Canada, Saudi Arabia and the CBC

As one of my colleagues often states, there is no escaping media studies in International and Global Studies, because the news media is how most of us receive information about global issues, even in an era of Twitter and blogs (OK news on the U.S. Presidency might be an exception). It’s interesting, therefore, to look at how different publications cover the news. As Colin Dwyer described in an article on the NPR website, Canadian diplomats denounced Saudi Arabia’s arrest of multiple human rights activists. Dwyer details how Saudi Arabia responded to the statements by denouncing Canada’s actions as meddling, recalling its ambassador, and freezing all new trade investments. Now Saudi Arabia has announced that it is withdrawing students from Canadian universities.

Then there was one truly horrifying tweet -now deleted- which denounced people who meddle in other affairs. The words were superimposed on Toronto’s skyline, with an AirCanada jet seeming to fly towards Toronto’s iconic CN Tower. This allusion to a 9/11 style attack on Canada drew world-wide media attention. The Washington Post and other major media global outlets provided detailed articles on this dispute, and the shocking tweet. But there was one media outlet that seemed to ignore this issue, even as Saudi Arabia announced that it was terminating flights to Canada: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

It was not that Canadian media outlets were uninterested by this issue. The right-wing National Post led with a story by Janice Dickson headlined: “Getting tough on Canada: Saudi Arabia’s expulsion of ambassador and suspension of trade sends a message, experts say.” The prestigious Globe and Mail led with an article by Stephen Chase titled “Saudi Arabia withdrawing students from Canadian schools, suspending flights.” The Toronto Star’s article by Adam Taylor focused (understandably) on the tweet depicting a plane flying into the CN tower. Taylor’s article provided a detailed and intelligent discussion of the source of the tweet, a non-profit foundation for Saudi youth, which allegedly is backed or supported by the Saudi government. Taylor’s account is worth reading for the context that it provides around the Tweet.

And then there was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a crown corporation funded by the national government to provide nation-wide news coverage. I went to the CBC news website this morning seeking to find more information on this dispute, and expecting to find interviews with experts in the field, the thoughts of diplomats, and a discussion of the economic issues. Instead there was nothing on the main page. As of August 7th in the morning, the lead story on the website was an article by Pete Evans, “Flair Airlines, Air Transat join Aeroplan loyalty program.” This business topic seemed a little ephemeral to be the lead story, given that not only was Saudi Arabia suspending flights to Canada, but also at least one other Gulf State was threatening to do so as well. Even if business news merited the lead, why would this particular story come first? There was an article on the main page related to Saudi Arabia titled “Saudi Man fears being separated from family as deportation looms,” which described how man’s asylum claim had been rejected by the Canadian government. While this account focused on one individual, there was no discussion anywhere on the main page of the national level confrontation.  While this omission was startling, what was more remarkable is that if one clicked on the “World News” tab, one found no reference to the dispute either. This is probably the major foreign policy issue in Canada at the current moment, and the largest issue in Canada’s relationship with the Middle East in many years. Nonetheless, it’s as if some Orwellian censor had decided to erase this event from public notice.

I have no idea why the CBC has chosen to omit coverage of this major event, but I have to think that this was a conscious decision rather than an accident. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the CBC’s editorial discussions about what stories would be covered on August 7, 2018. At a time when global and Canadian media were giving this topic extensive coverage, the Crown corporation dedicated to covering Canadian news chose as for its lead news story on its home page a piece about an airline loyalty program. My favorite news story would be one that looked at who within the CBC made that decision and why.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

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