The Point of Point of View.

The complainant, Stanislaw Skonieczny, thought a documentary featuring artists critical of Polish society was pure propaganda. The broadcast “Warsaw: Art Fighting Ultranationalism” is part of a series which focuses on a city and some of its artists who use their work to take on social and political issues. The programme description indicates the presentation is from the perspective of the artists. However, CBC has particular policy regarding POV productions; they should be explicitly labelled. The documentary did not violate policy but the lack of label was a breach. The website now makes it clear. Programmers should clarify at the time of broadcast.

COMPLAINT

You said you were “deeply offended by fabricated and false image of Poland” portrayed in an episode of a series of documentaries. The programme was entitled Warsaw: Art Fighting Ultranationalism.” The documentary was part of a series called Interrupt this Program which highlights the work of several artists whose art is political and advocates for particular causes. The creators describe the purpose of the series on the website in this fashion:

Season 3 takes place in cities all over a world in turmoil — Mexico City, Nairobi, Jakarta, Chicago, Karachi and Warsaw. This season taps into the zeitgeist of dissent in each country, with artists coming to the rescue, putting themselves at the forefront of this recent wave of resistance.

You believe that this work was propaganda and created a completely false impression of Poland and its people. You thought the perspective of a Canadian Jewish artist with Polish roots perpetrated the view of Poland as anti-Semitic and that Poles were responsible for the extermination of Polish Jewry during the second world war:

One topic which bothers me the most is the implication that Poles are anti-Semitic. For over nine hundred years Poland has been the only country in Europe without prosecution of Jews. They were fleeing from the East and the West to Poland to find a safe and peaceful life... Jews and Poles were both victims of the terrible ideology and genocide. Blaming Poles as the nation to actively participate on large scale in this tragedy is false and untrue.

You were particularly offended by the artist who stated that he grew up with a negative relationship with Poland and that his grandmother still believed she would be shot if she returned. You said this perpetrated the idea that Jews were not welcome in Poland today.

You thought the documentary was an example of CBC’s anti-Christian, particularly anti-Catholic, bent:

In this program, viewers get the impression that Poles are medieval, primitive and barbaric religious fanatics prosecuting sexual minorities. The clips carefully chosen from different riots “prove the point”. What an example of fake news! What a masterpiece! Congratulations! But what about real Poles? I find it shockingly offensive that such a primitive propaganda is allowed to be made and distributed in Canada in 2017.

You reject the inclusion of Poland in any series whose purpose is to record “suffering, repression and the misery of political unrest.” You said none of those conditions existed in Poland in November 2017 when this documentary aired and that it was “part of a concentrated slander of Poland, Polish people and their beliefs.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Grazyna Krupa, the Production Executive in charge of programming, responded to your complaint. She explained the focus of the series and told you its purpose was to highlight artists whose work challenges trends and attitudes in their respective countries:

Interrupt this Program, an International Emmy nominated program, is focussed on the arts as an agent of change...This season, Interrupt this Program’s third on CBC, goes to cities experiencing civic turmoil – Nairobi, Mexico City, Chicago, Jakarta, Karachi and Warsaw. It looks at dissent in each of these cities where artists have put themselves at the forefront of movements resisting current attitudes and advocating for change. It means artists often challenging mainstream values or criticizing elected governments. And, yes, sometimes in ways that can offend those holding established views and values.

She emphasized that this was a point of view documentary, which means it approaches an issue solely from the perspective of the filmmaker. She noted that there is CBC journalistic policy governing the production and use of this type of content. She acknowledged that this might not have been clear to viewers. She stated that the information would be added to the programme’s website. She explained what she thought made this kind of journalism valuable:

POV documentaries showcase unique points of view and fresh perspectives, usually on controversial issues. They are based on fact although interpreted through the knowledge and experience of the filmmaker. It is a well-established documentary format acknowledged by CBC’s rigorous journalistic policy as one that can offer viewers a compelling perspective and insight into controversial issues. It is also the kind of perspective that may provoke a public debate. As with a newspaper column or a CBC Opinion piece, it is the kind of presentation that some will embrace as reflecting their view while others will strongly oppose as wrongheaded.

She noted that there has been, and will continue to be, other coverage of events in Poland, which would provide balance and a range of perspectives. She pointed to coverage of demonstrations which occurred the same week the documentary was aired as an example.

Finally, she apologized for the long delay in responding to your complaint.

REVIEW

CBC journalistic policy on Opinion says this about point of view documentaries:

From time to time, we air documentaries created from a single perspective.

We air these point of view documentaries for some of the following reasons:

  1. There is a compelling first-person narrative that provides insight into an issue or perspective.
  2. The creator has special knowledge, expertise or a body of work that has artistic merit, and/or is recognized as an expert in a field.
  3. There is a compelling argument, well presented, for a single point of view that provides insight into a controversial subject and may provoke public debate.
  4. The production is not financed by an advocacy group, lobby group or government agency.

We label point of view documentaries as such when they are aired.

We ensure balance over time by publishing other perspectives and opinions on the same subject in other programs, program segments or platforms. When the subject is highly controversial, we consider scheduling additional programming with alternate opinions, in an appropriate time frame.

CBC hosts and journalists do not participate in or create point of view documentaries.

The Director should be consulted before a point of view documentary is procured and aired.

While the nature of this series implied the material would be presented from a particular perspective, the policy does call for its specific labelling. It is important that this convention be more rigorously observed. Ms. Krupa told you it would be added to the website associated with the series and that change has been made. On the introductory series page, there is this proviso:

Interrupt this Program uncovers the underground art scenes of cities under pressure, with point of view docs from filmmakers that explore the varied perspectives of artists working amid tension, dissent, or political unrest.

I urge the programmers to ensure this information is available during the broadcast of these episodes as well. Ms. Krupa used the analogy of an opinion section - generally speaking, they are clearly delineated in a publication or on a website. It should be equally apparent on air as well.

While the initial web page offering did not explicitly use the term “point of view”, its explanation of the series provided valuable context:

Season 3 pushes the standard definition of a conflict zone, turning a critical eye to Europe and North America. This season will also feature Canadian artists with direct roots in the featured cities, speaking to the diverse nature of our country and challenging preconceived notions of who is a Canadian.

Each city has its unique struggle, and artists are responding in their own ways: disrupting prevailing attitudes toward violence against women, expanding the space for free expression, using art to fight race and class inequalities and challenging commonplace definitions of artistic expression.

This documentary features several artists who state their loyalty and commitment to Poland. They share their personal views of the social and political reality in Poland today. That is the essence of democracy - to use art to engage in a discussion about the values of a society. You assert it was propaganda - it was an examination of some of the pressure points and conflicts in Poland today seen through the eyes of these artists. They are featured because of their activism. This is a series about art as dissent. One artist was a songwriter performer who used her music to promote her views. Another was a gay performance artist who had experienced discrimination. Their experience was not made up but documented. It is not the whole story, and that is obvious as well. The documentary contained a scene in which the artist climbs a public monument as an expression of her performance art. A bystander called the police who arrive and are seen treating the artist with respect. The singer is shown at a well-attended music festival. Two visual artists are able to place a statue in a public place. This is not a condemnation of a society as a whole. The singer, Maria Peschek, is first heard referencing the difficult and tragic history of Warsaw, and pays homage to that history:

Warsaw is a tragic city, it’s a city of death. Everywhere there are inscriptions saying “thousands of people were dead on this day, tens of people were dead here, heroes that got killed for this city. We know how to die for freedom, but as soon as we get this freedom, we are messing it up, we are destroying it. I just have to think and write about Poland, no matter how strongly they hate me for saying the truth about this country.

You are correct that Michael Rubenfeld, a theatre artist raised in Canada with Polish roots, recounted his grandmother’s fears and views of the country as anti-Semitic. He goes on to explain that he grew up with an “incredibly negative relationship with the country.” He went on to state that while he is against the current government, he learned his family’s narrative about the country was, in his words, “insane.” In other words, he is not endorsing his grandmother’s view of the complex relationship of Poles and Jews. There is a later scene with Mr. Rubenfeld as he walked through the Warsaw Jewish cemetery which further contradicts his grandmother’s view:

Before the war 30% of Poland was Jewish and now there’s maybe a few thousand Jews who are still left. The idea of the Jews of Poland almost at times feels mythological, because they’re all gone. When you come here, it is indisputable, these were actual people, and their life stories are here for you to read. You can see that there are people who actually had full, normal lives, and they died normal deaths, and that’s just not really a conversation that you have when you think about Jews dying in Poland. My first interaction with this alternative narrative came from my wife. I had never met a Jew who had good things to say about Poland until I met her.

(on stage) If it hadn’t been for Magda, I wouldn’t have known nothing about Polish-Jewish movement happening in Poland right now.

While there is no doubt this documentary only represents the views of people who are critical of the current government and their policy, it is not unrelentingly negative. You dispute the validity of framing any examination of Poland in these terms. These artists and other observers of the country would disagree. As a point of view documentary, the violation of CBC policy was the absence of an explicit label of the broadcast. It was not a violation of policy to present it.

The rest of the policy on POV documentaries indicates it is important that other perspectives and views are presented across other platforms. The POV documentary would rarely be appropriate on a news programme, for example. In the news, as Ms. Krupa indicated to you, there had been coverage of events in the country around the time the documentary ran. The articles included the voices of Polish officials and their views on events.

You dispute the validity of framing any examination of Poland in these terms. These artists and other observers of the country would disagree. As a point of view documentary, the violation of CBC policy was the absence of an explicit label of the broadcast. It was not a violation of policy to present it.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman