Rumours of war
Ottawa Sun Bureau
January 12, 2003

Conflict in the Middle East has come to Canada, with Izzy Asper's National Post criticizing the CBC's coverage of the battle between Israelis and Palestinians

The relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a deep quagmire, and Canadians fear it.

A recent polling of readers by the Globe and Mail named Israel, not Iraq or North Korea, the world's most dangerous hot spot by a goodly margin. Such an apprehension helps explain the federal government's reluctance to discuss it, much less deal with it: Why jump into bottomless antagonism? But the Liberal government, and the other political parties, may be dragged into it if the Asper media empire has its way.

In a recent, frank epistle in his National Post, Canwest Global chairman Israel Asper wrote of his love for his namesake. To him, Israel is a moral beacon to the world. So it is not surprising that since he took control of the Post from Conrad Black the paper has taken an ever-tougher line against Israel's enemies and, accordingly, the CBC has become one of them.

The Post now regularly harries the CBC for its "biased" Middle East reporting. Leading the charge is Norman Spector, a former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney who was rewarded for this service with Canada's ambassadorship to Israel. Spector's attachment to the Jewish state seems every bit as strong as his employer's, and if his columns are a guide, the Asper campaign against the corporation will continue to escalate. Last Wednesday Spector implied the CBC coverage fuelled anti-Semitism of the sort voiced by David Ahenakew, the former First Nations chief.

Asper, Spector, and the Post accuse the CBC of mollycoddling terrorists by refusing to use that word to describe the organizations which back attacks on Israelis. The Post also argues that the CBC unfairly criticizes Israel's effort to defend itself while ignoring the perfidies of Palestinians, and Arabs and Muslims more generally.

Tony Burman, editor-in-chief of CBC TV News, responded to the charges in a letter to the Post, defending the CBC and its point man, reporter Neil Macdonald. He argued that the CBC's coverage, taken in its entirety, has been balanced. He also insisted on a journalist's right to speak his mind. Hovering in the background was the old saw about one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist.

How might this confrontation become a problem for our government in Ottawa? Asper has previously called for the Chretien government to rein in the CBC, arguing the PM himself was being treated unfairly by the Mother Corp. The Post has just been in front of a successful campaign to have the government ban Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based radical party that sponsors attacks on Israel. If the CBC does not back down, can a demand for Ottawa to make it do so be far behind?

The CBC won't back down. Macdonald, while hardly a lovable personality or as above criticism as, say, the CBC veteran Joe Schlesinger, is highly respected within CBC news and through the media generally. More important than the personality under fire is the work environment which CBC types cherish, one which is largely free from editorial interference by politicians, business, and major interest groups. Give in on this issue, goes their reasoning, and you'll be a puppet forever. Many elsewhere -- not least, one thinks, among CanWest journalists -- will take a similar view.

How would a showdown in Ottawa play out? The Alliance would be sympathetic. Stockwell Day, its foreign affairs critic, is a strong supporter of Israel, as are many other Christian fundamentalists who support the party. Taking a tough line on terrorism may also appeal to other Alliance supporters who have no love of the CBC.

The New Democrats and the Tories will reject any call to rein in the CBC. Neither party has any affection for the Post, and both see the Israel-Palestinian conflict as far more complicated than the Post portrays.

The Liberals? While Asper is a lifelong Liberal, his agitating on this issue is far from welcome. Hezbollah had few friends here, yet the government was reluctant to act. Why? Because it feared the issue might generate a national concern over the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with who knows what consequences for our vaunted multicultural diversity.

Support for Israel in Canada seems to have been slipping in the last few years as its military might, including nukes, and televised images from the intifada -- slingshots vs. tanks -- have undermined the notion Israel is simply a noble little nation surrounded by relentless, powerful enemies.

Those who accuse the CBC are further undermined by their very staunch support for the Bush administration's plans to topple Saddam Hussein -- which Canadians seem to favour less and less. And it seems to me the notion that Canada must support Israel because it is the front lines of the global war on terror is being more and more rejected in Canada as simplistic, and bullying. Finally, and vitally, the CBC, unlike Hezbollah, has many friends.

The anger voiced and pressed by Asper and Spector is no sham. For them the issue truly is black and white.

In taking on the CBC and insisting theirs is the only legitimate interpretation in line with history and democratic values, they seem to be overreaching. And it may rebound on them and on Israel.