"The Lady Vanishes"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

“The Lady Vanishes” (The Fifth Estate, November 2007)

This is one of the most difficult and troubling issues that has come to my attention during my time as Ombudsman. At first glance, it is an intensely personal issue, brought to the public's attention by Sandy Munroe, Heli Munroe's husband.

It is clear that The Fifth Estate set out to follow up on Mr. Munroe's heart-wrenching complaint that someone had kidnapped his wife, who was clearly suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. In the course of their research, other elements seized their attention and drew the program in a different direction.

Sadly, Heli Munroe has recently died.

The Ombudsman's job is not to settle legal or medical issues, but journalistic ones: was the program a fair recounting of the situation based on their reporting and was it accurate in its details?

You raise a raft of issues, some of them relating to the method of reporting and some of them related to conclusions which you draw or claim the program draws.

The Executive Producer of The Fifth Estate, David Studer, made a substantial reply. You rejected his response, saying that it “not only didn't address my questions and concerns but complicated it by further (inaccuracies) and misrepresentations.”

Some months later, you sent another missive of dozens of pages, restating some of the earlier complaint and introducing other elements.

I am sorry for the length of time it has taken to coherently address your concerns.

REVIEW

It is perhaps useful to frame this review with the relevant portions of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices:

2. JOURNALISTIC PRINCIPLES
Information programs must reflect established journalistic principles:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

It is not unusual for participants or subjects of stories to arrive at a different conclusion than the programmers. My task is not, necessarily, to “pick a side,” but to determine whether in reaching whatever point the program makes, it does so in adherence to the policies.

You make a number of assertions in your complaint:

  • failure to talk with people suggested by you and/or Sandy Munroe;
  • improper use of “private” video;
  • failure to talk with lawyers for Mr. Munroe, or with a knowledge of proceedings involving Mr. Munroe and Heli;
  • improper checking of the bona fides of interview subjects such as son Rory Munroe;
  • editing material in such a way as to show Mr. Munroe as “callous and unfeeling” and failing to show other material that would support a view that he was caring and struck by grief and sorrow;
  • failure to put greater weight on documents that you say were “accepted” by the court.

I note that Mr. Studer responded vigorously to these items. I reviewed the methods and content of the material which underlay these items in the program:

  • It is clear to me that The Fifth Estate spoke with many of the people suggested by Sandy Munroe. The results were not always what you and he might have anticipated. In fact, I saw evidence that certain sources may have said different things to Mr. Munroe than were communicated to CBC journalists. However, the material was sound enough to use as underpinning for some of the assertions contained in the item.
  • Unless you have further information, it seems clear that the CBC provided the camera, tape and training for the video and that there was a clear understanding that the CBC would have access to the footage. The CBC had no control over statements made by Don Munroe.
  • Lawyers quite familiar with the situation were interviewed. Some of the material would be considered confidential journalistic “work product,” but can be used ethically to underpin the journalists' understanding of the issues involved. I have reviewed this material and, again, it appears that The Fifth Estate based its statements on sound material from more than one source. You appear to claim that there was a “guardianship” in force, but it is my understanding that this was not the case. When Mrs. Munroe agreed to the Power of Attorney, it was just that: a power of attorney dealing with financial matters. You say that she was competent when she did that so she must have been well aware that she was not granting guardianship.
  • You make multiple references to documents that were “accepted” by the court, but, as far as I can tell, the matters have not actually been “decided” by a court.
  • There may be some discrepancy as to when the son last had contact with the parents, but, for sound journalistic reasons, it was not improper to include his perspective.
  • I also observed documentary evidence of contact with people in Great Britain who, as mentioned above, seem to have chosen not to share fully with either of the Munroe brothers the extent of their contact with the CBC.
  • You also raise questions about the interview taping of Mr. Munroe. I have reviewed the full tape and find that the journalists appear to have operated within guidelines. Mr. Munroe did not ask for the tape to be stopped before removing the microphone and trying to end the interview. When he asked, the camera was shut off.

There are some issues on which I am not capable of making an absolute judgment, particularly Mrs. Munroe's condition at any given time. In some of your claims, there appear to be internal contradictions of how aware Mrs. Munroe was. There is evidence also that she appeared to be more responsive and coherent at various times outside the home, or inside when Mr. Munroe was not present. Certainly there was enough indication to raise legitimate questions, which the program did.

Those questions were covered in the lengthy interview with Mr. Munroe, who had appropriate opportunity to address them.

It has been difficult to deal with this matter due to the lengthy, repetitive and often contradictory statements in the complaint. I have tried to deal with this solely on journalistic grounds:

Was the issue one of public importance? Mr. Munroe himself brought it to full public attention

Did The Fifth Estate give appropriate parties the ability to respond to questions raised? Mr. Munroe was interviewed extensively and appropriate clips were used to illustrate his positions.

Did the Fifth Estate handle what was obviously a difficult and emotional story within CBC guidelines? The answer to that is “yes.”

Conclusion

I can only express my utter sorrow at the deterioration and, ultimately, death of Heli Munroe. You are certainly correct that her battle with Alzheimer's Disease and the controversy surrounding her departure from Canada is an object lesson for all of us who will need to deal with such issues. As Mr. Studer said, the program was not an exposition on the disease, but the lessons to be learned from various responses to it as illustrated by the issues that Mr. Munroe himself brought to the public's attention.

I find no violation of CBC's journalistic policy.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman