CBC Ombudsman says apology “unwise”, but anti-Palestinian language guide is “reasonable”

Six months after CBC’s show The Current deleted, and apologized for using, the word Palestine, the CBC Ombudsman has finally released his review of the case. His long report concluded “that while The Current did not violate journalistic standards, producers made a poor decision in issuing an apology. Even though the original program was at odds with CBC’s usual practice, it would have been better to leave it as is.”

The Ombudsman posed 4 questions. Did CBC violate its own journalistic standards. He answered No. Is CBC’s language guide on Palestine reasonable? Yes, it is. Did the on-air apology violate CBC’s standards? No.

But then question number 4: Was the apology reasonable in this instance? The answer was No, despite the CBC staff adhering to the supposedly “reasonable” language guide.

For those not familiar with the background, on August 18, 2020, The Current carried an interview with Joe Sacco where the host used the word Palestine. This was deleted in the later online version and apologized for the next day. Following multiple complaints from listeners, it was learnt that CBC’s language guide actually embeds this kind of anti-Palestinian discourse.

It might appear positive that the Ombudsman conceded that “the decision to excise the word Palestine from future editions, and the decision to make the apology, were both unwise.” But his conclusion is tainted by the fact that this incident is presented as merely an aberration, against a background of otherwise sound CBC policy on language regarding Palestine. As such, this can only be regarded as mere window-dressing.

Perhaps the negative and broad backlash generated by this whole controversy was the main reason for the conclusion that the apology was “a poor decision”. Frankly, CBC looked extremely foolish when news of this controversy broke; the more senior management tried to defend it, the more ridiculous they appeared. Even the guest on the show, Joe Sacco, questioned the apology and noted: “To whom, exactly, was the CBC apologizing for using the word ‘Palestine’?”

We question if there is an “in-house hasbara unit” at CBC, given the extreme tone of the relevant language clause, detailed previously in an official response by Paul Hambleton, Director of Journalistic Standards.

Palestine vs. Palestinian territories — There is no modern country of Palestine, although there’s a movement to establish one as part of a two-state peace agreement with Israel. So do not refer to Palestine or show a map with Palestine as a country. Use the term “pro-Palestinian” instead of “pro-Palestine” when referring in generic ways to Palestinian supporters. Areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority are considered Palestinian territories: Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza Strip…In November 2012, the United Nations voted to grant “non-member observer state” status to Palestine. We can accurately mention this in stories when relevant. But the UN does not grant nationhood, and it remains premature to call Palestinian territories the country of Palestine. When making references to historical Palestine, use clear language (e.g., “British Palestine” is the accepted term for the British Mandate of Palestine, which administered the region between 1920 and the birth of Israel in 1948).

To conclude that this language guide is “reasonable”, but somehow implementing it as The Current did was “unwise”, is both disingenuous and misleading. Of course, the decision of Current producers was made even more ludicrous, given that Joe Sacco has a book entitled Palestine. But this whole incident simply highlighted how fundamentally flawed CBC’s language guide is, something the Ombudsman refused to acknowledge; in fact, it was the logical extension and outcome of the dictates in the language guide.

Further, the Ombudsman’s review unfairly shifts the blame from CBC’s inherently biased policies to individual programmers.

After insisting that CBC’s approach is “coherent” and in “good faith”, the Ombudsman does note:
“That said, it is understood that the language guide is a living document, and incidents such as this should prompt CBC to revisit its guidelines not only to ensure that editorial leaders are still confident that they have struck the appropriate balance, but also to ensure that CBC staff know how to apply the guidelines.”

CBC: This is Censorship

The Ombudsman is adamant that there is no censorship of Palestine at CBC, dismissing such “rhetoric” as “simply untrue”. But what are listeners to understand from a policy that insists staff must not refer to Palestine, must not show a map with Palestine as a country, and must not even use the term pro-Palestine in a generic way? To censor is defined by Merriam-Webster as to “suppress or delete as objectionable”; this is exactly what CBC is doing in their language guide.

We know that other listeners have been told several times that CBC guidelines are always being revisited, but to no avail. As the complainant referenced in the Ombudsman’s report, we call on CBC to immediately review its language guide on Palestine and amend it to reflect not only international reality but also to show a commitment to impartiality and follow its declared mission to “seek out the truth”. Their policy as it stands now is both offensive and censorship; its denial of the existence of Palestine as a country, a nation, a people, and a culture with thousands of years of history amounts to institutional and systemic anti-Palestinian racism.

Check out our letter to the Ombudsman requesting the review: CBC Insists on Erasing Palestinian National Identity – Canada Palestine Association (cpavancouver.org)

Coverage of this campaign: ‘Do not refer to Palestine or show a map with Palestine as a country’ — the CBC’s Orwellian rules – Mondoweiss