Analysis: CBC ombudsman misses the mark in response to complaint by Sen. Yuen Pau Woo

by Charlie Smith from Georgia Straight on April 16th, 2022 at 8:06 AM


Late last month, CBC ombudsman Jack Nagler essentially cleared a CBC journalist of an allegation that his “misreporting” led to a torrent of anti-Asian hatred directed against a B.C. senator

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo filed a complaint last year to the Crown broadcaster’s ombudsman in response to an article by journalist Jean Paul Tasker. It concerned a speech that Woo had delivered in the Senate.

According to Tasker’s report, Woo said that Canada should avoid criticizing China for human-rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims.

In fact, Woo maintained, his speech included the exact opposite words.

“Whereas Beijing asserts that Canada should not comment on the Xinjiang situation because of our experience with residential schools, I argue that it is precisely because (of) our history of residential schools that makes it necessary for us to speak to the Chinese,” Woo stated in his complaint.

Woo also objected to Tasker’s claim in his report that the senator was “echoing” the arguments of the Chinese government.

“There is no reasonable interpretation of my speech as ‘echoing’ the arguments of the Chinese government, but it seems the journalist was determined to convey that misimpression,” Woo stated in his complaint.

Woo also stated: “Apart from a superficial textual comparison, how can my speech be characterized as an ‘echo’ of China’s position? Would you report that the Conservatives echo the NDP in their climate change policy because both parties refer to global warming?”

In addition, Woo questioned why he was “singled out for scrutiny” whereas comments by another senator with similar views who was not of Chinese ancestry were ignored.

According to Woo, the CBC report led to an “avalanche” of hate being directed against him.

CBC’s then director of journalistic standards, Paul Hambleton, defended Tasker’s report while expressing regret over the hateful messages directed at Woo.

In his written review, Nagler told Woo that “what you said about the content of your speech to the Senate is absolutely correct, and I believe your argument about the intent of your remarks—and yet I’m still not convinced that the CBC was guilty of, to use your phrase, ‘misreporting’.”

Nagler came to this conclusion even though he agreed that Tasker’s story “erred” by quoting Woo as saying that Canada “should avoid criticizing China”.

So how did the CBC ombudsman justify his interpretation that there was no misreporting even if Woo’s comments about the content of his speech were “absolutely correct”?

According to Nagler’s decision, Tasker was “exercising routine editorial judgment”.

Nagler stated that this came after Tasker was struck by Woo’s “message about the folly of lecturing China on how it governs itself, and in particular the parallels [Woo] drew between China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, and Canada’s own human rights failures in the past, not only with Indigenous people but also with immigrants and minority groups”.

“At the same time, I can see how Mr. Tasker came to the conclusion that he did,” Nagler continued. “After all, in the course of your address, one of the primary arguments you made as to why Canada should not be so quick to condemn China was because of our own track record.”

In 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s vice chair, Gay McDougall, reported that about one million Uyghurs are being detained in camps. There, they are being forced to forgo their culture and religion and assimilate into Chinese society or, in some cases, endure torture.

The Canadian government took about 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and kept them interned in residential schools, where they were forced to forgo their culture, spiritual beliefs, and language and assimilate into Canadian society. Many thousands died and others endured torture at the hands of officials with churches that were contracted to operate these facilities

Nagler went on to rationalize Tasker’s claim that Woo was “echoing” the Chinese government, even though the ombudsman acknowledged that Woo had rejected that description by Tasker.

“Perhaps there were other ways he could have phrased it,” Nagler wrote. “However, the conclusions that the journalist drew from your remarks were reasoned. I do not think you should have been surprised that someone would draw those conclusions, and I found it understandable that they formed a prominent part of his coverage.”

As a result, Nagler claimed that the article was “a reasonable account of your speech”.

“CBC’s approach is further supported by the fact that the article included extensive quotes from your address, which helped readers draw their own conclusions about the effectiveness of your argument,” Nagler stated in his ruling.

So there you have it.

1. A senator of Chinese ancestry is singled out for coverage of his speech on China when the white senators’ speeches were ignored.

2. This senator of Chinese ancestry was reported to have echoed the line of the Chinese government, which he adamantly denies.

3. The CBC ombudsman agrees that the senator’s interpretation of his own words was “absolutely correct”.

4. The CBC ombudsman agrees that the senator was mistakenly characterized as saying that Canada should avoid criticizing China for its human-rights abuses because of what Canada had done to Indigenous peoples.

5. Yet despite all this, the CBC ombudsman still deemed that the news story was a “reasonable account” of the senator’s speech.

Nagler’s response is, to put it bluntly, a disservice to Asian Canadians. And it should be of serious concern to anyone who feels that media coverage has played a central role in the rise of anti-Asian hatred in Canada in recent years.

If the CBC ombudsman can’t bring himself to use the word “misreporting” after a news story with a key error brings on a torrent of anti-Asian hatred, how can Asian Canadians ever expect to receive justice from the CBC in the future for coverage that maligns them?

It also offers a convenient precedent to Postmedia, Global, the Globe and Mail, and all other media outlets in Canada when they receive complaints about stigmatizing people of Asian ancestry.

Nagler had an opportunity to make a powerful statement about the importance of media responsibility in covering racial issues. Instead, he sided with his employer.

Let’s hope that the next time Nagler receives a complaint from someone who’s subjected to hate after CBC publishes or broadcasts a story with an important factual error, he shows a little more empathy for the victim.