The Limits of Opinion.

The complainant, Sarah Dowling, along with many others, strongly objected to Barbara Kay’s presence on a panel to discuss the change to the sex education curriculum in Ontario. Her opinions were provocative but they were challenged and balanced by the views of the other two panelists.

COMPLAINT

You were one of about 75 people who expressed their displeasure about the appearance of National Post columnist Barbara Kay on a CBC News Network panel on July 13. Ms. Kay was one of three participants in a discussion about reaction to the Ontario government’s decision to scrap the sex ed curriculum. You wondered why the choice of Ms. Kay, as she is not an educator, designer of curriculum or a parent of school-aged children. You particularly objected to her being invited on to discuss transgender issues - since you consider her position hateful and beyond reasonable discourse:

I am writing in my capacity as a parent, a scholar of gender and sexuality studies, and a person with a moral compass, to object to the CBC’s invitation to Barbara Kay to discuss transgender issues on a recent panel.

Barbara Kay is not an expert on transgender issues. She is not a respectful interlocutor. Instead, she has used her prominent national platform to make bizarre accusations about transgender people “body-snatching” children. (This accusation was made on Twitter, where it was rightly found to violate the platform’s rules against hateful conduct.)

Kay’s accusations have no basis in fact and, like the traditions of blood libel upon which they draw, expose a vulnerable and maligned minority to violence. Her views do not constitute “debate.” They are incitements to violence and hatred. Discriminatory sentiments such as these should not be rewarded with airtime.

You thought it would be important to discern why Ms. Kay was invited to participate, as you suspected it was “on the basis of her well-documented transphobia.” You pointed out that the sex education curriculum involved more than trans issues and Ms. Kay’s presence made it a “lightning rod.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Robert Lack, Executive Producer of CBC News Network, replied to your concerns. He noted that the sex education curriculum introduced by the Liberal government in 2015 was controversial. He added that opinion is “sharply divided” on what an appropriate curriculum is, and it is part of CBC’s mandate to reflect that range of views. He said the three panelists involved in the discussion that night, in fact, did represent a wide spectrum of perspectives and opinions.

He pointed out Ms. Kay rejected reverting back to the 1998 sex ed curriculum as appeared to be the case when the Conservative government announced the scrapping of the existing one. She objected to some aspects of that curriculum, notably what was being taught to younger children, and to what she deemed to be ideologically driven.

In one of her statements Ms. Kay referred to gender dysphoria as an “affliction.” Mr. Lack agreed this was an inappropriate term. “I agree that the use of the term in relation to any discussion about gender and sexual orientation is offensive to many and out-of-bounds.”

He explained that in the context of a live interview sometimes it is hard to catch words that might offend, and it was important to remind guests of that fact.

He added that the programmers’ purpose is to provide a wide range of views on a variety of topics:

As programmers, we are committed to robust debate and the expression of diverse views on matters of public debate. While we seek out strong voices, it's important to state emphatically we do not endorse the views of panelists. Nor do we aim to silence or extinguish them. We hope and expect they will be challenged in free, vigorous and informed discussion. Still, while we value different points of view, we can not condone any inference that sexual identity or orientation is an “affliction.”

REVIEW

There are two aspects of journalistic policy that pertain here. One is Balance:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The other has to do with Opinion:

CBC, in its programming, over time, provides a wide range of comment and opinion on significant issues.

We achieve balance by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion.

It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person’s perspective.

You asked whether Ms. Kay was chosen because of her views on gender and her “transphobia.” Mr. Lack explained the purpose of the panel was to present a range of perspectives about the Ontario Conservative government’s decision to scrap the sex ed curriculum. Mr. Lack elaborated on the decision-making in a conversation with me. There was no intention to focus the discussion largely on the aspects of the curriculum that cover gender identity. In a broader context this CBC News Network programme slot, usually hosted by Carole MacNeil, relies heavily on panels - that is the format. He explained the panels are the “centerpiece of the show” and they deal with controversial subjects. The panelists are chosen for their point of view, and there is a stable of regulars who participate in various combinations. All three of the panelists that evening are frequent contributors, and I would point out that none of them are experts on education or curriculum development. You questioned Ms. Kay’s presence at all, given her writings and statements about questions of gender identity. I appreciate that her statements are hurtful and objectionable to many people. Attitudes, understanding and accepted standards of treatment and care are evolving. Her position that there is ideology driving the curriculum is a view that is shared by some segment of the population. It is part of the public debate. CBC’s obligation as a public broadcaster is to represent a range of views, and sometimes those views will be objectionable to others. Freedom of expression and open public debate are bedrock values. Something can be objectionable, and even offensive to some people - but that is not necessarily the bar for hate speech - as many contend this was.

There were issues with this segment - like Mr. Lack, I find the use of the word “affliction” distasteful and inappropriate - but I go back to the need to expose a range of views and perspectives. In the context of the broadcast, it did not go unchallenged, and that is a key point. The task before me is to evaluate the weight of the considerable legitimate feeling aroused by the broadcast against the principle of free speech and CBC’s own journalistic policies.

Despite the fact that many complainants did not care about the overall content of the piece but simply about Ms. Kay’s presence, my obligation is to judge the whole segment in its context. In that context there was no violation of journalistic policy. Ms. Kay presented her views - and at every turn the other two panelists, but particularly Adam Goldenberg, countered her views - vigorously and effectively. Mr. Lack quoted one segment, here is another:

ADAM GOLDENBERG
There is scientific consensus, Barbara, that gender is not a binary proposition. Everyone …

BARBARA KAY
No there is not … Adam, there is no consensus on that …

AG
You are wrong, you are simply wrong. There is consensus that gender is not an “either or” option. Barbara, what you are advocating is an approach to pedagogy …

BK
Studies show that gender is pretty binary and that it is not fluid and social construction is mostly myth and the fact that sex and gender are not linked which is the basis of gender identity education now is a total myth. All credible science shows that they are completely linked and any studies you are going to see to the contrary are not credible studies.

AG
Because Barbara says so. Look, Sarah, to go back to your original question, what Barbara is advocating and what the opponents of progressive sexual education are advocating, is an approach to teaching kids that doesn’t ever instruct young people that a) they may feel confused about their sexual or gender identity, that they may not identify as the sex in which they were born - which we know because people live these experiences and we can talk to them, that that is a real thing and science backs that position up. And what the sex-ed curriculum does is it says “that’s not disorder, that’s not wrong, that’s not sickness. You are not unhealthy or something is wrong with you. You are a loved, valuable person, who should be respected by society …

As Mr. Lack also pointed out, while the discussion on gender was heated and became a large part of the discussion, the purpose of the panel was to take a broader look at the impact of the decision - a position articulated by Ms. Andrew-Amofah:

Barbara that is your opinion and I think it’s fair that you need to own your opinion on this particular issue and just because someone doesn’t agree with your opinion does not mean that their claims are invalid. I think it’s very clear this is what the debate is going to be like over the next four years while Ford is in power, unfortunately. Also what’s very clear is that an updated sex-ed curriculum is necessary. That’s nos, ifs ands or buts. So that needs to be re-implemented back into the curriculum. How do we get there? That’s gonna take a lot of time, it’s gonna take a lot of advocacy, it’s gonna take organizing, and it’s gonna take the majority of Ontarians, the 60% that did not vote for this government, to come together and to have their voices heard. So we can’t get lost that only about 40% of people voted for this government and they now have a majority government and they’re able to make these sweeping changes. So if we get back to thinking about how do we strategize in order to have this back into the curriculum, I think that’s where the focus should be because there are two really polarizing sides of this debate unfortunately and I think Barbara you’re not hearing the fact that a lot of people, a lot of lives have been improved by this curriculum, and that needs to be taken into consideration, rather than just your opinion.

Many complainants cited a tweet Ms. Kay posted referring to “body snatchers” as a reason to have barred her from the panel. The tweet was published after the panel, and while it might inform who CBC programmers invite to discuss transgender issues in the future, the mandate of this office is to assess the CBC programming. Because her views were so vigorously disputed, there was no violation of CBC journalistic policy in this segment.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman