In late October, I put out a call on Twitter asking Canadian television news hosts and anchors if they’re forced to wear poppies on-air. I asked because I’ve noticed that nearly every host or anchor seems to do so during the leadup to Remembrance Day, which has always disturbed me (more on that later).

Since then, I’ve learned that Mackay Taggart, the regional director of news for Ontario at Global News, sent an email to staff late last month stating that, “Poppies should be worn by all Global News anchors, reporters and radio hosts appearing on television and in online videos from Sunday November 1st to Wednesday November 11th.”

The email adds, “While there is a belief that Remembrance Day ends at noon local time on November 11, out of respect for Canadian veterans, Global News on-air employees should continue to wear poppies through early evening and late news programs on Remembrance Day.”

But the email goes even further, with Taggart stating that, “In today’s era of social media, it would also be good practice for all our personalities to be diligent and mindful of wearing a poppy when out in public.” It also notes that the company will provide employees with poppies.

I reached out to Taggart and others at Global for comment, including to ask if it’s common practice for Global to suggest what employees should wear outside of work, but they didn’t reply to my questions before the deadline I gave them.

I also reached out to the CBC, CTV and City News asking if they instruct hosts and anchors to wear poppies while on-air.

CBC’s head of public affairs, Chuck Thompson, told me they do not, although to the best of his knowledge all hosts and anchors do wear poppies. I didn’t get an answer from CTV or City News, but after scanning through broadcasts for the past few days it also does appear that all their hosts and anchors have worn poppies  — of course, they may have all independently decided to do so.

Poppies And Objectivity

Some of you reading won’t see the problem with a network forcing hosts and anchors to wear poppies, and may even be more compelled to support that outlet (especially judging by the ongoing call to boycott Whole Foods for barring employees from wearing poppies, part of a policy the company created to stop employees from showing support for Black Lives Matter.)

So, here’s the problem: So-called objectivity is one of the ostensible cornerstones of modern, corporate journalism, but it’s complete bullshit, and the way poppies are handled is a great example of why.

The myth of objectivity is that journalists are required to refrain from expressing any political opinion, especially on things they cover, in order to avoid giving off the impression that they’re biased.

The reality of objectivity is that journalists are permitted to express things in line with the dominant political ideology, which are seen as neutral, while being barred from alternative viewpoints.

Poppies, for example, are explicit political symbols and yet journalists are not only permitted to wear them on-air, but sometimes forced to, despite supposedly being required to appear unbiased.

If you don’t believe poppies are political symbols, consider that:

  • They’re a trademark of the Royal Canadian Legion (RCL), which sets the terms for how poppies can be used, and what they’re intended to signify. The RCL has even referred to itself as the “Guardians of Remembrance”
  • In its 58-page Poppy Manual, the RCL glorifies war, quoting Brigadier-General A.E. Ross describing Vimy Ridge as an event that marked the “birth of a nation,” and adding, “No longer would Canada be overshadowed by the military strength of her allies. This battle had proven Canada’s ability as a formidable force in the theatre of war.” The word “peace” is mentioned 0 times throughout the entire document
  • The document also states that in addition to being a symbol of remembrance, the poppy is a “symbol of unity” behind, and “collective reminiscence” of, what Canadian soldiers have done, and continue to do, in “all wars” (Not just whatever cherrypicked ones you support)
  • It also offers a bizarre, but certainly political, view of what soldiers do, claiming that they give “their lives in the defence of freedom” (Canada fought on the side in Libya that would later reinstate slavery), and that “it is because of our War Veterans that we exist as a proud and free nation” (It is partly because of our War Veterans that thousands of children in Afghanistan are dead.)
  • To cap this all off, poppies play a prominent role in the self-glorifying military ceremonies throughout the country on Remembrance Day

Also consider that in mere hours today after CBC published a story about Whole Foods’ policy pertaining to poppies, politicians from all parties came out viciously condemning the company and reiterating their deep commitment to spreading a specific political interpretation of what soldiers do.

For example, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced that he will propose legislation prohibiting employers from stopping their workers wearing poppies. The House of Commons has also already unanimously passed a motion condemning Whole Foods.

And if you somehow think the overtly political messaging behind poppies is overridden by the idea that their sale helps pay bills for veterans that the government should be covering, consider that this:

  • Is effectively donating to a cause intended to benefit certain members of Canadian society out of political motivations
  • Isn’t allowed for other Canadians who also aren’t getting their needs met by the government

So, journalists are on TV every single day wearing a political symbol its trademark owners explicitly state is meant to unite us behind a glorified interpretation of what soldiers do, and yet because this political view just so happens to line up with the dominant ideology in Canada — slack jawed reverence of the military — it’s somehow not a violation of objectivity?

Journalists (even columnists, such as Desmond Cole) have gotten fired or disciplined for going to protests in their free time because of objectivity, but when it comes to the military they’re required to violate objectivity while on the job in order to keep from getting disciplined or fired?

Dangerous Double Standards

This directive is not just hypocritical, but dangerous. While media management punishes journalists with alternate political viewpoints, the replication of the dominant ideology is actually damaging because it represents the bodies we’re supposed to be particularly focused on monitoring.

The media, for example, is expected to cover the many scandals within the Canadian military. Yet employees are forced to wear symbols that venerate that same institution and its members.

I’m sure there are some upset journalists reading this right now who insist they can wear a political symbol and still do their job. Maybe so, but can you imagine your manager letting you wear a Black Lives Matter shirt on-air? Go ask them! Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

Militarism obviously trumps objectivity as a principle in Canadian newsrooms, and it appears that, at Global News at least, management is happy to take part in its enforcement. Here is some further proof.

Taggart’s email to staff points to section 12.1 of the Global News Journalistic Principles and Practices document, which mandates that employees should wear poppies while on-air. However, it comes directly after a section (12.0) that states the following:

On-air employees, including freelance and contract, should not wear any ribbons, pins, buttons, t-shirts or any other identifying symbol on behalf of a charity business or sponsor during a news program. These restrictions extend to patriotic symbols and any religious icons or other symbols that may be visible to viewers. These restrictions pertain to wearing these symbols while on air, sitting at the anchor desk or on the set.

Poppies are an identifying symbol. They are trademarked by the RCL, which has hundreds of poppy funds registered as charities. Poppies are also explicitly patriotic. Yet Global not only permits anchors to wear them while on-air, but actually mandates them to do so. The double standard could not be clearer.

No More Poppies On-Air

I doubt Global News is the only network that forces employees to wear poppies while on-air.

With this in mind, I have a few calls:

  1. Media outlets should stop forcing journalists to wear poppies on-air.
  1. If media outlets prevent journalists from wearing other political symbols while on-air, they should also prevent them from wearing poppies.
  1. If anchors and hosts claim to care about objectivity, or not appearing to venerate the institutions they’re supposed to be covering, they should stop wearing poppies on-air. 

For full disclosure, I don’t wear a poppy, and would prefer to see a world where fewer did. Regardless, you don’t need to be opposed to poppies in and of themselves to see that supposed journalistic standards wielded to crush alternate viewpoints are being violated when anchors wear poppies.