The private person and public persona

The complainant, Stephan Hladkyj, considered a segment on The Current about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange disrespectful and inappropriate. He thought talking about conflicts with his hosts in the Ecuadorian embassy regarding his personal habits trivialized his plight. One of the two interviews was meant in humour. What is funny is highly subjective. It may have not worked for some, but it did not violate policy. The other more serious interview addressed the issues in an acceptable way.

COMPLAINT

You took exception to a segment on The Current broadcast October 19 regarding Julian Assange and reports that the Ecuadorian government had imposed new rules. Mr. Assange has been an asylum seeker in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the last six years. You said that the coverage “mocked” him and his predicament in the embassy. Some of the rule changes announced by the Ecuadorian government referred to his hygiene and the care of his cat. You said this was part of a smear campaign instead of serious coverage of “the foremost public interest journalist of this generation.” You cited the host, Piya Chattopadhyay, referring to Mr. Assange, saying that he did not appear “clear about the concept of ‘cleaning up his crap’” was sophomoric and an example of making fun of and diminishing the man and his situation:

It seems that the game plan is to plant the seed in the public mind that Mr. Assange is a smelly, stinky nuisance. I understand why this would be par for the course for UK fake media but why is the CBC indulging in the same smear campaign instead of devoting some serious coverage into the foremost public interest journalist of this generation?

You thought diminishing his plight to one of a house guest was feeding into a particular narrative perpetrated by segments of the United Kingdom media, much like the Guardian, and did a disservice to a man who has essentially been in solitary confinement for six years:

Mr. Assange is not living in anyone’s house. He was granted asylum in an embassy for legitimate reasons and he is also now a citizen of Ecuador. I believe it is also a fact that diplomatic posts have maintenance staff to clean everyone’s living quarters so that the entire premise of the program that Mr. Assange is singularly untidy is ludicrous beyond belief.

You also felt it completely inappropriate and disrespectful to interview a butler who has no expertise or knowledge related to Mr. Assange:

A butler, I repeat, a butler was deemed to be a suitable commentator on the fate of one of your fellow journalists fearing torture and the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life brutalized in an American Supermax facility should he lose his asylum.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, replied to your concerns. She told you she regretted you found the segment offensive, but she did not agree with your characterization. She pointed out there were two interviews - the first was with the Guardian’s correspondent based in Lima. She explained this part of the coverage was prompted by the fact that the government of Ecuador had issued “a stringent new set of rules” for Mr. Assange to follow in the London embassy. She referred to the “rather fraught relationship with the embassy staff and the government.” She said in this interview Ms. Chattopadhyay focused on Mr. Assange’s ongoing plight:

… the interview began with guest host Piya Chattopadhyay asking him about the rules, but the focus of the interview was about the difficult situation Mr. Assange is in and the very serious issues he is facing, including how he could be affected by a change in the Ecuadorian government, the impact of Internet access changes, and his likely fate if he is forced to leave the embassy. I don’t expect anyone listening to that interview would be left with any doubt about the seriousness of his plight.

It was the second interview that had a different tone. She told you that some of the details of the disagreements with his hosts had attracted some humourous responses. There was a brief excerpt from an Australian satirical programme. Ms. Goldhar said that in a light-hearted manner the programme sought advice for Mr. Assange from a man who is an expert on guest and host behaviour. Charles MacPherson is the author of The Butler Speaks and has worked overseeing large households. Ms. Goldhar said she did not think it was offensive, but she shared your response with senior staff so they would understand how material like this may be received:

It was a light-hearted interview certainly, but it was not in any fashion mocking or barbed. While we hoped listeners might find some humour in it, at base, I think it was sympathetic to Mr. Assange’s very difficult situation.

REVIEW

The Current provided a two-part treatment of news events involving Julian Assange. It is a current events programme bound by journalistic standards and practices, but with a mandate to provide context and various approaches to the news of the day. The first part of the segment was an interview with a reporter with knowledge of some of the issues that had arisen between Mr. Assange and his Ecuadorian hosts. You disputed some of the Guardian’s reporting concerning Mr. Assange, which is beyond the scope of this review. I note the discussion began with a quote from a former Ambassador to the United Kingdom which indicates there had been friction in the relationship. Mr. Assange also took court action arising out of these events. He is a public figure, and with that comes the kind of scrutiny and comment that private individuals do not experience. You may object to the choice of the wording “house guest” but it is not a violation of CBC policy to use words that some might not approve of. The content of the interview, as Ms. Goldhar indicated, was actually quite serious. The comment “cleaning up your crap” is in context. Ms. Chattopadhyay first asked what were some of the new rules the embassy was imposing on Mr. Assange. The reporter answered and this was her follow-up question:

PC: This is not a joke? These are real rules are saying look, listen, buddy, you need to start taking care of yourself, and cleaning up your crap around our place. Thank you.

DC: Well yes, it does sound like that. And this has been stated in a in an official document which is nine pages long. It's a memo, which was leaked to the Codigo Vidrio a website in Ecuador which is run by an investigative journalist called Arturo Torres. And this is an official document, and indeed, Assange’s lawyers have responded to it. Because they're not beyond the domestic habits, it also sets out that he can only use the Wi-Fi of the embassy for his personal computer and his phone.

While starting with what was somewhat unusual, the conversation turned toward some of the more substantive problems Mr. Assange faced, and the interview continued in that vein. Ms. Chattopadhyay in leading that discussion acknowledged some aspects are more trivial than others:

PIYA CHATTOPADHYAY
OK. I mean the Internet and the communication stuff is the more dense and important part of this. And I will ask you more about those more serious issues in a second, but I just want to take one quick moment to ask you, so they've also told me you know like pick up your stuff, look after your cat, clean up your bathroom, do your own laundry. What's the consequence if he doesn't do those things? Have they said?

The reporter indicated that there is a great deal at stake for Mr. Assange and pointed out the hardship of this six year ordeal. He talked about the team of lawyers working on his behalf. I noted too that he referred to him as an “asylee”.

You are right that the second interview was quite different in tone and tenor. But it is consistent with the type of treatments used on The Current. This is not a newscast. The host indicated the change of direction and that the next part would be humorous. While the interview with the butler was linked to the case of Mr. Assange, it really was a conversation about the common problems of houseguests. I did not take it to be “advice” to Mr. Assange but rather an opportunity to have a bit of fun. After an initial reference to him, the conversation turned to general questions about etiquette when visiting. Humour is always subjective, and I appreciate you found this disrespectful and inappropriate. Ms. Goldhar acknowledged she shared that information with her programmers. There are no grounds to judge it in violation of policy. CBC journalistic policy allows for a range of perspectives, voices and approach over a period of time. While you believe CBC has not done enough about Mr. Assange and his plight, there is a body of work over the years on The Current and many other CBC platforms that addressed the issues involved in his situation, and the impact of the material that has been released. In the last week, for instance, cbcnews.ca has reported about the news that it is likely the U.S. prosecutors have prepared charges against him.

Sincerely,


Esther Enkin

CBC Ombudsman