CBC ombudsman: Raising religion is delicate issue, but sometimes necessary

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

A number of people wrote to express their concerns about an interview Evan Solomon did on a Power and Politics episode. He was talking with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird about the appointment of Vivian Bercovici as the ambassador to Israel. Mr. Solomon asked about the decision to name a non-diplomat to the post, as well as someone who had expressed strong public views about the mid-east peace process, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The question that raised concern was one in which he asked if the fact that the appointee was Jewish could create a perception of bias. When the Minister responded he didn’t even know her religion when he appointed her, the host challenged that statement.

The complainants felt it was wrong to raise her religion and that Mr. Solomon was saying that her appointment was inappropriate. One complainant, Steven Scheffer, asked for a review. While it is a sensitive issue, CBC policy allows for inclusion of ethnic or gender description when it has editorial relevance. I found that in this case mentioning the religion of the new ambassador did not violate the policy.

COMPLAINT

You objected to an interview Evan Solomon did on the January 8, 2014, edition of Power & Politics with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, about his government’s appointment of Vivian Bercovici as ambassador to Israel. You felt Mr. Solomon “conspicuously and maliciously” made Ms. Bercovici’s religion an issue.


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You also thought that Mr. Solomon deliberately mispronounced her name to draw further attention to her religion:

“Not only did he suggest the inappropriateness of her appointment because she was Jewish, he attempted to stress her Jewishness four times by referring to her as Vivian Bercovitch and then had the temerity to question Mr. Baird's honesty. Fortunately Mr. Baird was more than capable of destroying Mr. Solomon's premises.”

You asked for a public apology to the Minister, Ms. Bercovici, the viewers of the CBC and the Jewish community of Canada.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns.

He began by acknowledging that your sensitivity to the raising of the ambassador-designate’s religion was understandable. He disagreed, however, that what Mr. Solomon had done was suggest that the appointment was inappropriate because of her religion. He added: “Mr. Solomon’s job as an interviewer is to seek accountability from public officials. That is all he did.” He explained the context of the interview was set at the outset, which was to ask the Minister if the government was sending a signal with its selection of Ms. Bercovici:

“Mr. Solomon posed questions to ask the federal government: why, for such a sensitive position, would it choose to hire someone who was not a professional diplomat, and who had such strong public views on the Middle East?

He also noted the reality (and however much we wish it weren't true, it is a reality) that some people would think sending someone who's Jewish to this region creates a perception of bias. Asking the minister whether that's a problem does not say anything about Ms. Bercovici. It explores what factors the government takes into consideration for such an appointment.”

He said that Mr. Solomon did not in any way suggest that Ms. Bercovici was not qualified for the position. Rather he “expressed skepticism about Mr. Baird’s claim that he was unaware of her background,” given the level of scrutiny prospective diplomats must go through before the government appoints them. Mr. Nagler explained it was appropriate to ask the follow-up question to the minister, and that the audience of Power and Politics would expect Mr. Solomon to do so.

REVIEW

CBC has policy that addresses the use of a person’s ethnicity, religion or disability. In essence, it discourages use of these references for descriptors unless it has editorial relevance. The policy on “Respect and Absence of Prejudice” states:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.

To continue reading this column, please visit ombudsman.cbc.radio-canada.ca, where it was originally published.
 

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