CBC says now is not the time to review its language around Hamas

The public broadcaster has a policy of not calling Hamas fighters ‘terrorists’

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While CBC has been inundated with hundreds of complaints for refusing to use the word “terrorist” when referring to Hamas fighters in its coverage of the Israel-Hamas war, Brodie Fenlon, the editor-in-chief of CBC News, says now is not the time to revisit that policy.

While stating that “nothing is set in stone,” and the public broadcaster assesses its language guide “all the time,” Fenlon added that “when you are in the heat of an intense moment, that’s not the time to suddenly change course.”

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“If we were ever to get to that point, we would do it very carefully. And we would do it not in a moment of intense pressure, or hostilities,” Fenlon told The Canadian Jewish News Daily podcast host Ellin Bessner.

Fenlon added that the current language standards have been in place for nearly 40 years.

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Earlier this month, a leaked memo from George Achi, CBC’s director of journalistic standards, advised journalists with the public broadcaster to avoid the use of the word “terrorist” when referring to Hamas fighters.

“Do not refer to militants, soldiers, or anyone else as ‘terrorists,’” the memo states.

“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.”

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Hamas is a listed terrorist entity according to the Canadian government, which describes it as “a radical Islamist-nationalist terrorist organization.”

The Prime Minister also used the term earlier this month in response to pro-Palestinian rallies. “Hamas terrorists aren’t a resistance, they’re not freedom fighters,” Trudeau said. “They are terrorists, and no one in Canada should be supporting them, much less celebrating them.”

Fenlon said CBC is in lockstep with a number of news organizations in its approach, including the BBC, Reuters, AP and AFP.

“Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn — who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” wrote BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson earlier this month.

“We regularly point out that the British and other governments have condemned Hamas as a terrorist organization, but that’s their business. We also run interviews with guests and quote contributors who describe Hamas as terrorists,” he added. “The key point is that we don’t say it in our voice. Our business is to present our audiences with the facts, and let them make up their own minds.”

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Fenlon, for his part, has said CBC follows a similar tact.

“It’s just about attribution,” Fenlon told Bessner. “When we use it, we attribute it either in direct quotes or by paraphrasing what someone has said.”

He added “When someone says that this is terrorism, we quote them accurately. The distinction is that the CBC itself, the news division of the CBC, does not designate groups as terrorist or not, or acts as terrorism.”

Fenlon also addressed the policy in a lengthy blog post last week, writing that CBC’s job is to “bear witness.”

“CBC News does not itself designate specific groups as terrorists, or specific acts as terrorism, regardless of the region or the events, because these words are so loaded with meaning, politics and emotion that they can end up being impediments to our journalism,” he wrote.

That explanation has not satisfied everyone, however. Earlier this week, Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman put forward a motion asking the parliamentary committee on public accounts to denounce the position of the public broadcaster.

Lantsman also called for various CBC executives to appear in front of the committee for a minimum of two hours each, including Achi, as well as CBC president and CEO Catherine Tait and English-services ombudsman Jack Nagler.

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The motion was blocked Tuesday by the Liberals, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.

“Given that this is a public broadcaster, that is held up by Canadian taxpayer dollars, it is incumbent upon this committee to hear from CBC leadership as to why this decision was made,” Conservative MP Rachael Thomas, who acts as the party’s critic on Canadian Heritage, said in support of Lantsman’s motion.

Speaking with Bessner, Fenlon echoed his blog post, stating that using the “loaded” word runs the risk of getting in the way of CBC’s journalism.

“We tell our journalists what you need to do is report with precision of language and accuracy. Be fact-based, describe in explicit detail what happened, report accurately on how people describe what happened. That’s our job.”

He added that the intention is to avoid reporters being “pulled into a debate that actually distracts us from doing that work, which is telling the story, what happened and in doing it in real time.

“People disagree, of course. And not all news organizations do it this way. Others have different approaches and that’s OK.”

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When pressed about the government’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist group, Fenlon said the public broadcaster does not take cues from Ottawa.

“What government does has no bearing on us or the decisions we make,” he said. “We are editorially independent and that’s actually enshrined in law. So there is no connection and we don’t take our cues from the government. We take our cues from what we believe is in the public interest.”

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Originally posted 2023-10-19 17:57:38.