Jesus Murphy, Rex, wake up & smell the coffee

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images As our Toyota hurtled through darkness and rain last Sunday evening, my spouse pleaded with me to “turn the damn thing off.” She was referring to Cross Country Checkup, the CBC radio phone-in hosted by the tendentiously garrulous Rex Murphy.

Murphy was wondering whether Canadian police and security agencies need more powers to combat those who might pose a threat in light of the fatal attacks on soldiers near Montreal and at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. In the twin-sided, either/or formula so beloved by mainstream journalists, Murphy presented it as a choice between civil liberties and public safety.

“How much power can we give the security agencies?” he asked. “How do we balance the need to keep Canada safe with the need, the necessity for civil liberties in a democracy?”

“Us” vs. “Them”

Murphy also resorted to the tried and true journalistic formula of a simple, two-sided conflict: Innocent, law-abiding Canadians versus the terrorist evildoers who threaten their safety. The rational versus the irrational; us versus them.

Unfortunately, Murphy’s framing prevailed. Not a single caller mentioned Canada’s foreign policy and nor did the so-called experts Murphy interviewed. Not a single mention of Canadian participation in foreign wars including our long campaign in Afghanistan and our bombing runs in Libya and Iraq. Not a single mention of Canada’s failure to condemn Israeli attacks on Palestinians and in Lebanon. Not a single mention of Canada’s role in overthrowing a popular and democratically elected president in Haiti. And no mention that so many of Canada’s aboriginal peoples live in poverty and squalor.

Hey Rex, here’s a thought from an expert you might have interviewed on Sunday:

Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it. — Noam Chomsky

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Jesus Murphy, Rex, wake up & smell the coffee

Occupation? What occupation? Part Two

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Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski is a CBC journalist who makes it a practice to speak truth to power. At times, that practice has landed him in trouble, but so far, he’s survived. After all, journalists are supposed to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

But not, it seems, when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its military assault on Gaza. Mainstream Canadian journalists tend to avoid the word “occupation” and Milewski is no exception.

Yesterday, as guest host of the CBC Radio program The House, Milewski interviewed Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt and Jordan. The interview was framed around the notion that no long-term solution to the violence in Gaza is possible. Bell asserted that Hamas “depends on these disturbances to empower their base” while Milewski suggested that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is justified.

“What about the core demands of Hamas for a permanent settlement?” Milewski asked adding, “They want the blockade lifted and the seaport opened and simultaneously they remain committed to eradicating the state of Israel and to killing Jews. So this surely is going to be seen by the Israelis as a complete non-starter, as an opportunity for an open door for Hamas to re-arm and buy more rockets and more tunnels.”

Bell responded that while the demand for more open borders is legitimate, “Israel faces an enemy, if you like, whose ultimate goal is not just the flow of goods and services and what have you into Gaza, but whose ultimate goal is the destruction of the state of Israel, the Jewish state.”

Neither man seemed aware of the obvious. That Israel is steadily destroying Palestine. As Noam Chomsky writes:

Amid all the horrors unfolding in the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza, Israel’s goal is simple: quiet-for-quiet, a return to the norm.

For the West Bank, the norm is that Israel continues its illegal construction of settlements and infrastructure so that it can integrate into Israel whatever might be of value, meanwhile consigning Palestinians to unviable cantons and subjecting them to repression and violence.

For Gaza, the norm is a miserable existence under a cruel and destructive siege that Israel administers to permit bare survival but nothing more.

To be sure, Michael Bell and Terry Milewski are not alone among Canada’s political elites in ignoring military occupation as the root cause of the conflict. Nor are they alone in justifying Israel’s war on Palestinians.

The ruling Conservatives vigorously defend Israel’s slaughter in Gaza while the New Democrats and Liberals talk about “Israel’s right to defend itself.”  Only the Green Party, led by Elizabeth May, has pointed out that Israel’s invasion of Gaza violates international law.

Maybe the CBC show that bills itself as “Canada’s most popular political affairs program” will find the courage to interview Elizabeth May.

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Theodore Tugboat leads CBC suicide mission

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Theodore T steams toward oblivion

A single-source, puff piece in today’s Halifax Chronicle-Herald says Andrew Cochran, senior managing director for CBC in Atlantic Canada, is heading to Toronto to spearhead the public broadcaster’s five-year suicide mission named “Strategy 2020.”

The Herald actually calls it a “survival plan,” but a so-called “strategy” that cheerily chops another 1,500 staff jobs by 2020 and puts the development of digital and mobile media ahead of programming on radio and TV, looks more like suicide to me.

Cochran himself is best known as the independent producer whose company created the hugely successful children’s TV series, Theodore Tugboat. Since 2007, he’s been CBC’s head honcho on Canada’s east coast where he oversaw a disastrous plan to boost supper-hour TV news ratings. In 2010, I wrote a piece in the weekly Coast magazine that included this:

Ten years ago, CBC Halifax cut its TV supper-hour news in half and gutted the staff. Ratings fell to near zero and advertisers fled. In a desperate attempt to revive the Mother Corpse, CBC managers came up with a 90-minute show based on the “action news” format touted by American consultants. If you want to gauge quality, tune in at 5pm and chug a beer for every crime, accident, fire or weather story; you’ll be shit-faced by 5:15.

In 2011, this mediaspin blogpost tried to show how dumbing down the news also made CBC’s political coverage more sensational and less accurate.

The headline in today’s Halifax Herald says “Andrew Cochran’s herculean task is to save CBC.” With his record so far, I’d say he’s more likely to help kill it.

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Occupation? What Occupation?

CBC fails to question Canadian gov’t line on Israel/Gaza

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Rosemary Barton

Jason Kenney, a senior minister in Canada’s Conservative government, delivered a ringing defence of Israel’s latest attacks on Gaza during the July 19th edition of the CBC Radio program, The House, while guest host Rosemary Barton listened politely.

I suppose it would have been rude to remind Kenney of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and its devastating siege of Gaza that has made life a misery for the 1.8 million Palestinians crammed into 365 square kilometres.

“More than three-quarters of them are refugees whose families fled or were driven from their land in what is now Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war,” the Reuters news agency reported in 2009 during a previous Israeli assault.  The report added that most Gazans live on less than $2 a day, thanks to Israel’s blockade.

To be fair, Barton did ask about the deaths of Palestinian civilians, “many of them children,” but she said nothing more while Kenney claimed that Israel gives people ample warnings before its attacks. He went on to blame Hamas, not Israel, for the deaths (see transcript below).

Canadian politicians know that when CBC  journalists ask for an interview, they’re apt to face tough questions. But in this case, Barton pulled her punches.  The interview was billed as a chance to get the government’s perspective on events in Ukraine and the Middle East. It ran 10 minutes and 18 seconds, but only four minutes were devoted to Israel and Gaza. In the transcript below, I’ll show how, instead of listening politely, Barton might have raised issues that would have required Jason Kenney to give a fuller, more nuanced defence of the Canadian government’s perspective on Israel and Gaza. Since The House has a total of 48 minutes and 27 seconds of network air-time each week, there was plenty of time to get into these issues if the producers had really wanted to.


CBC Radio, The House, July 19, 2014. Rosemary Barton (RB) interviews Employment and Social Development Minister, Jason Kenney (JK) about the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza. Sections in bold type raise issues that Barton could (and should) have asked about.

RB: Let me move to Middle East…obviously major developments there as well, the Israeli military now carrying out a ground incursion into Gaza that started on Thursday. Do you believe that this was the only option?

JK: Well, we’ll leave it to the Israeli government to determine what are the right options to respond to this kind of belligerent aggression, but the facts are clear: a terrorist organization whose charter repeatedly calls for the elimination of the Jewish state has launched some 1,300 missiles indiscriminately at Israeli civilian targets. No sovereign country in the world would tolerate this kind of indiscriminate violence targeting civilians without a robust military response and I find the criticism of Israel for having done so a terrible double standard and of course Israel demonstrated yet again this week its willingness to engage in a ceasefire negotiated by the Egyptian government. Hamas’s response to the proposed ceasefire was another hundred missiles being lobbed at civilian targets. So, it seems to me that the Israeli government has not just the right, but clearly the responsibility to act against those who are responsible for this violence.

(1) Kenney blames “a terrorist organization” for “belligerent aggression” against a “sovereign country.” He fails to mention why Hamas, which governs Gaza, might resist Israeli actions such as the continued occupation of Palestinian lands and the ongoing, punitive siege of Gaza. (Neither is mentioned during the interview.) 

(2) Kenney blames Hamas for rejecting a ceasefire “negotiated by the Egyptian government.” But according to this July 17 report from the BBC, it seems that neither side had agreed to a ceasefire: Israel’s foreign minister and Hamas have denied earlier reports of a truce deal to end fighting in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian militants.”

RB: You talked about the civilian casualties, certainly there seems to be a higher number on the Palestinian side, 265, many of them children. Overall, do you think enough is being done to protect civilians in this struggle?

JK: Every civilian death in any conflict of course is tragic and everything should be done to avoid civilian casualties and I believe when you actually look at the operations of the Israeli Defence Forces in advising people in particular areas that there may be military action, advising them to leave certain buildings or areas, autodialing them, dropping leaflets, sending in dummy missiles that are not armed, all as signs of warning, but the problem of course tactically is that Hamas uses human shields. They store their missiles and launchers including in UNRWA UN refugee schools, in mosques, close to hospitals and in apartment blocks and this further underscores that Hamas is responsible for the violence. Every death that’s occurring there is ultimately caused by the outrageous, indiscriminate violence and belligerence of Hamas. Obviously, Israel should act with as much restraint as possible to avoid civilian casualties, but it’s not Israel that is indiscriminately launching missiles at civilian targets.

(1) Kenney claims Israeli warnings prevent deaths in crowded neighbourhoods, but even if that were true, hundreds of Gazans are still being killed. On July 16, Human Rights Watch issued a news release that condemned both Israel and Hamas for targeting civilians, but levelled its harshest criticism at Israel:

Israeli air attacks in Gaza investigated by Human Rights Watch have been targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war. Israel should end unlawful attacks that do not target military objectives and may be intended as collective punishment or broadly to destroy civilian property. Deliberate or reckless attacks violating the laws of war are war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

The news release added this about Israel’s warnings to civilians:

For warnings to be effective, civilians need adequate time to leave and go to a place of safety before an attack. In several cases Human Rights Watch investigated, Israel gave warnings, but carried out the attack within five minutes or less. Given that Gaza has no bomb shelters, civilians realistically often have no place to flee.

(2) On July 18, Amnesty International issued an equally hard-hitting news release in which it condemned both Hamas and Israel for “war crimes.” The Amnesty release says Israel provided no evidence that would justify its attacks on civilians contrary to Kenney’s claim that the attacks were justified militarily. The release added:

Israeli air strikes and shelling have also caused devastating damage to water and sanitation infrastructure across the Gaza Strip. Three workers have been killed trying to make critical repairs and continuing hostilities have made such work too dangerous in many areas. On 16 July, the UN reported that at least half of Gaza’s population – some 900,000 people – were not receiving water. Damage to sewage and pumping facilities and the resulting potential for contamination of water supplies has created a public health emergency.

RB: Finally, let me ask you how do you think this ends…In previous conflicts there has been some success at weakening Hamas. Is the end goal the end of Hamas or do you think it’s a ceasefire? What do you think is possible at this point?

JK: Well, we would hope that Hamas, that the leadership of Hamas would reconsider the offer by Egypt which has historically played a brokerage role between it and Israel at least to allow for a ceasefire to [ensure the] stablization of the situation. And we would also call on the Palestinian Authority which is in a coalition government with Hamas to use everything at its disposal to end Hamas’s belligerence. But I don’t think we should be naive about the nature or the objectives of Hamas. Their stated objectives since their foundation have been the destruction of the Jewish state in the Middle East and regrettably this is an organization that’s a cancer in the Middle East that has chosen violence as a path. We hope that their leadership will realize that they’re only punishing their own people by continuing this indiscriminate violence targeting civilians and will pursue instead the path of peace perhaps negotiated by Egypt and other countries in the region.

(1) Kenney repeats the often-heard line that Hamas is bent on  the “destruction of the Jewish state” without mentioning that Israel refuses to recognize the Palestinians’ claims for a state of their own. A July 13th report from the Times of Israel reveals that the Israeli prime minister is steadfastly opposed to Palestinian sovereignty. “Netanyahu finally speaks his mind,” the headline reads, “He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t support a two-state solution. He was saying that it’s impossible.”

(2) As a spokesman for the Canadian government, Kenney contradicts longstanding Canadian policy on Israel and the Palestinians. The policy is still there for all to see on the Foreign Affairs Canada website. Here is just one excerpt:

Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel’s obligations as an occupying power, in particular with respect to the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories. As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.

RB: Minister Kenney, thank you for your time this morning.

JK: Thank you very much.


P.S. today, July 21, Costas Halavrezos sent this message (and web link) to mediaspin:

There are many disturbing elements in the way the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been framed, both by the combatants and by those looking on from a safe distance. But the cynicism of our federal government’s one-dimensional stance is best exemplified in the video it promptly sent out to the target audience for both its policy & its fundraising.

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Conservatives didn’t create the CBC, damn it

But they just might destroy it

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9780773539082One of Canada’s enduring myths is that the Conservatives created the CBC.

Historian P.B. Waite asserts it in his 2012 book, In Search of R.B. Bennett, a biography of the Depression-era Conservative prime minister who definitely did not create the CBC.

John Boyko, another Bennett biographer, made the same claim in 2010, while more recently, retiring Tory Senator Hugh Segal spouted it too.

CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition host Michael Enright informed his listeners last month that: “…the CBC was created by a Conservative government to act as a countervail to the overwhelming flood of American programming streaming into Canada.”

The myth got yet another airing yesterday with Halifax newspaper columnist Dan Leger’s recommendation that “the CBC should take the initiative by reminding Canadians about the valuable contributions it has made since its founding, by Conservatives, in the 1930s.”

Bennett’s boondogle

What R.B. Bennett’s government did create in 1932 was a public broadcaster that, at times, served as a propaganda arm of the Conservative Party. As the late Knowlton Nash points out in his book The Microphone Wars, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission was soon seen to be acting more like a government department than an independent agency. Nash also writes that the CRBC had no board of directors to insulate it from its political masters. Moreover, he notes that even though the CRBC was woefully underfunded, the Conservative cabinet tried unsuccessfully to cut its budget in half while Bennett was out of the country.

The Canadian Radio League, led by Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt, soon turned against the Commission it had helped create. The opposition Liberals hated it too, especially after the CRBC broadcast a series of six, 15-minute political dramas during the 1935 election campaign that ridiculed Mackenzie King and his Liberals. Listeners were not told in the early broadcasts that the “Mr. Sage” series was sponsored by the Conservatives.

After the Liberals won the election, they disbanded the CRBC and, at Alan Plaunt’s urging, established an independent crown corporation modelled on the BBC. Thus, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, born in 1936, was not a Conservative creation.

And, if Prime Minister Harper gets his way and manages to kill the CBC, he will not be destroying his own party’s handiwork, but that of the Liberals he loathes. I suspect Harper knows it, too.

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Conservatives didn’t create the CBC, damn it

But they just might destroy it

Opinion polls dance to anybody’s tune

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Halifax Nova Centre drawing

A headline in the May 2, 2014 Halifax Chronicle-Herald caught my eye. It appeared over a story about the highly controversial, $164 million, second convention centre that may be built at taxpayers’ expense in the downtown core of Nova Scotia’s capital city:

Poll: Most back convention centre

The story under the headline reported that 61% of those who live in the Halifax Regional Municipality support the new convention centre while 33% oppose it.

Wait a minute. Hadn’t I just read about a poll in which a majority opposed the new convention centre? Sure enough, when I checked the Herald archives, I found this headline on April 25, 2014:

Poll: People oppose Halifax convention centre

The story under that headline reported that 86% of Nova Scotians agreed the provincial government should seek a second opinion before spending public money on a new convention centre, while 89% felt that the federal money set aside for the centre would be better spent on roads, bridges and public transportation across the province.

“Holy liftin’ Jehosaphat!” I exclaimed. “What in hell happened to turn public opinion around within seven short days?”

Battle of the polls

Well, when you look more closely, it turns out that the two polls were released by supporters and opponents of the convention centre and the Herald rather uncritically repeated their claims.

The poll that the Herald wrote about on May 2nd was from a polling company, whose Chairman and CEO, is a vocal supporter of the convention centre. No surprise then that the company’s poll showed strong support. The April 25th story was based on a poll commissioned by a coalition of non-profit groups that are vigorous opponents of the project. No surprise there either. Their poll showed strong opposition.

But if polling is based on well-established statistical science, how could a majority be both for and against the convention centre in less than a week?

Part of the answer is that “public opinion” is an abstraction. It’s created when it’s measured and also according to how it’s measured.  People who may have given little or no thought to an issue often answer a pollster’s questions by responding to the information the pollster supplies or omits.

Let’s say, for example, that a pollster phones a random sample of people and asks: “As you may or may not be aware, a distinguished scientist says the moon was once part of the Earth, do you completely agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree or completely disagree?”

We might learn from this poll that 66% of Canadians side with the scientist while 30% say no, they don’t believe the moon was once part of the Earth with the other 4% in the “don’t know” or “refuse to answer” category. This result could yield an interesting headline: “Two-thirds believe moon once part of Earth.” But that two thirds would exist only because of the poll since most people haven’t spent a lot of time considering the question and most know little or nothing about the various theories about how the moon originated. In other words, there is no “public opinion” out there about the origin of the moon. But that opinion could be created and measured by polling.

This poll would be a harmless oddity unless organized groups had a vested interest in its results. Perhaps a multi-national mining company wants the US government to pay for an expedition to the moon to extract the precious metals that were torn from the Earth when the moon broke away.

What is the question?

The company whose CEO, Don Mills, strongly backs the convention centre asked the following question to a surprisingly small sample of  377 adults who live in the Halifax Regional Municipality, the area closest to the project:

As you may or may not be aware, the provincial government began construction on a new convention centre in downtown Halifax. All things considered, do you completely support, mostly support, mostly oppose or completely oppose the development of the new convention centre in downtown Halifax?

The information in the question is somewhat misleading. Yes, the Nova Scotia government gave permission to the Halifax Regional Municipality to allow a private developer to begin preliminary underground construction. But the municipal council has yet to approve the final design for the half-billion dollar, two-block complex that would include not only the convention centre, but a swanky hotel, office towers, restaurants, stores, apartments and underground parking.

And there’s no hint in the pollster’s question that municipal taxpayers would be contributing $56.4 million in construction costs for the new convention centre plus half of any operating losses.

The coalition opposing the convention centre cast their net wider asking another relatively small sample of 595 people across Nova Scotia questions that raise doubts about the project:

Justification for the second convention centre is based on a report written by the management of the present convention centre.

However, the provincial Auditor General has questioned the conclusions in the current report, and recommend (sic) that the provincial government commission an independent report before going ahead with the project to ensure that the project is a good use of taxpayers (sic) money.

Which of the following is CLOSEST to your view?

Statement 1: Halifax needs a second convention centre and there should be no delays in proceeding with its development.

Statement 2: The provincial government should get an independent second opinion before spending public money on this project.

No wonder 86% supported getting “an independent second opinion.” The question is not just a question, it’s a forceful, one-sided argument against the new convention centre.

Journalists and polls


Marshall McLuhan

Over the last four decades, journalists have gradually become more and more dependent on opinion polls especially in political reporting.

Instead of talking to a broad, cross-section of voters during election campaigns, for example, they now rely almost exclusively on polls to tell them how the campaign is unfolding. The pollsters themselves are frequently asked to comment on political questions and news outlets collaborate with polling companies to produce their own surveys. But, in spite of their reliance on polling, many reporters and editors have not developed the critical skills they need to judge the work of pollsters.

In the case of the polls showing majority support for and against the new Halifax convention centre, reporters and editors at the Herald accepted the competing polls and published the results without digging into the polls’ weaknesses. To be fair, the Herald did ask pollster Don Mills to critique the rival poll commissioned by the coalition opposing the convention centre. But Mills is hardly an impartial observer and no one was quoted in the Herald about the limitations of his poll.

During the federal campaign of 2006, a professor of communications studies at Toronto’s York University criticized the use of polls to predict the election outcome. Bob Hanke, who wrote a study on polling in the 2004 campaign, is quoted by the Montreal Gazette as deploring what he terms “media poll-itics.” Hanke makes it clear he’s referring to the role of pollsters in stage-managing electoral politics. He added they’re the kind of people Marshall McLuhan called “pollstergeists — the culture mind readers.”

I wish journalists would hop out of bed with the mind readers — or at the very least, start reporting critically on the pollstergeists’ stagecraft.

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Opinion polls dance to anybody’s tune