CBC ombudsman: It’s all about context

By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

In a column published in March, about some of the western countries’ responses to Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukraine, Neil Macdonald cited several examples of inconsistent response to international incidents. One of the examples he used was the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The complainant, Dr. Leonard Direnfeld, thought it outrageous to compare Israel to Russia’s activities. He also thought that the article condemned and called illegal the seizing of the territories in the 1967 war. He was one of many who expressed concerns about the article. I found that the article in fact did not compare the two countries, and that the Israeli example was one of many. It was fully in context because the article, and a segment on The National, was actually an analysis of remarks made by U.S. President Barack Obama while sitting with the Prime Minister of Israel. It is also acceptable and correct to call the West Bank occupied territories. The context was clear enough but the column was amended to clarify that the settlements are in violation of international law.


On the March 3, 2014, edition of The National, and in a longer column on the CBC News web site on March 5, Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald talked about the response of the United States and other western countries to the Russian move to take over Crimea. U.S. President Barack Obama invoked international law to criticize Putin. Obama was responding to reporters’ questions during a “photo opportunity” at the White House while meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Macdonald pointed to times that the United States has occupied or invaded other countries unilaterally as an example of the “hypocrisy” of international diplomacy and of countries like the United States and Britain. He said:

America, of course, has invaded multiple countries on its own authority, and today Obama lectured Russia while sitting alongside an ally who occupies the West Bank in violation of international law. But hypocrisy is part of the warp and weft of diplomacy. What really counts is power, money and guns.

The article on the website elaborated on the notion of hypocrisy in diplomacy and made a similar reference to Israel.

You objected to two aspects of this reference: You felt that “Mr. Macdonald vilifies Israel” when he discussed Russian invasion of Crimea, and that it was completely inappropriate to mention Israel in this context at all. You also objected to Mr. Macdonald saying Israel occupied Palestinian territory in violation of international law:

This is unbalanced, misleading and factually incorrect. At worst these can be called disputed territories. This in no way contravenes International Law.

You rejected the explanation that Mr. Macdonald was referring to the settlements in the occupied territories being illegal:

The article leads one to believe that the land is occupied illegally full stop. The land is not occupied land, it is disputed and I am not convinced that the settlements are in any way illegal.

You were one of about 70 people who wrote to complain about the report on The National and the website article. The complainants had similar concerns. They felt the information was wrong, and the reference to Israel in this context was gratuitous.


The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns. He said that the citation of Israel in this context was appropriate. He explained that the focus of the piece on The National was the increased Russian pressure on Crimea in light of reports that Russian troops were on the ground there. He said the purpose of the piece was to add some context to the diplomatic maneuverings of the United States and other western governments.

He said Mr. Macdonald reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin was scornful of threats of western sanctions and boycotts and demands for withdrawals of Russian troops from Crimea. He added that Putin accused the western powers of making up their own rules when it suits them, and that there is a double standard in matters of international law. It is this idea, Mr. Nagler explained, that is being explored in the National piece, and in much greater detail in the accompanying web article. And he emphasized that Mr. Macdonald was referring to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and not the holding of the territory as “illegal.” He wrote:

As evidence, he pointed out that earlier that day U.S. President Barack Obama had said Russia’s actions were in “violation of international law”. Yet, as he wrote in an analysis for CBCNews.ca, Mr. Macdonald said the United States and its allies had also violated international law when they felt it was in their interest. The United States had invaded multiple countries on its own authority, he said. And with its allies, it had invaded Iraq on a false pretext, while denouncing Mr. Putin’s pretext for going into Crimea.

Citing a more immediate example of the hypocrisy he described as “part of the warp and weft of diplomacy”, he noted that earlier that day President Obama had lectured Russia about its international legal obligations during a joint news conference while sitting next to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “an ally who occupies the West Bank in violation of international law”. In other words, Israel is currently occupying the West Bank in violation of international law because the building of settlements on occupied land is illegal. (He was not suggesting that Israel’s taking the area during the 1967 war and holding it was illegal, it was not. Had he meant that, he would have said Israel occupied the West Bank in violation of international law).

I should note that we revised a similar sentence in the online analysis to make it clear that it is the settlements that violate international law. We also added a prominent note advising readers that we had clarified that sentence.

He pointed out that U.S. President Barack Obama made his remarks about Russian interference and international law while sitting with the Israeli Prime Minister at his side.

Mr. Nagler also addressed your preference for the West Bank to be referred to as “disputed” rather than occupied. He pointed out that while the Israeli government might prefer that term, it is “widely considered internationally – including by the Canadian government – to be territory ‘occupied’ by Israel since the 1967 war.”


There are two issues here: One is the fairness of invoking Israel in the context of the story on The National and the longer analysis piece on the web; the other is the accuracy and fairness of the reference to the occupation of the West Bank “in violation of international law.” As a corollary to that, you also question the use of the word “occupied” in the first place.

To continue reading this column, please go the CBC ombudsman's website where it was originally published. 

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