Scout's Honour

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant said a documentary on CBC Television's the fifth estate did not sufficiently differentiate Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada. The review concluded there was no violation of journalistic policy, but found room for improvement.

On October 21, 2011, CBC Television's the fifth estate presented a documentary, Scout's Honour, which investigated the system within Scouts Canada and the Boy Scouts of America of dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct by its Scout leaders.

The hour-long documentary, an investigation involving CBC News and The Los Angeles Times, was strongly promoted in the days preceding its presentation on CBC Television, CBC Radio and CBC.ca. Program co-host Diana Swain chronicled a system of inconsistent communication between the two independent operations on each side of the border and seemingly light treatment in some instances of allegations of abuse.

Its principal focus was a case in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s involving Richard Turley, a Canadian who preyed on boys in the United States, was institutionalized, then returned to Scouts in Canada and the U.S. in the years following. Records allege further episodes of abuse, although officials remained publicly silent on the matter. Turley was convicted of sexual abuse in 1996, served a five-year prison term and further long-term supervision, and now lives in Alberta. Swain interviewed him as part of the show.

The complainant, Andrew Wallwork, wrote on October 27 to outline his concerns. Wallwork said the documentary: Commingled what should have been distinctions between the Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada, with a result of “confusion and misrepresentation.”

  • Was unfair by failing to note that electronic systems to manage information were not available in the 1970s.
  • Asserted without evidence that Scouts Canada had not reported an incident to police or that police had not taken action.
  • Edited full-length interviews it posted online to remove some of Swain's questions.
  • Created a point-of-view documentary that violated principles of impartiality.

David Studer, the director of current affairs investigative programming for CBC News, wrote back November 25. He said nothing had caused CBC News “to doubt the thrust of our reportage, which was that the case of Richard Turley highlights a problem in the way Scouts Canada handles sex abuse allegations, raises important questions about exactly what records Scouts kept, and gives rise to equally important questions about what Scouts did with the information it collected.”

Studer said there had been no intention to mislead the audience about the distinctions in the two organizations. He noted Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada shared information regularly, even if they maintained different operating structures. Indeed, he argued, “part of our point was that they were not connected enough.”

Studer said the program script made clear there were not extensive volunteer screening procedures in place in the 1970s and 1980s. Even so, information was gathered about alleged breaches of trust.

He said the program had based its conclusion that Scouts Canada had not reported on an incident as a result of investigating the matter.

He also noted that a point-of-view documentary was acceptable in certain circumstances within CBC News journalistic policy.

Wallwork wrote back December 8 and asked for a review by this Office.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for production techniques that “serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

Investigative journalism “can lead to conclusions and, in some cases, strong editorial judgments,” and to achieve fairness, “we diligently attempt to present the point of view of the person or institution being investigated.”

It notes the necessity to edit longer interviews, provided “we present what the interviewee said fairly and without distortion.”

It also permits point-of-view documentaries, provided they do not misrepresent other perspectives and are clearly labeled.

Conclusion

It is worth noting that in the weeks following the broadcast Scouts Canada issued an apology to those harmed and undertook a significant commitment for an independent review of its practices to build an even safer environment for children in its trusted care.

Unquestionably, the program bears responsibility for raising awareness and compelling Scouts Canada to reinforce its practices, a vital context for any evaluation of the program's details.

The program involved a complex investigation that spanned activities across nearly a half- century in two countries, and I concluded it did well to distill several sprawling but related elements into an accessible story without oversimplifying or distorting its importance.

CBC News created an extensive online resource that featured lengthier interviews involving those featured in smaller clips on the television program. The online resource provided access to many subsequent developments in the following weeks, including the statement and apology by Scouts Canada and news of the resignation of its chief executive officer. This resource is an encouraging sign in an age of Internet permanence, because it demonstrates that significant journalism has several sequels and that their curation by a news organization is of enormous help to an audience that might spontaneously discover an element of the content and want or need more.

The central complaint was that the program did not sufficiently identify the distinctions in organization and conduct of Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada. The complainant felt the latter was hurt by the actions of the former.

I can understand that frustration, but I can also see the challenge of the documentary's structure in tracking the central example chronologically over decades as Richard Turley moved back and forth between Canada and the United States and under the respective purviews of the two organizations. The details can be dizzying.

Although I could find no inaccuracy in the minute-to-minute script, I can see where there could have been some confusion about the respective approaches to misconduct by the two Scouts organizations.

In the course of the review CBC News acknowledged it might have more clearly emphasized those differences, possibly through repetition of the distinctions in its script throughout the program and not simply at a couple of stages of it. After all, intricacies of an hour-long program aren't always easy to grasp. That being said, there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, only some room for improvement.

The complainant said it was unfair to criticize Scouts Canada for not having information sharing technology in an era before broad computerization. I found the program was clear about the practical shortcomings of information sharing in that era and noted that organizations generally did not have the means to screen volunteers. Still, there were ways to share data and the program indicated the two organizations did so at times. Moreover, it permitted Scouts Canada ample opportunity to explain its procedures and records, past and present, at various stages in the program.

The complainant was concerned the program expressed a point-of-view. But I did not consider the investigation a point-of-view documentary, even though policy would have permitted it. It is true that the journalism concluded there were shortcomings in the respective practices of Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada, but that is not inherently opinionated. Rather, the investigation summarized records drawn from the two organizations and reported it factually without opinions in a format common for newsmagazines.

The complainant asserted it was not proven Scouts Canada alerted police about a particular incident or that police investigated it. In this instance I am satisfied CBC News investigated this matter to the greatest extent possible and found no evidence to suggest any other conclusion.

The complainant also argued that editing some of Swain's questions in the online resource constituted a distortion and bias. I did not agree. The practice did not violate journalistic policy, nor could I find any instance in which it distorted the thrust of the journalism and could have been perceived as problematic.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman