Postmedia, Israel and Ethics-Free Journalism
Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
In 2016, as Green Party of Canada members debated whether to support sanctions on Israel, Postmedia newspapers published 15 articles and op-eds that left no ambiguity as to where Postmedia’s sympathies lay. As I wrote at the time:
Virtually all of Postmedia’s 15 articles bore headlines that suggested extremism, anti-Israel bias or infighting within the [Green] party. For example, a Toronto Sun article of Aug. 14, 2016, was headlined “Greens self-destruct with Israel bashing.” A mere seven days later, the Toronto Sun published another article, “Greens attacking Israel? Hardly a surprise”…
Even worse than the strident tone of Postmedia’s articles was the absence of pro-BDS and Palestinian perspectives. The 15 articles quoted opponents of BDS on 17 occasions, anti-BDS organizations on eight occasions, and Israel’s ambassador to Canada on one occasion. By contrast, only once did any of the 15 articles quote a supporter of BDS (Jill Stein, leader of the U.S. Green Party). In none of the articles was a single Palestinian or Palestinian solidarity organization quoted.
Worst of all, Postmedia’s reporters completely ignored the issue at the heart of the debate over BDS: Israel’s egregious human rights abuses.
In early 2017, after the Green Party resolved overwhelmingly – and with Elizabeth May’s support – to endorse sanctions on Israel, I decided to file a complaint against Postmedia with the National NewsMedia Council (NNC).
The NNC describes itself in the following terms:
The National NewsMedia Council is a voluntary, self-regulatory ethics body for the English-language news media industry in Canada. It was established in 2015 with two main aims: to promote ethical practices within the news media industry and to serve as a forum for complaints against its members.
The Council deals with matters concerning fairness of coverage, relevance, balance and accuracy. The Council represents the public and the media in matters concerning the democratic rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the media.
Membership of news organizations supporting the Council includes most daily and community newspapers, magazines and online news organizations across Canada, with the exception of Alberta and Quebec, each of which is served by a separate provincial press council. Member news organizations pay a fee to belong to the National NewsMedia Council and abide by the decisions of the Council.
It thus appears that the NNC is funded by the very news organizations which it is mandated to ‘regulate’. In such circumstances, it should surprise no one that the NNC rarely upholds complaints against member news organizations.
In only 12.5% of the 40 decisions currently disclosed on the NNC’s website did the NNC uphold a complaint against a member news organization. Moreover, three of the five complaints that the NNC upheld were filed against a minor news organization, the Burlington Gazette. By contrast, the NNC dismissed 65% of the complaints filed against member news organizations. Thus, the NNC’s ratio of dismissed complaints to upheld complaints exceeds 5:1.
Further, the NNC is a toothless ‘regulator’. It does not have the authority to compel a member news organization against which a complaint has been upheld to make a retraction or issue a correction or an apology. A news organization against which a complaint has been upheld may simply ignore the NNC decision.
That is precisely what appears to have happened in one of the few instances in which the NNC upheld a complaint. The object of that complaint was an article appearing in the Toronto Sun, a Postmedia newspaper. The Sun article asserted that a “Shaheed is an Islamic or Sikh martyr who died fulfilling a religious commandment and is promised a place in paradise.” The complainant, a member of the Sikh community, asserted that Sikhs do not have a concept of heaven. After the NNC confirmed, by consulting an expert, that this was indeed the case, the Toronto Sun, according to the NNC, “failed to respond directly to the complaint about a factual error in the Sun’s article.” The NNC simply expressed its ‘disappointment’ with the Sun’s refusal to respond.
The NNC states that it “does not impose its own code of practice. Instead, it expects members to adhere to their own or some generally-accepted code of journalistic standards, practice and ethics.”
Thus, before filing my complaint about Postmedia’s Green Party of Canada coverage in 2016, I tried to obtain a copy of the National Post’s journalistic code of ethics. I found none. I then made inquiries with the NNC and with a former National Post reporter. Their responses essentially confirmed that the National Post has no journalistic code of ethics.
By contrast, the Toronto Star has a “Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide” that is readily available to the public. Similarly, The Globe and Mail has an “Editorial Code of Conduct” that is also readily available to the public.
Nor does the National Post appear to have an ombudsperson to whom the public can address complaints about National Post coverage. By contrast, other major media organizations in Canada, including the CBC, have established an office of an ombudsperson.
In fact, “Honest Reporting Canada” (HRC), a stridently Zionist media watchdog, routinely complains to the CBC ombudsperson about any CBC reporting that contains a hint of criticism of Israel. HRC recently bragged that, by filing a complaint with the CBC’s ombudsperson, it had succeeded in causing CBC’s The Current to air a “pro-Israel interview.”
Unlike the National Post, both the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail require their reporters – at least officially – to be balanced. The Globe and Mail Editorial Code of Conduct states:
The Globe and Mail will seek to provide reasonable accounts of competing views in any controversy so as to enable readers to make up their own minds.
Similarly, the Toronto Star’s Newsroom Police and Journalistic Standards Guide states:
The Star is obligated to obtain and publish all sides of any story it reports. Before publication, every effort must be made to present subjects with all accusations — the sooner the better.
Because the National Post had no code of journalistic ethics, I based my complaint to the NNC on the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) Ethics Guidelines. These guidelines include the following:
- journalists should avoid allowing their biases to influence their reporting;
- journalists should give people, companies or organization that are criticized in their reporting the opportunity to present their points of view prior to publication;
- journalists should seek to capture in their stories the diverse values, viewpoints and lives of the people in their communities;
- journalists serve democracy and the public interest by reporting the truth;
- defending the public’s interest includes promoting the free flow of information and preventing the public from being misled; and
- journalists do not give favoured treatment to special interests.
The core of my complaint to the NNC was that Postmedia’s 15 articles on the Green Party of Canada’s debate over whether to support sanctions on Israel relied almost exclusively on the points of view of those who were strongly opposed to sanctions on Israel and who accuse supporters of sanctions of being biased against Israel or, even worse, anti-Semitic. Postmedia’s 15 articles almost completely ignored the voices of the millions of Canadians who support sanctions. Anyone who reads these articles, all of which I provided to the NNC, could easily confirm the accuracy of my comments to the NNC.
A copy of my complete complaint to the NNC can be seen here: Complaint re Postmedia to News Council.
Less than three weeks after filing my complaint, I received a response to it from John Fraser, the CEO of NNC. Mr. Fraser’s response can be seen here: NMC Response to ADL Postmedia complaint
The essence of Mr. Fraser’s response was that my complaint was about a “trend” in Postmedia’s reporting on the Green Party’s debate about sanctions on Israel. According to Mr. Fraser, this was not “an acceptable basis for a complaint. The NNC considers complaints about specific news articles or opinion columns.”
Mr. Fraser’s response ignored the fact that my complaint identified specific articles that were clearly biased. For example, my complaint stated:
Postmedia’s bias is so extreme that, shortly after the GPC adopted the BDS policy, the Vancouver Sun published an ‘editorial’ in which it defamed Independent Jewish Voices and three members of the GPC (including the undersigned). Among other things, the ‘editorial’ identified me by name and described me and certain others as members of“marginalized groups expounding extreme anti-Israel and anti-Jewish views” [emphasis added]. Within days of this publication, the Vancouver Sun received a letter from IJV’s counsel alleging defamation. The Sun promptly erased the ‘editorial’ from its website and later published a retraction and an apology to IJV. However, the Vancouver Sun has never issued any apology to me.
Moreover, the implication of Mr. Fraser’s response is that, no matter how biased a news organization’s overall reporting on an important subject may be, the NNC will not adjudicate a complaint that relates to a ‘trend’ in reporting. The NNC will adjudicate only complaints that relate to a specific article. Mr. Fraser provided no justification for this narrow interpretation of NNC’s mandate.
It is in any case clear that the NNC is an ineffectual regulator of the Canadian media. Its true purpose, in my view, is to create the appearance of effective regulation so that the public will not demand an external regulator of the media.
In saying this, I do not intend to minimize legitimate concerns about government regulation of the media. Clearly, empowering the government to regulate the media poses risks to free speech, but the current environment in which a massive, for-profit media conglomerate like Postmedia is subjected to no effective regulation is no more conducive to democracy than government regulation of the media, and may indeed pose an even greater threat to free speech.
Postmedia is by far the largest newspaper publisher in Canada. It has been permitted by the Canadian government to become the dominant force in the Canadian newspaper industry. According to Postmedia’s most recent Annual Information Form (on p. 10):
The Corporation owns and operates the National Post, which is one of Canada’s two daily national newspapers, 15 daily metropolitan newspapers, two free daily commuter newspapers in Toronto and Vancouver, 26 daily newspapers in smaller community markets, 116 non-daily community newspapers and non-daily shopping guides, and various specialty publications and newspaper-related publications. Its operations also include Flyer Force, a distribution service for advertising flyers and circulars for third parties.
Postmedia has an extensive portfolio of digital media and online assets. It owns and operates 146 destination websites that make up the Postmedia digital network, one of Canada’s leading online general news and information sources, covering its newspapers’ websites, including classified websites and other online properties.
At a bare minimum, if the government will allow the media industry to ‘self-regulate’, the government should ensure that no individual media organization acquires a position of dominance in the newspaper industry, and that there be robust competition characterized by a large and representative diversity of media voices. The combination of no effective regulation of the media and Postmedia’s market dominance constitutes a clear and present threat to Canadian democracy.
All of which brings me to Postmedia’s latest exercise in ethics-free journalism.
On May 11, 2018, within days of Israel’s biggest attack on Syria since the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the National Post published an editorial entitled “Israel is left to contain the Iranian threat that Obama ignored.”
Obama, you may recall, is the United States president who agreed to gift to Israel – a wealthy country – the largest military aid package in United States history. Putting aside the National Post’s cheap shot at the decidedly pro-Israel Obama, the title of its editorial plainly implied that Israel attacked Iranian targets in Syria as an act of self-defence.
The National Post unquestioningly adopted Israel’s claim that it launched a massive air assault on Syria in response to a rocket attack by Iranian forces on the Golan Heights. However, the government of Iran denies it launched the attack and describes Netanyahu’s claims as “fabricated” and “baseless.” The National Post editorial makes no mention of Iran’s denial, nor does it mention Israel’s acknowledgement that no Israeli troops or civilians were wounded in the alleged Iranian attack and that the alleged attack caused “minimal damage.”
Now perhaps the Iranian government is lying. Perhaps Iran did launch a completely ineffectual attack on Israeli forces in the Golan, but Canadians deserve to know the Iranian side of the story so that they can decide for themselves who is telling the truth. What is the National Post’s justification – other than blind faith in the honesty of Netanyahu’s government – for failing to inform its readers of the Iranian denial?
Whereas Iran denies that it attacked Israeli forces in the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel admits that it attacked Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria before the alleged Iranian attack on the Golan. Israel’s key admission is also omitted from the National Post editorial, thus conveying the impression that Iran’s alleged attack on the Golan Heights was unprovoked, and that Iran initiated the hostilities.
For the National Post editors, history always starts on the date on which Israel is attacked. Everything that happened prior to that date – for example, the West’s destruction of Iranian democracy in the 1950s – is conveniently erased from the historical record.
Thus, the National Post misleadingly presents Israel’s disputed claim as an established fact while omitting to disclose Israel’s highly pertinent admission.
The National Post’s sins of omission do not stop there. According to its editorial, Iran’s “weapons in Syria go well beyond defensive munitions, and even beyond those offensive weapons that would be useful in defeating the groups rebelling against the Assad regime.” The editorial then ominously declares “there are echoes here of an earlier crisis more familiar to North Americans: 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.” While acknowledging that the current conflict between Israel and Iran is “certainly not identical” to the Cuban missile crisis, the National Post declines to identify any of the distinctions between the two crises, and particularly the one that matters the most.
The Cuban missile crisis was precipitated by the Soviet Union’s installation of nuclear weapons about 100 miles from the coast of the United States. Iran, however, possesses no nukes and has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), while Israel possesses a large nuclear arsenal and has refused to sign the NNPT. Indeed, Israel is the only state in the Middle East that possesses a nuclear arsenal, and the only state in the Middle East that has not acceded to the NNPT.
Are we seriously to believe that Iran’s conventional weapons are a greater threat to Israel than Israeli nukes are a threat to Iran? And does any knowledgeable observer seriously doubt that both Israel and the United States would vaporize Iran in an instant if Iran actually attempted to destroy Israel?
Equally absent from the Post’s editorial is any acknowledgement that Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent ‘Iran lied’ spectacle was completely discredited by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That Netanyahu’s bizarre performance has been exposed as a fraud should cause all National Post readers to have serious doubts about his government’s veracity, which is likely the reason that the National Post editors elected to omit this crucial information from their editorial.
The National Post editorial also accuses Iran’s regime of ‘exporting terrorism’, yet it contains no acknowledgement that Israel commits acts of terror against Palestinian civilians on an almost daily basis. Yesterday, as the Trump administration legitimized Israel’s theft of Jerusalem, Israeli snipers killed over 50 unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, eight of whom were children. Israeli snipers also wounded over a thousand persons, including a Canadian-Palestinian doctor, Tarek Loubani, as he attempted to treat wounded protesters. A medic who tended to Dr. Loubani’s wounds was killed by an Israeli sniper an hour after he treated Dr. Loubani. As stated yesterday by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, “Israel is a rogue state that routinely uses terrorism to keep 1.8 million human beings trapped in an open-air prison.”
Not content with omitting key facts and employing a grossly misleading analogy, the National Post editors resorted in their editorial to outright fabrication. They described the Iranian attack as having been directed at the “Golan Heights region of Israel.” The wee problem with this claim is that the Golan Heights does not belong to Israel. It belongs, rather, to Syria. As the Canadian government has long acknowledged, Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights violates international law. Thus, assuming that Iranian forces did launch rockets at Israeli military forces in the Golan, it launched those rockets into Syrian, not Israeli territory, and it targeted an army that is illegally occupying that Syrian territory.
Ultimately, the National Post’s editorial is virtually a case study in how to trample the CAJ’s Ethics Guidelines. Among other things, the editorial:
- manifests a strong pro-Israel bias;
- fails to present the Iranian government perspective on its conflict with Israel;
- fails to report the truth by omitting key, pertinent facts and mischaracterizing the status of the Golan Heights under international law;
- misleads the public through, among other things, a grossly inappropriate analogy; and
- accords favoured treatment to Israel and the Zionist lobby.
It is imperative for Canadians to understand that the National Post’s persistent disregard for journalistic ethics is not merely a matter of academic interest. The effects of its propaganda are all-too-real, particularly for Palestinians and for the countless civilians who will die, be wounded or rendered homeless by a war between Israel and Iran. If anyone can restrain Israel’s violent aggression, it is the Western governments who lavish upon it financial, military and political support, no matter how heinous Israel’s crimes. Western government policies toward Israel will only change, however, if voters demand that they change, and Western voters will not apply the requisite pressure on their governments unless the media provide them with the facts that are necessary for voters to make informed decisions.
Therefore, if a devastating war ultimately erupts between Israel and Iran, it will be no exaggeration to say that the National Post’s editors will be complicit in the suffering of that war’s countless victims. That the National Post is already complicit in the suffering of Palestinians is beyond dispute.
 In an email exchange between me and John Fraser, NNC’s CEO, Mr. Fraser wrote that the NNC “does not have the authority to force a member news organization against which a complaint has been upheld to make a retraction or issue a correction or an apology. On the other hand, as the NNC is a voluntary, self-regulatory organization, membership comes with formal obligations to publish the findings of the Council if that member is deemed by the Council to have erred. It risks expulsion, and publication of that expulsion, if it declines to publish the correction.” Mr. Fraser also advised that, to date, the NNC had not yet sought to expel a member news organization, but that the NNC was in the midst of a proceeding that may lead to an expulsion.