Maintaining the record vs the right to be forgotten

The complainant, Ed Mercer, wants a story about his company taken down because he says it is having a negative impact on his business. The article about home inspections gives his take on the story. CBC Journalistic Standard and Practices only allows removing a story in exceptional circumstances. There aren’t any in this case.

COMPLAINT

In October of last year, CBC News in Newfoundland ran a story about a man who bought a home with a leaking basement. He felt the home inspector had missed the signs of water damage on the studs in the basement. The story, entitled “Customer cries foul after home inspectors close ranks,” also alleges that other home inspectors would not review the work of one of their colleagues, and that the customer was not able to get a second opinion about the quality of the initial inspection. The head of the Newfoundland and Labrador Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors declined to review the initial inspection. He stated that oversight of home inspections and regulation of inspectors should be done by the provincial government.

You are the owner and operator of the company that did the inspection. You requested that the story be removed from the website because your insurance company found that neither “my company or my inspector is responsible for any errors or omissions and we have been cleared of all liability.” You also pointed out that the report did refer to some areas of concern that could result in water getting into the basement. You feel the “company continues to be unfairly portrayed due to this article.” The continued presence of the online story on search engines has had a negative impact on your business, and since people search online for the kind of service you provide, you want the story gone.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Although the initial stories (radio, television and online) were published in October, 2013, you first contacted CBC in March of this year. The first response came from Peter Gullage, the Executive Producer of News in Newfoundland and Labrador. You provided the results of your insurer’s evaluation, and requested the removal of the story. He pointed out that in October, when the stories were prepared, the reporter had contacted you “for a response to the complaints of the home owner featured in the story but you refused to take advantage of the opportunity.” He told you CBC News stood by the story. He declined to remove it but did update the story with the information you provided. You then contacted this office, and the matter was referred to Andrew Cochran, Senior Managing Director, Atlantic Canada. He reviewed your correspondence with Mr. Gullage and reviewed the news story. He said he found “no basis to remove the material as it exists today on cbc.ca.”

REVIEW

Like most media organizations, CBC News has a policy that it is only in exceptional circumstances that a story is removed from the web site. The rationale is that it can distort the public record when material is selectively deleted:

Our published content is a matter of public record. To change the content of previously published material alters that record. Altering the record could undermine our credibility and the public’s trust in our journalism.

There are some circumstances when content is removed – “where there are legal or personal safety considerations to the person named.”

CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices also demands accuracy and fairness. This becomes even more critical because material online is searchable and always available. In preparing their investigation, CBC news staff did approach you for your explanation and understanding of the circumstances of the inspection. Based on advice you were given at the time, you declined to provide any information. That may have been your best course of action, and it is entirely your choice, but it did not, nor could it, stop publication of the story.

When you provided information five months after publication, the story was amended to reflect those new facts. The information is prominently displayed in the story:

Officials with Pillar to Post contacted CBC News in March 2014, five months after this story ran, to respond. The company says that the stains later identified in the home were not visually apparent during the initial inspection. Pillar to Post also says there were a number of areas of concern identified at that time that could potentially allow water to enter the basement. Furthermore, the home inspection firm says, none of the recommended fixes were completed. Pillar to Post also says it has been cleared of any liability by its insurance company.

The story provides information for readers to make up their own minds about the story. The primary focus of the piece is the lack of oversight of the industry. The homeowner contends that the damage should have been caught on inspection. Your professional opinion that the water stains were not visible at the time of the inspection is on record. Your perspective is included. The fact that your insurer found no liability is stated. The decision to leave the story online is not a violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman