CBC News language guide says use of the word terrorism ‘can leave journalists taking sides in a conflict’
Bloc Québécois, NDP and most Liberal MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee voted Tuesday to shut down debate on a Conservative motion that would have prompted a study of the CBC's coverage of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.
Conservative MPs Melissa Lantsman and Rachael Thomas pushed their fellow parliamentarians to launch the study. They argued CBC's reporting on the conflict is biased because its language guide urges journalists to avoid using the words "terrorism" and "terrorist" when describing an attack and its perpetrators.
They wanted a CBC executive and its director of journalism standards to appear before MPs to answer questions about its policy on those words.
The Tory MPs suggested that CBC's policy warning against the use of "terrorist" terminology shields Hamas from criticism for perpetrating violence.
They also took issue with CBC guidance that says its journalists should be careful about describing the past Israeli presence in Gaza.
"Here's why this is so important — the CBC is a public broadcaster and gets $1.2 billion in taxpayer money," Thomas said during debate.
"The CBC is failing. They're failing the Jewish community. They're failing the innocent lives lost."
Thomas said the nature of Hamas's attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 more than justifies the use of the word "terrorism."
"What other side would you take when you have 1,400 people massacred in an evening? When you have 40 babies who are beheaded? Whose side are you on?" she said. "As if there would be some other side you can take.
"This is a terrorist organization functioning in a sadistic manner. It is pure evil and to suggest otherwise is alarming."
Now that this motion to call CBC executives has failed at the public accounts committee, the Conservatives will present a similar one at the heritage committee later this week.
CBC's editorial leaders have defended the corporation's extensive coverage of the conflict and said there's no "ban" on the use of the words "terrorist" or "terrorism" — they can be used in a quote or a clip when said by somebody else.
Leon Mar, a spokesperson for CBC, said the corporation's journalists are on the ground in the region "risking their safety in order to tell Canadians what is happening there.
"They are the very best at what they do and the quality and accuracy of their journalism stands among the best in the world."
Mar said the corporation is aware that "some members of Parliament believe they have a role in determining how journalists do their work."
"It is worth remembering that the independence of CBC/Radio-Canada's journalism from the government and Parliament is protected in law, in the Broadcasting Act," Mar said.
Lantsman said the members of Hamas, a group created in the late 1980s with founding documents that called for the destruction of Israel, should be called terrorists because of the brutality they inflicted on innocent Israeli civilians during a sneak attack earlier this month.
The Hamas attack left hundreds of Israelis dead — including at least six Canadians. Others were kidnapped.
"The Liberal-NDP government must stop protecting the CBC's gross journalistic incompetence and allow Conservatives to demand answers from the CBC's senior leadership," Lantsman said.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has vowed to "defund the CBC" if elected.
Ontario Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, a member of the public accounts committee, said Parliament shouldn't be policing what's said by a free press.
"I think the media has a very, very critical role to play in today's day and age, not only ensuring that they are giving an objective and fair voice to what is happening in the Middle East but also making sure they're not politicizing or inflaming issues that create further harm and hurt to communities here in Canada," she said during debate on the motion.
"We as Parliament, whether we agree with it or don't agree with it, should not have a say on what they're reporting on. I think we need to lower the temperature on this very, very sensitive issue."
Khalid then tabled a motion to adjourn — shut down — debate.
All Conservative MPs and Liberal MP Kody Blois voted against it.
Blois said he objected to closing off debate now because he had more to say on the issue.
Bloc Québécois MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné said the CBC is a public broadcaster free from government control and Parliament should leave editorial decisions to the company's leadership.
"Whatever the colour of the government, whether it's red or blue, the public television is not state television. It has to remain neutral," she said.
During question period, Bloc MP Martin Champoux took a different approach — chiding CBC's management for "muzzling" its journalists by telling them how to describe Hamas violence.
Champoux, the vice-chair of the Commons heritage committee, said journalists should be trusted to pick their own words to describe "Hamas's heinous attacks."
"For management to issue a directive is something else entirely. It borders on censorship. The CBC management themselves are muzzling the press and taking a position that enters into the political debate, which is not their role," Champoux said.
He asked Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, the minister responsible for CBC/Radio-Canada, to "remind CBC management that newsrooms must remain free of political and ideological influence."
This controversy was ignited by a leaked internal memo from George Achi, the CBC's director of journalistic standards and public trust.
In his correspondence with CBC journalists in the early hours of the Hamas attack, Achi urged staff to read the language guide's policy on the Middle East and its section on Gaza and terrorism in particular.
"The notion of terrorism remains heavily politicized and is part of the story. Even when quoting/clipping a government or a source referring to fighters as 'terrorists,' we should add context to ensure the audience understands this is opinion, not fact. That includes statements from the Canadian government and Canadian politicians," Achi said.
Achi was not specific about what "context" should be added when quoting someone else branding Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Achi's note and his references to the language guide were subsequently leaked to an outside group and picked up by other news outlets, such as Fox News and the New York Post.
The CBC language guide itself urges "extreme caution" when labelling anybody a "terrorist."
"While the language is not seriously disputed in some cases, it's less clear if not highly contested at other times — which can lead to virtually endless questions about consistency and impartiality in our coverage of various attacks around the world," the guide reads.
"Terrorism generally implies attacks against unarmed civilians for political, religious or some other ideological reason. But it's a highly controversial term that can leave journalists taking sides in a conflict."
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