CBC’s farewell to objectivity

October 12, 2022

Jean-François Lisée, Le Devoir

October 12, 2022

You are an employee, executive, of a large company. You are professional, respect the laws and codes of ethics. If you cherish opinions that do not conform to the prevailing winds, you keep them to yourself. But now you are faced with a difficult decision. Your boss has just sent an email to all her employees inviting them to follow her at lunchtime to show their support for a noble but politically charged cause: Aboriginal reconciliation. Showing up at the march, wearing an orange shirt, the symbol of the day, even getting in the boss’s line of sight would be a good way to accumulate good points for future promotions. Not being there, on the other hand, would be a risk to your “debit” column. What does this one have against natives, one might ask in high places?

That was the dilemma that CBC President Catherine Tait imposed on her Ottawa headquarters staff in late September. The invitation was also extended to members of the newsroom. They had previously thought that if they were to be present during social movements, it would be to take note of the slogans being chanted, not to devise and chant them. Several complained about this to fellow journalists in other media, on condition of anonymity.

Perhaps these journalists have not followed closely enough the repositioning of their bosses over the past two years. In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, the English network’s news editor, Brodie Fenlon, said there would be a before and after. “We have heard the not-so-new criticism that our interpretation of CBC journalistic standards and practices is so rigid that it can stifle important voices and lived experience within the organisation. Do our definitions of objectivity, balance, fairness and impartiality – and our insistence that journalists not express personal opinions on the issues we cover – run counter to our goals of inclusion and belonging to the community and country we serve?”

There are two imperatives to disentangle. That newsrooms and directorates are staffed to roughly reflect the make-up of the population is a necessary thing. It changes the point of view, the angle of approach, the order of priorities in coverage, brings them closer to the diversity and complexity of reality. Good for you. But to invoke the right of journalists to express opinions or to approach issues from their own experience to derogate from the quest for objectivity and neutrality is nothing less than an insult to the journalistic mission. It is also an insult to the right of listeners and viewers to form their own opinions based on the facts presented.

The damage is obviously already visible. The suspension of the excellent Wendy Mesley, guilty of using the title of Pierre Vallières’ book, Nègres blancs d’Amérique, in a business meeting, was only the first sign. The decision by CBC management to apologise for the fact that French-language radio journalists had committed the same offence was the most recent.

Here’s another: during the truckers’ blockade in Ottawa, a CBC reporter, Omayra Issa, wrote this tweet: “White rage on full display. As always, it undermines safety, lives, institutions, ideals. Reducing an anti-sanitation protest with racists on the sidelines to “white rage” is like defining a climate protest as “anarchist” because of Black Block infiltration.

A citizen, Isabelle Laporte, complained to the CBC in French. The station replied in English on behalf of the editor, Fenlon. It started well: “It is important that journalists refrain from expressing opinions on controversial issues.” Then it went off the rails: “Omayra is also, however, a reporter who regularly receives hate mail because of her skin colour, so her reality is a life experience and perspective that is important, even if more context should have been offered.” She actually removed her tweet, to “avoid further confusion”. To put it plainly: because she is black and the object of insults, she can call a demonstration “white rage”. She is therefore free to do it again, provided she fleshes out her words a little better.

But that is not all. Laporte noted in her complaint that an accusation of white rage against protesters was inherently racist because it was linked to the colour of their skin. She received a stern reminder from the CBC of the dogma now in force in these parts: “A Black reporter reporting on the racism of a group of white people is not racism. (Note that at the CBC, the words Black and Aboriginal are capitalized, but not white. Disclaimer: this is not racism, it is because there is no “white history or white culture”. At Radio-Canada’s French service, as at Le Devoir, they practice equal capitalization instead).

In the face of what can only be considered a serious drift, it is important to emphasise the extent to which colleagues in the French sector of Radio-Canada are resisting. Even the leaders oppose, openly, what they rightly consider to be a betrayal of their duty to inform. Among the resisters are several journalists from Quebec’s diversity.

In English Canada, author and editor Jonathan Kay has become something of a chief critic of the progress of institutional wokism. He recently wrote on his feed, “French Canadians are the adults in the room while the CBC turns into a student newspaper.”

jflisee@ledevoir.com / blog : jflisee.org

Translation validated by Michel Virard.

Note: Jean-François Lisée is a regular columnist at Le Devoir. He knows politics from the inside since he was a Member of the Québec National Assembly in a former life.

Michel Virard