Review of documentary on asbestos

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant asserted that a CBC Television documentary on asbestos was biased and inaccurate. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On February 2, 2012, CBC Television's The National presented a 20-minute documentary, titled Fatal Deception, that explored issues involving the health impact of asbestos. It was produced in conjunction with the Radio-Canada program, Enquête, and reported by Terence McKenna.

The documentary examined the history of Quebec asbestos mining, outlined some of the McGill University research on the substance's health impact, and questioned the information upon which the federal government was basing its decision to support the reopening of the world's largest asbestos mine.

The documentary featured archival documents dating back nearly a half-century and recently released through U.S. court action. The documentary said that, taken with the public record, the documents suggested the health risks were played down and test results altered to create a less troublesome public impression.

The documentary focused its expert interviews on two adversaries on the issue: Dr. Bruce Case, a forensic pathologist from McGill University in Montreal who has conducted research on asbestos, and Dr. David Egilman, an epidemiologist from Brown University in Rhode Island described as a “crusader” on the health impact of asbestos.

Among several elements to the documentary was a portrait of a family whose father and mother had died of cancer and daughter been recently diagnosed. The father had worked in the mine, the mother had washed his asbestos-laden garments by hand, and the daughter had hugged her father when he'd come home from the mine.

The documentary noted the reopening of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec. It featured two federal cabinet ministers telling the House of Commons that studies indicated chrysotile — also known as white asbestos, the most common such fibre — could be handled safely under controlled conditions. The program said neither minister would consent to an interview with the program.

The complainant, Baljit Chadha, is the president of Mineral Fibre Inc., the Jeffrey Mine operator. Chadha initially wrote in advance of the documentary in January 2012 to express concern that the segment might not be fair and accurate.

An exchange of letters ensued following the documentary between legal counsel for the mine company and CBC. (Given that they are not part of the public complaint process, they are not excerpted in this finding.)

Concurrent to this exchange, a public complaint process commenced April 9. Chadha wrote that the documentary was unfair “by grossly mixing past events with present ones, while totally ignoring the ‘safe use approach' of chrysotile which is recognized by the government of Canada, the government of Quebec and other responsible persons and entities.”

Chadha said extensive documentation was provided the program but ignored in the broadcast. He took issue with the credentials of Egilman. He also noted he had earlier asked CBC for clarifications and corrections. Chadha said the program was not a fair assessment of the asbestos industries, that it was a point-of-view documentary but not labeled as such, that it was “negligently investigated, editorialized, and did not accordingly meet” CBC journalistic policy.

He added: “No serious attempts were made to negotiate with us a reasonable approach that, while avoiding any possibility of entrapment, would have permitted you to ask any and all questions that you may have deemed appropriate.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back June 29 and apologized for the delay in her response.

She noted the “long and extremely troubled history” of the Quebec asbestos industry was germane and that the report “would be remiss if it did not place current plans to re- open the world's largest asbestos mine with millions in public money in the context of the industry's past in the province. Information on the potential risk of asbestos-related disease is vital to Canadians' understanding of the effect of those plans.”

Enkin noted that much of the content that dealt with past issues was visually represented in black and white, while the present day information was presented in colour.

Enkin said the report “did not ignore the view that asbestos can be used safely.” In the introduction to the report, host Wendy Mesley said decision-makers were “insisting that science proves it can be done safely.” Additionally, two cabinet ministers were featured making the same statements.

Enkin said Egilman's credentials are widely regarded and that his advocacy was noted in describing him as a “crusader for victims.” She said Case offered “his pointed views” of Egilman in the documentary and asserted Egilman earned part of his salary from asbestos litigation.

Enkin said the program contacted Chadha's representative in September 2011 and was turned down for an interview. An off-the-record conversation was sought in October 2011 and was also turned down. A renewed request for an interview was made in early January 2012.

“The conditions you imposed before agreeing to an interview were unacceptable,” Enkin wrote, adding CBC would not agree to Chadha's requests for clarifications after the broadcast.

Chadha wrote July 17 and asked for a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices intersect in several ways with the complaint. They call for accurate, fair reporting, even-handed treatment of individuals, diligent effort to present relevant views, and presentation of investigative journalism only after facts and evidence support judgments and conclusions.

“When a person considered necessary to a story refuses to be interviewed or provide comment, in fairness to all parties, we advise the audience of the refusal,” the policy says. “When appropriate, we also provide the reasons given.”

It adds: “To preserve our independence, we do not grant veto power to the people we interview.”

On matters of science and health, it notes: “We take care to understand properly and reflect the true implications of medical or scientific study results that we obtain, especially those involving statistical data.”

On production techniques, the policy says CBC should make “judicious choices when information content is presented with music or visual effects that could affect perception or impact. We are clear and open about the production methods we use, so the audience can put our images, sound and statements in their proper context. We advise the audience of the use of certain techniques, for example the reenactment of a scene, the use of archival material in scenes of current events or the use of clandestine methods.”

It adds: “The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

Conclusion

The mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman is limited to the review of content for its accuracy and fairness under journalistic policy. In this instance, the review can't resolve whether it is possible to handle asbestos safely; rather, the review has to determine if the documentary presented views on the matter accurately and fairly.

Certainly, the documentary staked a position there had been historic gaps with health research, industrial practices, and the public understanding of the mining of asbestos. It argued the point through documentation and expert interviews. It raised questions and, in my view, attempted to provide divergent views in its effort to answer those questions. But I did not conclude it did so unfairly.

The question in a review by this Office mainly involves whether the documentary left sufficient room for varying positions — for fair presentation of divergent views — in order to permit the audience to draw its conclusions.

I concluded the documentary included ample presentation of views that differed with its central assertion. Far from “ignoring” the “safe-use approach” involving the handling of asbestos, the documentary included a clip of the prime minister in support of the industry, clips of two federal cabinet ministers in support of its practices, and several clips of a scientist in general support of research that the program questioned. It also permitted the scientist to challenge the credentials of his adversary.

As for the epidemiologist used extensively by the documentary to make health-related assertions, I concluded he was qualified to do so. I did not consider his activity as an expert witness in health-related litigation to be a conflict that disqualified him as a credible source of information. Indeed, his success in the courts enhanced his credentials.

I found the production techniques served to appropriately segregate older from newer information. The use of black and white or sepia-tone imagery is a familiar technique to depict older material, while the minor recreation of scenes made the narrative more accessible. Both contextualized the story.

Although it was not stated in the documentary, correspondence between the complainant's representatives and CBC indicated representatives for the mine would not agree to be interviewed without conditions on their appearance.

While not journalistically essential, it would have been ideal to include a company representative in the documentary — even to note that a representative had declined an interview. That being said, it was imperative that CBC News — like any news organization — not be subjected to conditions that could compromise the integrity of its journalism in order to gain access. Journalistic independence requires agency over the presentation of information. In my view, if a potential interview subject balks or builds an inappropriate barrier of access or places an undue demand on how he or she will be presented, it weakens any subsequent complaint about non-inclusion.

I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman