CBC Staff Call for Head of Journalistic Standards to Step Aside Following Ahmar Khan's Dismissal

A CBC employee told VICE World News the broadcaster is facing an “existential crisis” regarding its treatment of BIPOC employees.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
January 26, 2021, 2:56pm
cbc letter
A group of CBC employees say they've lost trust in Paul Hambleton's ability to do his job. Photos via LinkedIn and Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Update: This story has been updated to include Paul Hambleton’s response to staff. 

More than 100 CBC employees signed a letter calling for the corporation’s head of journalistic standards and practices to be replaced with a panel following an arbitration decision that found Canada’s national broadcaster wrongly dismissed a racialized reporter for whistleblowing. 

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The letter, sent Monday morning and obtained by VICE World News, is addressed to Paul Hambleton, director of CBC’s journalistic standards and practices. In it, employees expressed “disappointment, frustration, and anger” at Hambleton’s response to a tweet about hockey commentator Don Cherry made by former CBC Manitoba employee Ahmar Khan in November 2019.  

CBC made Khan delete the tweet—which described Cherry’s views as xenophobic and racist—after Hambleton said that if Khan “wants to be an activist he should step down. Everyone hears what they want to hear from Don Cherry.” 

“Suggesting that criticizing racism is some sort of journalistic shortcoming is not only wrong, it is dehumanizing for people of colour,” the letter said. 

“You have hurt a lot of people with these comments, and we have lost trust in your ability to do your job.” 

The letter called for the CBC to replace Hambleton with a panel of people to decide on issues pertaining to the CBC’s journalistic standards and practices; ensure that the journalistic standards and practices don’t discriminate against journalists of colour; allow public critique of racism; and for Hambleton to address his comments and take questions in an all-staff meeting. It did not specify that Hambleton cannot be part of the panel.

Hambleton did not respond to VICE World News’ request for comment. 

Does your workplace have an issue with systemic racism? You can contact reporter Manisha Krishnan by email at manisha.krishnan@vice.com or on Twitter @manishakrishnan.

However, in a letter sent to staff, viewed by VICE World News, Hambleton said he regrets the anger and hurt caused by his comment. 

“That sentence—seen today—reveals a gap in my own understanding then of what Black, Indigenous and people of colour must deal with on a daily basis,” he said. 

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He said the tension between activism and impartiality, particularly when it comes to race, is the most challenging part of the journalistic standards and practices. 

“The questions the staff-led review are tackling are profound: what does calling out racism mean in specific cases, or when it involves stories we're covering (or may cover) as a news organization?,” he wrote. 

Hambleton said the CBC will appoint a “small cabinet of Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour who can advise my office on difficult (journalistic standards and practices) calls around race.” He did not address the call for him to give up sole directorship in favour of a panel.

He said he will take questions from staff once the review is complete, which could take months.

CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson said the broadcaster is in the midst of a review of its journalistic standards and is including the perspectives of many BIPOC employees. 

“In fairness to that process, we need to see it through before commenting further.”

Khan leaked the CBC’s decision to make him delete the tweet to media watchdog Canadaland and told friends he thought the CBC’s journalistic standards and practices, which prevents employees from expressing opinions on causes or “controversial subjects,” is unfairly applied to journalists of colour. After CBC Manitoba employee Austin Grabish found out about the leak by searching through Khan’s private Twitter and Whatsapp messages, he told management, who in turn fired Khan. Grabish also found that Khan had used the word “fag” in a conversation with friends prior to his employment at the CBC. Khan previously told VICE World News the word was taken out of context and that he doesn’t normally use it. 

In a decision published earlier this month, arbitrator Lorne Slotnick ruled that the CBC was wrong to fire Khan and breached his privacy. The CBC’s dismissal of Khan has been condemned by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Journalists Anti-Racism Coalition. But so far, the broadcaster has not backed down on its actions.

In a letter sent to staff Monday afternoon, CBC CEO Catherine Tait said the news organization has faced a “difficult stretch” in light of the arbitration ruling. 

“While we do not agree with some aspects of the decision, we will not pursue it further,” Tait said.  

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She said a number of meetings have raised “a lack of trust and palpable hurt. And for this, we are truly sorry.” 

Tait said when a CBC employee is in violation of its code of conduct, “we have an obligation to look into it. From there, we decide whether further action is warranted.” 

“Please know we do not go looking through people's personal accounts to see what they are up to. We just don't,” she wrote. 

Thompson previously told VICE World News, “Mr. Khan was in violation of our code of conduct for contacting external media organizations and engaging in activities that could affect CBC/Radio-Canada's reputation.” He said no CBC journalist has been fired for calling out racism.

Tait said the CBC has launched the “BeHeard hotline” to allow employees to raise concerns about racism anonymously. Moving forward, she said the CBC will provide more clarity around its privacy protocols.

She noted that the CBC started reviewing its journalistic standards and practices “through a more inclusive lens” late last year.

“We can't undo the past, only learn from it and put those learnings into actions that will undoubtedly make us a better public broadcaster. Our collective energy is best directed to what's in front of us as we keep pushing forward,” Tait wrote. 

An email from CBC Manitoba managing director John Bertrand sent to staff Friday said the broadcaster acknowledges the need for more diversity in leadership positions. It said the Winnipeg newsroom is looking to implement inclusivity training. 

Thompson said “there is no one on CBC/Radio-Canada’s senior executive team who is diverse.” The broadcaster recently posted a position looking for a diversity and inclusion strategy lead, though it appears it is no longer accepting applications for that role. 

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Bertrand ended his email by quoting Amanda Gorman, 22, a Black woman and Youth Poet Laureate who read a poem about striving for a more inclusive U.S. at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Bertrand previously said Grabish and CBC Manitoba managing editor Melanie Verhaeghe “acted appropriately and professionally” when they screenshotted Khan’s private messages and reported them. 

A CBC employee, who is a person of colour, told VICE World News the broadcaster’s response to the Khan decision has been “woefully inadequate.” VICE World News is not identifying the employee because they are concerned about the repercussions of criticizing their employer. 

“In order for all this talk about inclusivity to be meaningful they have to accept the decision and honest to god they have to make an apology to Ahmar,” the employee said. 

The employee described the CBC’s diversity efforts thus far as a “bad veneer” and said the corporation is in the midst of an “existential crisis” regarding its treatment of BIPOC staff. They said the meetings about the Khan decision have been deeply unsatisfying, with managers unable to provide clear answers or solutions to the concerns raised. 

The employee said they don’t have faith in the journalistic standards and practices review if Hambleton is in charge of it. 

“I don’t see any indication that he has done the work to actually have a deeper understanding of the BIPOC experience at the CBC,” the employee said.

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The arbitration decision said the CBC’s position on the review is that “it is a review only, and the core values of impartiality and objectivity will not change.” 

The employee said the CBC wants BIPOC employees to “provide the colour” because it’s good for optics, “but when we express our humanity they shut us down.”  

Public hearings are currently underway regarding the renewal of the CBC’s licence by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. 

In an open letter published January 20, a group of producers, guests, and consultants, cited concerns about the lack of racial diversity in the CBC’s programming and operations. 

“The content produced through the issued licenses should reflect… diversity, rather than simply linguistic duality (which ultimately supports a bilingual whiteness)” the letter said. 

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that employees are asking for Paul Hambleton's role to be replaced with a panel of people, but does not specify that he cannot be part of that panel.

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