Fifth Estate documentary, Brian Mulroney: The Unauthorized Chapter
I am writing with regard to your complaint November 13, 2007, and request November 28, 2007, for a review by this Office concerning a CBC Television documentary on The Fifth Estate, entitled Brian Mulroney: The Unauthorized Chapter.
Let me begin by apologizing for the time it has taken to review your complaint. When I assumed the role as Ombudsman in November, I began to work with my predecessor on clearing the backlog of complaints. But that is of little consolation: This complaint has taken more than three years to be processed, a timeline indicative of neither the attitude or practice of this Office. It is with no small regret that I conduct the review in this manner. Your patience is appreciated.
Two policies have changed in recent months: CBC has released new Journalistic Standards and Practices policy and this Office now makes the identities of complainants public. Your complaint preceded those changes, so neither policy will apply in your review.
CBC Television's The Fifth Estate broadcast Brian Mulroney: The Unauthorized Chapter on October 31, 2007. It examined the relationship between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber and focused on questions concerning Schreiber's professional and financial relationship with Mulroney.
The documentary reported that Schreiber had earned funds from European companies for sales of planes and that he deposited some of these funds into a Swiss bank account.
Payments from Schreiber to Mulroney from this account in 1993 and 1994 totaled $300,000, the program asserted.
The complainant wrote November 13, 2007, that CBC had errantly connected funds received by Mulroney with the so-called Airbus affair involving commissions to Schreiber for his effort to secure the sale of planes to Air Canada. In fact, the complainant asserted, the funds were provided to Mulroney after he left public life and had “nothing to do with Airbus.”
“The CBC continues to report on the Mulroney/Schreiber affair as being connected to the Airbus scandal. This is inaccurate and false,” he wrote.
The program's executive producer, David Studer, wrote back November 27, 2007, that CBC reported that a transfer of funds from a shell company that received secret commissions from Airbus Industrie, among others, was deposited by Schreiber into a number of named Swiss bank accounts. One such account was codenamed Britan, and Schreiber withdrew $300,000 from that account to pay Mulroney.
“We have never suggested that Mr. Mulroney knew this or that he had any involvement in the decision by Air Canada to purchase Airbus aircraft,” Studer wrote. “But as we have reported, money Mr. Mulroney received did flow from the Airbus deal.”
CBC also reported Schreiber and Mulroney met while Mulroney was prime minister and that payments began while Mulroney was a Member of Parliament.
Also on November 27, 2007, the complainant said he was not convinced that the cash payments emanated from the account as reported. He said the program could not have known exactly which account certain cash bills would have come from, “barring the tracing of serial numbers.”
The complainant noted that Schreiber said the payments were for lobbying services for other firms than Airbus — specifically Bear Head Industries Limited, a subsidiary of Thyssen — but that the report had “given the misleading impression that the payments could be for nothing other than services related to the Airbus scandal.”
Studer wrote back December 5, 2007, that primary documents obtained by the program make clear that Airbus and Thyssen funds went into one of Schreiber's accounts named Frankfurt, then flowed into an account named Britan, and that the funds for Mulroney came from Britan.
“Therefore, whether he knew the source or not and indeed had no connection with the Air Canada purchase, the money Mr. Mulroney received cannot be separated from the Airbus funds,” Studer wrote. “All their funds are mingled,” he added. The complainant wrote again December 5, 2007, to note that the funds were Thyssen funds, not Airbus funds, and that CBC's report didn't note this.
Much has transpired since, but it is worth noting as background to this complaint that the matter has been one of the central political controversies in Canada of the last two decades.
The issue of the Airbus sales to Air Canada had been the subject of an RCMP investigation. In 1997, the federal government apologized to Mulroney and paid him $2.1-million in settling a libel case. The RCMP concluded its inquiry in 2003.
Following new allegations in 2007, however, the federal government launched an independent inquiry under Justice Jeffrey Oliphant to review the matter. His mandate permitted an examination of the appropriateness of payments to Mulroney from Schreiber but did not look into any connection between Mulroney, Schreiber and the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada.
Oliphant concluded that payments on three occasions totaling at least $225,000 were made to Mulroney and that an agreement between him and Schreiber was made while he was an MP.
Oliphant said that the fact Mulroney took the payments and did not record, disclose or deposit them “goes a long way, in my view, to supporting my position that the financial dealings between Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney were inappropriate.”
As for the source of the funds, Oliphant said in his executive summary he had little difficulty in concluding “that the funds that made up the Britan account can be traced back to commission payments made to IAL by Airbus Industries in connection with sales of aircraft to Air Canada.”
CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time intersected with this complaint in several ways.
The policy required that program 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” in their presentation. It demanded that information be “truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion,” and that information “reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view.”
On the matter of investigative reporting, the policy called for “heightened skills and the maintenance of strict standards of accuracy” and “logical conclusions derived from the facts” involving “the most scrupulous and painstaking research.”
It called for all parties directly concerned to be able to state their cases.
I cannot support the complainant's view that it was necessary to trace serial numbers in order to determine if the Airbus-related payments were the source of the cash for Mulroney.
The Oliphant inquiry set the record clearest in this matter. While it was denied access to some Swiss banking records, its independent forensic audit by the Navigant firm examined banking patterns in related accounts and the availability of funds at particular times. It assessed these records in the context of testimony from Schreiber and discussions with German prosecutors.
I am satisfied that CBC made clear in the documentary that Mulroney may not have known the source of the funds and I am also satisfied that his version of events was amply reported, in line with journalistic policy.
I have concluded there was no breach of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.