceptable delay.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman