MONTREAL — Radio-Canada’s ombudsman says the network should not have broadcast a U.S.-made documentary that tries to make the case that the American media’s coverage of the Middle East is biased in favour of Israel because of its government’s influence and pressure from U.S. interest groups.

Julie Miville-Dechêne says the five-year-old film “contains anachronisms and inaccuracies, and militant pro-Palestinian groups were involved in researching” it. She faults the CBC French-language network for “failures of editorial control” throughout the process of bringing it to air, from its acquisition to research to senior management’s not viewing it before it was aired.

“The fact that this documentary is biased toward the Palestinian cause is not the issue here. Radio-Canada has the right to broadcast point-of-view films, as long as they are clearly identified as such,” she says in her 10-page report issued Dec. 8.

“Radio-Canada must also promote a diversity of opinion in its programming.”

Miville-Dechêne launched an investigation in response to 156 complaints about the airing on Oct. 23 of a 43-minute version of Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict on the speciality news service RDI.

Among those who filed complaints were the Quebec-Israel Committee (QIC) and HonestReporting Canada, a pro-Israel media watchdog group, which encouraged its online subscribers to press for a formal review of the matter. They complained that the film was not only Palestinian propaganda, but it contained serious factual errors and was aired by the public broadcaster in a context that was misleading to viewers.

Both organizations were pleased with the report.

“This is an unprecedented conclusion; Radio-Canada has never gone this far in recognizing errors it has made concerning the Middle East,” said QIC research director David Ouellette. “It’s a very damning review and exposes the larger problem of lack of oversight and checks and balances in the system… Radio-Canada is entitled to show point-of-view films, but she recognizes that does not remove the responsibility to see that they are based on fact.”

HonestReporting Canada, whose U.S head office is cited in the film as one of the interest groups influencing America media coverage, said the documentary should never have been aired, regardless of how it was presented.

Miville-Dechêne agreed that the documentary doesn’t comply with the network’s guide to journalistic standards and practices. Radio-Canada failed to identify Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land as a point-of-view, or advocacy, film at the beginning and the end of its presentation, as required by its own guidelines, or even to say who made it and when.

Much has changed in the region since it first came out in 2003, notably the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, she notes, and the impression given was that it was a current film.

Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land, directed by Sut Jhally and Bathsheba Ratzkoff and produced by the Media Education Foundation, includes interviews with such critics of Israel as Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk and Hanan Ashrawi, among other like-minded academics, journalists, media critics and activists in its original 80-minute length. Radio-Canada broadcast a 43-minute version.

“RDI was derelict in its duty to ensure fairness and balance by presenting a one-sided indictment of one of the two parties in the conflict and by neglecting to present other viewpoints,” the ombudsman concluded.

In its initial response, Radio-Canada corporate affairs director Geneviève Guay recognized that the film was “clearly pro-Palestinian,” but she defended the decision to broadcast because it “contained thought-provoking information for the Canadian public on how the U.S. media treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Miville-Dechêne found that the film “claims, without proving it, that the government of Israel controls” the U.S. media, often subtly, such as by not mentioning that the Palestinian territories are “occupied” by the Israeli military.

“There is no fairness, balance or nuance here: this pro-Palestinian documentary presents one point of view, one side of the coin,” she says.

While she found laxness among the network’s producers, directors and researchers, Miville-Dechêne absolves Simon Durivage, host of Les Grands Reportages, the series that aired the documentary.

She does, however, fault those who wrote the introduction that he read, which said, in part:

“According to Middle East experts, over the past 40 years, the State of Israel’s colonization policy has been stepped up in occupied Palestinian territory. The result: daily violence, from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. So what do the U.S. media have to say about this never-ending conflict? Are they distorting the judgment of our neighbours to the south?”

While there is no proof the “militant pro-Palestinian groups” mentioned in the credits financed the film, Miville-Dechêne says “the proximity between [them] and the filmmakers is disconcerting.”

“Even if it is a point-of-view documentary, the arguments presented must be based on facts, in accordance with Radio-Canada regulations,” she writes.

One blatant inaccuracy is the several references to Gaza’s occupation and Israel’s goal of permanently annexing the territory.

The film also speaks of the occupation as being illegal, but Miville-Dechêne points out that this has never been clarified by the courts.

She finds a failure of communication along the way, noting that although one producer found the documentary “borderline” his concern was never raised with superiors.

She has sympathy for the fact that RDI purchases 200 documentaries a year and views twice that many for consideration, and she noted that it doesn’t have the personnel to fact-check everything in them.

That only underlines the need to present such point-of-view films as being works of opinion so that viewers have context, Miville-Dechêne writes.

She notes that the senior documentary director told her that he purchased the rights to some “very interesting” Israeli documentaries that will be broadcast early next year.

HonestReporting Canada executive director Mike Fegelman said in a statement: “As the network has voluntarily disclosed many of its journalistic lapses, has agreed to air ‘very interesting Israeli documentaries’… and has implemented stricter editorial policies to prevent an incident like this from occurring in the future, Radio-Canada has strengthened its credibility and has become a better news organization.”

Copyright Canadian Jewish News 2009