Tough Talk - Confrontational Interviews.

The complainant, Laura Finsten, was appalled - as were many others - at a question put to a senior Israeli political figure regarding the number of Palestinians killed by the IDF during protests at the Gaza-Israel border. She also thought there was no regard for Israel’s perspective. While the phrasing was harsh, it is legitimate to hold public officials accountable and to ask hard questions. That is what journalism is.

COMPLAINT

You were upset by an interview conducted by Carol Off, host of As It Happens, with Michael Oren, Deputy Minister in the office of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, regarding the violence at the Israel-Gaza border. Israeli troops had killed 60 Palestinians and thousands were injured in days of skirmishes at the fence that separates Gaza and Israel. You cited the opening question as particularly upsetting. Ms. Off started the interview by saying “Deputy Minister Oren, is there any limit to the number of Palestinians that Israel is willing to shoot and kill?” You labelled this “the 21st century blood libel”:

I have come to the conclusion that it the 21st century blood libel. It is premised on the idea that Israelis are bloodthirsty and have no regard for human life. It reflects a bias against Israel, an anti-Israel animus, so deep that I must ask that Ms. Off and her entire production team be fired. They are all bigots.

You said the interview did not allow the Israeli perspective nor was the perspective of the Israeli government presented in all the coverage on the programme that day. You contrasted the treatment of Mr. Oren with other interviews that day which were not as challenging. You felt Israel was singled out when, in fact, Israel was acting in self-defence. You stated that there might be other conflicts in the region, but it is only Gaza that has “a terror group” which has “weaponized its civilian population.” You said Mr. Oren was used as a “whipping boy” for the programme’s own agenda. You thought the programmers should reassess and consider “that perhaps the IDF were doing exactly what Michael Oren said they were – targeting terrorists. Imperfectly, as these things always go, but targeting terrorists sworn to destroy their country and kill their citizens.”

Others wrote to complain about this interview, and Marjorie Gann also asked for a review. Ms. Gann also thought the interview was biased, that the IDF were operating in self-defence and had to shoot before protesters could breach the fence. She concluded:

I would argue that Carol Off’s line of questioning on May 15 and May 17 was naïve and her background on the story was incomplete, leading to an anti-Israel bias.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, responded to your complaint. She addressed your objection to the phrasing of the first question, acknowledging it might have been better put. She explained the issue that the programmers really wanted to examine was the fact that there was a sense that because of the disproportionate death toll, while Israel had “beaten back the Palestinians,” in the eyes of many they had lost the public relations war. It is in that context the question was asked. Ms. Off was probing to see if there was a point at which Israeli officials would consider that the cost of defending the border against the demonstrators with live ammunition was exacting too high a price for Israel in terms of international disapproval:

The question cuts to the intersection of reality and perception. It suggests a dilemma seen repeatedly in conflicts in the Middle East and around the world: Can the cost of winning be too high? It was the essence of Ms. Off’s question. At what point would Israel find the cost here too high.

It was the question many Canadians were asking. In retrospect, I think we could have rephrased it or given it added context to make our intention clearer.

She added it was appropriate to put this matter to Mr. Oren, a diplomat and politician who is Deputy Minister in the office of Benjamin Netanyahu. She pointed out he was able to strongly and clearly put the case of his government. She said Ms. Off was doing her duty as a journalist by challenging his views and statements and pointing out there are other views.

REVIEW

All judgements must be measured against the fairness and balance commitments made in the Journalistic Standards and Practices. Journalism has to be fair and balanced. It has to be rigorous. There is another value not as often evoked in assessing complaints, and that is the commitment to independence. The policy states:

We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

In essence, it means journalists pursue ideas and ask uncomfortable questions to get at the meaning of things. That was a difficult interview. It exhibited an important facet of the work journalists do - and that is, in matters of controversy, or dealing with those with accountability - to ask hard and penetrating questions. Having said that, I agree with Ms. Smythe that the first questions were badly phrased and might have been more thoughtfully put.

One of your criticisms was that the Israeli government perspective was not represented on the programme that day. Michael Oren is a high placed official in the government. It is true the position of the Israeli government was not presented without challenge, but Mr. Oren was clear and articulate in his views. In response to the combative first question he stated:

It depends on Hamas, Carol. Israel bears absolutely zero responsibility for this. This is Hamas which starves out its own population, it burns fuel, burns food going into Gaza to starve out the population to create despair and then drives the population to the fence, hoping these poor people can punch a hole in the fence, so that terrorists can pour through and kill our civilians.

Mr. Oren was delivering the perspective and position of his government. It is a journalist's job to probe and challenge those positions - especially when they are matters of some controversy.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue. For those that believe that there is only one position with validity, then questioning it is biased. It would be equally true if the interview was to explore Hamas’s position. Those who strongly hold one view of the conflict allow for little nuance, nor the possibility that the truth is complex and may intersect with more than one set of facts or interpretation of those facts. In my experience there are few areas of controversy with more strongly entrenched positions than this one.

Two days after this interview, Ms. Off interviewed Ahmed Yousef, a spokesperson for Hamas. It was every bit as challenging and confrontational. She asked if “Hamas had blood on its hands.” She put to him all the issues and facts you said were ignored in the interview with Mr. Oren. Their absence in this interview does not negate the importance or value. Just as she challenged Mr. Oren to articulate Israel’s position and accountability, she did the same thing with Ahmed Yousef:

CAROL OFF

Is it not true that the intention of this was to break through the fence and did you not have the intentions of trying to have Hamas’s people trying to get into Israel to do whatever you could do when you got in there. Was that not the intention of breaking through the fence?

AHMED YOUSEF

Ma’am, with all due respect to you, can you imagine that there are a hundred thousand, or at least a quarter of a million people, marching to the fence and causing nothing to the Israeli side. There is no single Israeli being injured or killed. So why are you buying the Israeli propaganda and saying these things? Show me the facts and then we can talk. This is unfair.

CO

And they would agree that there were no Israeli casualties during these conflicts, but that doesn’t mean that Hamas was not intending them, and Haaretz has reported that Hamas had posted pictures and maps on Sunday of routes from the border fence, once inside, to nearby Israeli communities … is that not true, sir, did that not happen?

CBC Journalistic policy states that balance is achieved over time. Journalists are not stenographers - they are interpreters and challengers. This interview makes for uncomfortable listening. Ms. Smythe acknowledged the questions were not well phrased. I agree. The policy speaks of treating various perspectives even-handedly. If this were the one instance where Ms. Off had conducted a confrontational interview, that would be a concern. There is the example of the Hamas interview - but there have been others on a range of subjects. The common theme, as it should be, is that she is engaging with people who have a high degree of accountability or hold controversial views. Not every interview will be as rigorous; a range of factors will inform the approach. As I have stated before, news coverage achieves balance over time. News coverage is iterative in its attempts to arrive at the truth. Balance is not measured by counting the number of times there were challenging interviews of proponents of each side - that would be terribly simplistic.

I note as well that one of the hallmarks of As It Happens and Ms. Off’s body of work is its iconoclastic approach and its tough interviews. A quick review of stories in the last year or so yields many examples of Ms. Off relentlessly seeking an answer to the question she asked, generally at the heart of the matter. For example, in an interview with Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP, she probed for minutes at a time to get him to articulate whether or not he supported the creation of an independent Sikh state, and to respond to the fact that he sat next to the leader of the co-founder of the National Sikh Youth Federation, who publicly said that violence is a “legitimate form of resistance and survival.” She did equally blunt interviews with figures as diverse as Julian Fantino, who was starting a medical marijuana company, the Executive Director of Oxfam International responding to allegations of sexual abuse by aid workers and Jane Philpott, the Indigenous Services Minister about federal participation into an inquiry about the number of Innu children taken into care. The common denominator is the interviewer’s determination to get past the “talking points” and general answers to the real views and positions of the interviewees. As controversial as the interview with Mr. Oren was, it fit into this mode and approach. It did not violate CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin|
CBC Ombudsman