Alcohol served to underage teens

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The complaint involved a report that featured minors purchasing alcohol underage at Vancouver restaurants. There was a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On November 16, 2012, carried a Vancouver-based story on how some minors could be served alcohol at local restaurants. The online report embedded radio and television stories from that day.

It is illegal to purchase or be served liquor under the age of 19 in British Columbia. CBC News used hidden cameras to chronicle the effort by four teens it enlisted — one aged 17, three aged 18 — to purchase alcohol at four establishments.

In two restaurants the minors were asked for proper age identification and refused service. In two other restaurants they were served.

The minors were featured and named in the report and on camera, as were the names and buildings of the restaurants they visited.

The report noted that the teens were directed to not — and did not — drink in either case of being served. They paid the bill and left upon being served liquor. The report carried the teens' reactions to the relative ease of being served underage.

Representatives for the two offending restaurants acknowledged violation of their policies and promised to address the matter through employee training or more vigilant checks of identification. The report noted that restaurants face fines up to $10,000 and temporary suspension of their liquor licences for their first offences.

The complainant, Ryan Hunter, wrote November 19 and criticized CBC for directing the minors to break the law. He also said CBC vilified businesses and depended on a very small sample to characterize the situation.

Wayne Williams, the news director for CBC British Columbia, wrote Hunter on November 28.

He defended the newsroom's pursuit of the story and wrote of the restaurants: “The fact that they are breaking the law – especially a law specifically designed to protect teenagers considered not yet to have the maturity and judgment to drink responsibly, and by inference, those who might suffer as a consequence of their actions – is newsworthy.”

He noted that the province had considered the situation serious enough to conduct its own spot-checks using underage customers. It found non-compliance with law in 70 per cent of the cases.

Williams said the minors volunteered for the report, that the restaurants were chosen at random, and that the minors did not drink what they were served.

Hunter wrote back November 28 and asked for a review. He said CBC could have asked 19-year-olds to participate in the story to see if they were asked for identification. Given the small sample size, CBC could have also not named the establishments that served the minors alcohol, he said.

The complaint did not involve the television report, but the online report was driven by material gathered by hidden cameras at the restaurants.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices permit hidden cameras to be used under strict conditions. The policy on “clandestine methods” offers a range of guidance on this matter.

The policy's first principle on so-called “clandestine methods” reflects the need to balance journalistic pursuit with public credibility. It says: “Since we are aware that unwarranted use of clandestine methods could impair the credibility of our reporting, we will ascertain beforehand that the method chosen clearly serves the public interest and is lawful.”

The policy sets out some conditions for legal clandestine methods.

“We may choose to conceal our recording equipment in a public place — anywhere the public has unrestricted access — to record behaviour that is a matter of public interest and that the presence of the camera might alter.”

The policy permits such recordings when it is likely there would be illegal activity, when it would not be possible to gain the information openly, and when the information gathering would be useful.

The policy adds: “If selected excerpts of the material gathered reveal illegal or antisocial activity or an abuse of trust, we will attempt to confront the person exposed in the clandestine recording and will take his or her reaction into account in our report.”

The policy to permit hidden cameras requires a director-level approval to proceed. The policy notes that the participation in CBC's journalism of youth — those aged up to 17 — poses special challenges because “children and youth do not necessarily have the experience to weigh the consequences of publication of their statements.”

That being said, the policy adds, there are “circumstances where it may be appropriate to allow youths to exercise their good judgment about granting an interview or otherwise participating in our programming or content, for instance when no foreseeable inconvenience or detrimental consequences for them or their family could ensue.”


The CBC policy's first principle when it involves clandestine methods in investigative journalism is that its methods serve the public interest and be “lawful.”

In bypassing this first principle, CBC News asserted that the important public interest in the story — that underage customers were being served alcohol — made the personal and legal risks acceptable. It pointed out there have been no consequences to date of the involvement of the teens.

CBC News also responsibly consulted the parents of the teens before proceeding with the story, discussed the assignment at a senior level within the organization, and presented the gathered information to the restaurants for their response.

The issue of underage drinking is important but I concluded more could have been done to minimize the potential harm of CBC's technique without sacrificing the objective of its journalism.

Harm minimization, part of several journalism codes, is reflected in CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy, including an acknowledgment that young people may not apprehend the impact of their participation.

The CBC policy can permit involvement of youth in its journalism when “no foreseeable inconvenience or detrimental consequences for them or their family could ensue.” But its difficult to foresee consequences in the digital age. In this instance a permanent online record was created in which the teens were identified as knowingly breaking a law. No one knows what could ensue with possible employers, for instance.

I concluded there were other ways for CBC News to tell the story.

To satisfy its journalistic policy, it could have asked 19-year-olds to test if restaurants sought identification. That would have addressed the basic story requirement — whether restaurants served young people without asking for ID — and been neither unlawful nor run personal or legal risks for the participants.

As it proceeded to use underage customers in the story, CBC News had less problematic options: not showing their faces on camera or not identifying them by name (to thwart any subsequent online search connecting them to the story). It could have directed teens to leave as soon as the restaurant agreed to serve them, but before alcohol was brought to their tables, so other patrons who might know them or their families would not see them receiving drinks. The report could have paraphrased the teens' reactions and instead focused on the parents to discuss the issue.

That being said, CBC News enlisted minors to break the law and chronicled the episode when its policy required lawful methods. Thus it was a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Two other matters arising from the complaint intersected with CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices and were not violations of policy.

First, I concluded that it was not unfair to test only four restaurants. CBC was attempting to replicate provincial checks that found more than two-thirds had served underage customers. (A significant difference is that the provincial checks were conducted by unidentified underage customers.) Second, I did not agree with the complainant that the restaurants should not have been named. While its technique was a violation, in the end it found illegal practices and it would not have been in the public interest to suppress the information.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman