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Commons committee gets heated as MPs spar over CBC’s coverage of Israel-Hamas conflict

The House of Commons heritage committee descended into partisan bickering Tuesday as MPs debated whether to study the CBC’s coverage of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

The two-hour meeting accomplished little as MPs repeatedly interrupted each other with points of order while sniping at one another about who was following proper parliamentary procedure.

The meeting adjourned without a vote on whether to demand that CBC officials come and testify about the Middle East conflict and how the broadcaster describes the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

For the past week, Conservative MPs have been trying to force Catherine Tait, CBC/Radio-Canada’s president and CEO, and the company’s director of journalism standards and practices George Achi to appear before the committee to explain a language guide policy that discourages journalists from using the words “terrorism” and “terrorists” when describing violent actions and those who perpetrate them.

President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada Catherine Tait speaks during a panel discussion.
President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada Catherine Tait speaks during a panel discussion. (Spencer Colby/Canadian Press)

Critics have said Hamas’s brutal surprise attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 should be called terrorism perpetrated by terrorists.

CBC maintains that those words can be used in news coverage if they’re said by somebody else in a clip or quote.

The company’s language guide says reporters could be perceived as taking sides if they describe any attack as terrorism. The longstanding policy has applied to past events like the 9/11 attack.

All MPs on the committee have agreed already to hear from Tait.

The CEO will appear before the committee next week to discuss her recent reappointment as the CBC’s most senior leader.

“This is a regular invitation issued to new appointees and reappointees,” a spokesperson for CBC said in a statement about Tait’s Nov. 2 appearance.

Conservative MPs, however, have said they want Tait, Achi and Jack Nagler, the CBC’s ombudsman, to appear to discuss the Israel-Hamas conflict alone.

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas repeatedly sparred with the committee’s chair, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, threatening at one point to make her job “hell.”

“You are not consistent. I will make this hell,” Thomas said after Fry acknowledged a point of order from NDP MP Peter Julian.

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas is pictured at the House of Commons heritage committee.
Conservative MP Rachael Thomas attends a House of Commons heritage committee meeting. (CBC News)

In response to Conservative claims that the committee must hear from Tait, Julian repeatedly asked the chair to confirm that the CBC CEO will actually appear on Nov. 2 and that MPs will be able to ask her any questions they want.

Fry confirmed Tait will be there and MPs can ask about the language guide policy.

Each time Julian asked for that clarification, Thomas asked Fry to state that Tait was invited to discuss her mandate — not exclusively the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Thomas suggested that Fry was being more permissive with points of order from other parties.

Thomas later apologized after other MPs interpreted her “make this hell” comment as a threat.

“This is not the environment any of us need to be working in, especially in the current climate,” said Liberal MP Taleeb Noormohamed of Thomas’s outburst.

He said her comments were “incendiary” and “inappropriate.”

Fry, who was visibly frustrated at times, accused Thomas of being disrespectful of her and other committee members with her frequent interjections and often repetitive remarks about CBC’s decision not to use the word “terrorist” in its coverage unless it was attributed to someone else.

Fry asked Thomas to keep her comments on-topic. Thomas insisted she was speaking to the motion before the committee.

Heritage committee chair Hedy Fry is pictured
Liberal MP Hedy Fry chairs the House of Commons heritage committee. (CBC News)

An exasperated Liberal MP Michael Coteau at one point asked for a five-minute pause as Thomas and Fry raised their voices.

“A small break would just change the environment at this point,” he said. “It doesn’t seem productive.”

Fry pressed on.

Julian took issue with Thomas referring to him by his first name rather than the honorific “Mr.” Thomas said she didn’t mean to cause any offence.

Israeli soldiers stand next to a burning field near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel
Israeli soldiers stand next to a burning field near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu also accused Julian of “spreading disinformation” and slandering the Conservative Party when he raised concerns about alleged media manipulation by right-wing online personalities.

Thomas reserved her harshest criticism for the CBC, saying that the company’s management is not representing the Jewish-Canadian community well because it won’t allow the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” to be used freely by reporters when discussing Hamas violence.

“The Jewish community has very much been underserved,” Thomas said.

Citing a recent Toronto Star op-ed that quotes Tait saying reporting should be fact-based, Thomas said, “What about the fact that hundreds of people were slaughtered in a night? What about the fact that 40 babies were beheaded? Women were killed and raped and paraded through the streets. What about those facts?”

“Ms. Tait has a lot to answer for,” Thomas said. “She’s the one getting the big bucks.”

The report of 40 babies being beheaded has not been corroborated. There is evidence that Hamas harmed children in its attack.

“Quite frankly, over the last two weeks, we’ve lost faith in the CBC,” added Conservative MP Kevin Waugh.

Waugh said the BBC has shifted its own language policy on how it describes Hamas following criticism from Jewish community groups.

In a statement quoted by several British media outlets, the BBC said it is no longer using the word militant as a “default description” for Hamas, “as we have been finding this a less accurate description as the situation evolves.”

The statement also said: “What the BBC does not do is use the word terrorist without attributing it, nor do we ban words.”

The British broadcaster has said it will “continue to refer to Hamas as a proscribed terrorist organisation by the U.K. government.”

Hamas is also a designated terrorist entity under Canadian law.

“We still haven’t heard whether they’re going to call Hamas what they are — a terrorist organization,” Waugh said of the CBC.

Leon Mar, a spokesperson for CBC, said the corporation’s journalists are on the ground in the region “risking their safety in order to tell Canadians what is happening there.

“They are the very best at what they do and the quality and accuracy of their journalism stands among the best in the world.”

Mar said the corporation is aware that “some members of Parliament believe they have a role in determining how journalists do their work.”

“It is worth remembering that the independence of CBC/Radio-Canada’s journalism from the government and Parliament is protected in law, in the Broadcasting Act,” Mar said.

Palestinians pull a boy from the rubble after an Israeli strike
Palestinians pull a boy from the rubble after an Israeli strike on the Zaroub family house in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)

Brodie Fenlon, CBC News’ editor-in-chief, defended the corporation’s reporting on the conflict in an editor’s blog posted last week.

“Within hours of these shocking Hamas attacks, we had several teams on the ground in Israel, more than any other Canadian news organization, and we documented in gruesome, explicit detail what transpired over that weekend,” Fenlon wrote.

“I believe that we, as a news organization, have accurately depicted the horror of what happened in those attacks — and there is no doubt in the minds of our audience about what Hamas did.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), an advocacy group, said Tuesday that Conservative attempts to “politically interfere” in the CBC’s news gathering process amount to “a complete violation” of constitutionally protected press freedoms.

“Editorial independence is crucial to a free press, and politicians should not be meddling with the decisions journalists make,” said Brent Jolly, the president of CAJ.

“Any efforts to interfere with the freedom of the press, particularly for one’s own political gain, is a ‘red line’ that can never be crossed.”

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