How Media Practices Are Putting Liberal Democracies at Risk
Amidst all the deluge of coverage of the Hamas-Israel War, it might have escaped the notice of some readers that a small furor has erupted over the leaked memo from CBC Director of Journalistic Standards George Achi. The note warns journalists to scrupulously avoid referring to Hamas as a terrorist organization or its fighters as terrorists. The memo goes further and states “DO NOT refer to (Hamas) militants, soldiers or anyone else as “terrorists”…the notion of terrorism remains heavily politicized…Even when quoting a government source referring to the fighters as terrorists, we should add context to ensure the audience understands this is an opinion. This includes statements from the Canadian government and Canadian politicians.” [i]
An “opinion”????? Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Conservatives under Pierre Poilievre have had a field day with this revelation, since it allows them to attack the much despised public broadcaster with impunity, knowing full well that, on this issue, at least, the general public is with them. As Conservative Senator Leo Housakas put it, “Hamas is a bloodthirsty terrorist group. The CBC doesn’t have the journalistic integrity to call it as it is. This isn’t an opinion or a political argument, it is the facts. That’s why common sense people have given up on the CBC years ago.”[ii]
Much as it pains this author to agree with anything that the new Conservative Party of Canada under M. Poilievre has to say on almost any topic, this is one issue with which I am in total agreement, but NOT because I share their views on the CBC. These Conservatives are clearly using this tidbit for political advantage. As such — and as is the case with so many of their “positions” on other important issues of the day — they have not bothered to provide any meaningful critique or analysis of the journalistic rationale for this position, or indeed of the underlying malaise which is affecting almost all journalistic reporting in western liberal democracies.
For make no mistake, the CBC is far from alone. On the contrary, its leadership is indeed following the standard practice of mainstream journalism. Evidence the Globe and Mail’s Standards Editor, Sandra Martin, who recently devoted an entire page to the issue, arguing that the role of journalists is to “show, not tell” and therefore it is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. She notes that the Globe’s internal journalistic guidance document, sent to all its reporters last week, states that the ban on the use of the term “terrorist” is “in keeping with the widespread practice of newsrooms around the world.” [iii] Sadly, on this last point she is generally correct. A recent statement by the Agence France Presse (AFP), for example, reiterates her argument of the need for journalistic “impartiality” and “balance” in this case, and flatly states that “the reason for these style rules is that governments often brand opposition, separatist or other militant groups as terrorists, so in the interest of objectivity it is better to avoid making that value judgment.”[iv]
Apparently the author of this document, and others who follow this longstanding tradition among the mainstream media, have failed to recognize the difference between two completely different sets of circumstances, or between opinion and fact-based definitions. Take, for example, the use of the term “terrorist” by India’s autocratic illiberal leader Narendra Modi to describe all Sikh separatists. This is clearly a textbook example of the type of biased political framing that the AFP document is designed to avoid. But this example is hardly synonymous with the situation currently paralyzing journalists with respect to Hamas. And their response to the growing public outcry over this apparent wilful blind spot is not encouraging. Why is their thinking on this issue not only wrong-headed but increasingly dangerous? Let us count the ways.
First, it is not just one or even a few political leaders who are choosing to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization. In addition, there is widespread consensus on the definition of that term. Since 1973 the United Nations has promulgated five international conventions on terrorism. International consensus on the meaning of this term has never been clearer. There is, for example, a specific convention against the taking of hostages, one on the hijacking of planes and another on the suppression of terrorist bombings. There are also six regional conventions aimed at combating terrorism adopted by the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Organization of Independent States and even the League of Arab States. Needless to say, these organizations all have a clear understanding of the meaning of terrorism. And by any of their definitions, Hamas fits the bill. This was true long ago, and never more so than now in relation to that organization’s latest acts of barbarism.
Second, almost all western liberal democracies have chosen to place Hamas on their country’s list of terrorist organizations. This includes the European Union (all 27 countries), the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland, Australia and, of course, Canada. Needless to say this broad cross section of the democratic world includes governments representing the full gamut of the political spectrum, from conservatives to liberals and socialists. In short, once again, this is hardly a case of politicized bias. On the contrary, it is the result of a collective recognition of what constitutes terrorism and terrorist activities, not “an opinion.” (The fact that the United Nations Security Council has failed to place Hamas on their terrorist list is the result of the veto deadlock structure of that body, and the role of Russia in support of Iran.)
Third, the concept of “an opinion” in this case is completely misguided. The Flat Earth Society may have an opinion, but we are not obliged to give it equal time and consideration. Closer to home, anti-vaxxers may have opinions, but it is not up to journalists to present their views as a valid and equal alternative to those of scientists and medical experts and then let the public make up its mind. Ironically, one of the controversial issues where this distinction between fact and opinion HAS been recognized is with respect to Holocaust deniers. As the movie “Denial” so clearly indicated, allocating time and space to such an erroneous viewpoint risks lending credence to it. By refusing to use a recognized definition of ‘terrorist’ to qualify Hamas, many in the mainstream media are unintentionally lending credence to that organization.
Fourth, no one who objects to this “balanced” media practice is arguing for any other type of bias. The vast majority of Palestinians must be clearly distinguished from Hamas militants. Israel must be criticized if it breaks any of the internationally recognized rules of war. Presenting a balanced dialogue among experts and differences of opinion on issues such as the need for a ceasefire, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, or the future of the region, are entirely appropriate. But first there must be acceptance of a common agreed upon set of facts, including definitions.
This leads inevitably to the fifth and final point, and possibly the one with the most potential to damage the fabric of liberal democracy in these turbulent times. In an era of multiple threats to democratic regimes by other actors on the international stage, (China, Russia and Iran, to name but three), the refusal to recognize a group such as Hamas as a terrorist organization plays into the hands of those disrupters and weakens the hand of political leadership in liberal democracies, the very regimes which already not only tolerate but encourage diversity of opinion. Coupled with the lawless wild west of social media, offering endless opportunities for those with “opinions” as well as “alternative facts” to make their views known, mainstream journalistic practices need to adapt if they are to remain credible.
This refusal to recognize the changed landscape of liberal democracies was recently exemplified in an article titled “Why BBC Doesn’t Call Hamas Militants Terrorists,”[v] penned by that corporation’s World Affairs Editor. John Simpson once again falls back on the tried and true line that this practice has served the fourth estate’s reputation for journalistic integrity well for nearly a century. He even refers to the Second World War, and the use of the term “enemy” to describe the Nazis while the terms “evil” or “wicked” were prohibited. “It’s not up to us to tell people who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” (Of course no one is asking journalists to describe Hamas as evil terrorists, just terrorists.)
Regrettably, this stubborn reliance on past practice is failing to stem the tide of growing public indifference, and even opposition, to mainstream media. In short, by continuing along this path they are becoming the story, something their guidelines indicate is the worst possible scenario, and one to be avoided at all costs.
Even more serious is the fact that the media are called the fourth estate for a reason. They are expected to serve as educators of the public and watchdogs of the political institutions and actors of the executive, legislative and judicial estates. If the mainstream media loses credibility because of a reliance on patently out-of-touch practices, the guardrails of democratic debate may fall victim to the alternate universe of social media, to everyone’s detriment.
[i] National Post. Oct. 11, 2023
[iii] S. Martin. “Understanding the Guidance Behind the Globe’s Coverage of the Israel-Hamas War”. Oct. 21, 2023.
[iv] Martin. Op cit.