Request for revision of online story

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant was the subject of a 1999 online story whose lingering inaccuracy he said was hurting his reputation. Journalistic policy was not violated, but there is an option for CBC News to revisit the story.

On December 22, 1999, CBC.ca carried an update to an earlier story about former Ontario cabinet minister Steve Gilchrist.

The update said Gilchrist had been cleared of wrongdoing by the Ontario Provincial Police following a complaint about his conduct.

The story indicated a representative of developers had complained Gilchrist had peddled influence by telling developers to go through his personal lawyer in order to arrange a meeting.

The story said Gilchrist had been “forced to resign from cabinet” when the complaint surfaced.

Gilchrist complained on January 19, 2011 that the nature of the complaint had never been made public, so CBC News was depending on unverified information for its story. Further, Gilchrist said he was not forced to resign but did so voluntarily when the complaint went public.

He wanted the permanent online story to be revised to reflect what he considered to be accurate.

The response to his complaint appears to have been misplaced for several months. On November 17, 2011, the executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back and apologized that a March 2011 response had errantly not been sent.

Enkin said the stories fairly and accurately reflected what was known at the time.

Enkin said that reports indicated that Gilchrist had told an Urban Development Institute dinner gathering that developers needed to first contact his lawyer — a party fundraiser — to bring issues to the minister.

On January 4, 2013, Gilchrist further pursued the complaint and asked for a review. He said at least 124 other websites had changed the content to reflect his assertions

(Given that the current ombudsman was at the time of the complaint the executive editor of CBC News, the special advisor to the ombudsman was asked to review the complaint.)

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accurate, clear presentation of facts. It calls for stories to be corrected “when necessary” and to be updated when information has materially changed. It discourages the deletion of online content unless there is a personal risk to the subject involved, but it permits revision of material through a follow-up story or a correction when it has been “substantially wrong.”

Conclusion

Not surprisingly, it was difficult in this case to determine the performance of the journalism against CBC standards because the content dated back more than 13 years and those responsible for it have long since moved to other roles.

The practical solution in this instance, I concluded, was to evaluate the qualities of the journalism in the context of other available reports and to assess the validity of a request for a revisiting of the work in accordance with CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

It is valuable to understand the different journalistic context. In 1999, much of CBC News' online work involved a migration and slight modification of short television and radio scripts, not the extensive original online reporting it now produces.

In its 1999 reports and its 2011 correspondence with the complainant, CBC News cited other media accounts about the developers' allegation. Reflective of this shorter online format at the time, there was no indication in the CBC.ca report of first-hand information about the nature of the allegation.

That being said, I found it was widely reported and confirmed in other news reports, including those by The Canadian Press, the news agency that supplies content to CBC. An Ontario Provincial Police official confirmed the nature of the investigation in one such report I found.

As for the complainant's concern that the allegation was never specifically termed “influence peddling” by police or officials — a term that might have only been formally applied were charges laid — I concluded that the description of the developers' allegation fit the definition. It was fair and not inaccurate, just as CBC News was fair and accurate in describing how the complainant had been cleared of wrongdoing.

A more disputatious matter was how Gilchrist exited cabinet. Reports at the time variously suggested opposition political pressure compelled him to step aside, that he was asked to resign, and that he stepped aside voluntarily to await the results of the police investigation.

The complainant has asserted, albeit long after the story, that the original CBC information was inaccurate. He insists he left cabinet on his own when the complaint surfaced and that his resignation in turn permitted him to speak against development of an environmentally sensitive area.

In complaining now, he is suggesting the continuing presence of a story that could be interpreted he did not voluntarily resign has a negative impact on his reputation. He notes correctly that other websites have deleted their stories or modified them to reflect his perspective.

CBC News argues that it reported what it believed to be true at the time. I note that the story said he was “forced to resign” without saying who or what forced him. The wording is sufficiently open to interpretation that it could have been the government, the opposition, his conscience or other factors that led him to step down, even temporarily.

The story does not specify what forced him to resign. As a result, I cannot find any violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, even if the wording could have been more precise to avoid errant impressions arising from some untruthful interpretations of the phrase that Gilchrist was ”forced to resign.”

The question now becomes what CBC News should do with the request for revision or deletion. Reporting what was believed true at the time may not settle all issues of public importance in this era of permanent online records in which the original information can be challenged or new information can emerge.

CBC and other news organizations largely avoid deleting online content because that effectively erases history in the form of a public record. Instead, they choose in some circumstances to update stories or correct significant errors to leave an accurate permanent record online without erasing the original thrust of a story.

Given the discrepancy between the online record and the complainant's assertions today, there are not unreasonable grounds to revisit the matter if there is an opportunity to clarify the record and, in the process, minimize harm. But there is a considerable challenge in doing this, primarily in the task of gaining thorough and faithful accounts at such a late date.

The public would not be served by expunging the record unless CBC News was presented with evidence that satisfied its standards, although the exercise would provide an opportunity to note the complainant's assertions about how he left office.

Kirk LaPointe
Special Advisor to the Office of the CBC Ombudsman