Following Fortress.

The complainant, Jenni Byrne of Bayfield Strategy, Inc., wrote on behalf of her client, Fortress Developments. She stated that one of the reporters involved in ongoing coverage of Fortress was biased and sensationalistic in her reporting. She complained that there was no follow-up on a story regarding class-action suits against Fortress. The complaint against the reporter and her work is unfounded. The station erred in neglecting to follow up on the legal developments.

COMPLAINT

You are the Vice President, Strategic Communications, for Bayfield Strategy, Inc. In that capacity, you made a complaint on behalf of your client, Fortress Real Developments Inc. Your client believes that CBC Manitoba and one of its reporters, Joanne Levasseur, are publishing “one-sided, sensationalist and irresponsible” coverage of your company “in the context of a local real estate development project.”

You cited one example of what you believe to be overly aggressive and “gratuitous harassment.” You noted that spokespeople from the company have been in contact with the reporter. In spite of that, Ms. Levasseur contacted the wife of one of the company’s principals, Jawad Rathore, on Facebook:

The only purposes our client can conceive for this breach of basic decency were to either: (i) extract an unguarded statement from Mr. Rathore’s wife about the company’s business – information that would have been learned primarily as a result of the marital relationship; or (ii) to harass or otherwise place additional pressure on Mr. Rathore to cooperate with Ms. Levasseur’s inquiries.

You believed the reporting relied on a source, David Franklin, who has filed civil claims against your client and is a public and vocal critic:

Mr. Franklin has been engaged in a wide ranging and defamatory campaign to destroy Fortress’ business after attempting to enter into a business relationship with Fortress that was rebuffed by Fortress. On August 18, 2017 the Ontario Superior Court issued an interim injunction against Mr. Franklin as a result of false and 2/4 defamatory statements he has made, including that the Law Society of Upper Canada had determined that mortgages on Fortress projects were fraudulent. The Law Society of Upper Canada confirmed they never made such a statement or determination. Franklin’s statements were untrue.

You also took issue with the reporting of some class-action lawsuits filed against Fortress. You said the stories quoted heavily from the statements of claim. There was no follow-up reporting after an August 2017 decision in the Ontario Superior Court “struck out the Statements of Claim in four proposed class actions against Fortress and other defendants.”

You cited various stories over a two-year period which you believe indicated the reporters “sought to sensationalize numerous aspects of the real estate development process including routine delays due to availability of personnel, permitting and financial arrangements.”

You asked why there was no follow-up to a story entitled: SkyCity developer’s attempt to save a troubled condo project in Barrie fails, when the company submitted a successful bid two months later - nor has there been any reporting on the success of the development, you said.

You disputed the value of the reporting in this story: Downtown condo tower developer stands to lose $75K after construction permit expires:

The story then went on to note that the value of the project itself was $200 million. Our client continues to struggle to find the relevance of the purported loss of $75,000 in context of a $200 million project, particularly since the rest of the article notes that over half of the units in the development were sold, and that design and engineering activities continued in earnest.

Similarly, you questioned the purpose and value of a story about a $29,000 interest default when the project was backed by a $45 million financing package - a detail also reported in the story. The story was overplayed because the default was, in fact, the result of a clerical error. You thought quoting a forensic accountant in the article was an attempt to suggest that “by extension Fortress’ business practices were fraudulent in some manner.”

You also expressed concern that CBC Winnipeg would report on an RCMP file on Fortress, one that was opened because the police force is obliged to do so when a complaint is received. You pointed out they are obliged to do so even if allegations are completely unfounded.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Cecil Rosner, the Managing Editor for CBC Manitoba, responded to your complaint. He explained that Ms. Levasseur was responsible for 10 of 24 stories written about Fortress and SkyCity in the last two years. He noted that for all of them, the reporter contacted you and others representing the company for comment. He explained CBC Manitoba had done the reporting because of the high profile nature of SkyCity and the manner in which it is being financed:

Because of the high profile nature of the proposed development in Winnipeg, and the issues which have been raised about syndicated mortgages in the media and other venues, we have attempted to scrutinize all matters surrounding the development and related questions. It is not every day that a company proposes to build the tallest free-standing structure between Calgary and Toronto, and in our minds this is a major proposed development for Winnipeg which requires serious scrutiny.

He told you Ms. Levasseur reached out to the wife of one of the principals as a potential source of information about a complex story the news teams was investigating. He explained that was the context for approaching Ms. Rathore via Facebook:

I do not find the message to be misleading, disrespectful or harassing. It is merely a request to have a conversation, which is what journalists do with potential sources of information. When the message was not responded to, there was no further contact.

He told you that CBC Manitoba has not quoted David Franklin in any of its stories, and the information they gathered came from a variety of sources - including public documents, the company’s promotional material and other material provided by “people familiar with land development projects and other interested parties.”

He agreed that there should have been a follow-up story when there was a ruling disallowing the statements of claim in the class-actions suits. He undertook to update the audience on the status of the proceedings. He also agreed that there should have been an update about the development in Barrie.

He addressed your concerns about the stories regarding the expiration of the building permit and the default on a payment. He agreed that while a $75,000 building permit was not a large amount in the context of the overall value of $200 million, the story was newsworthy because it “spoke to when Winnipeg might ultimately see this development happen.” In the case of the bond story, he said it was newsworthy that it was in default. He pointed out the news team did not know the reason no one from the company would respond to inquiries about the matter. He told you the story was held for 11 days, awaiting a response:

In fact, we only learned from information sent to your investors about your intention to finally make interest payments on the loans. We asked you about this on May 23, and you confirmed it via email, a fact we included in the story that same day. With respect to comments in the story from Al Rosen, this is an individual who is widely quoted by many media outlets on a variety of business-related stories. He has an MBA and PhD, he is a fellow of the Chartered Accountants of Ontario and Alberta, a fellow of the Society of Management Accountants, a Chartered Insurance Professional, a CPA and a Certified Fraud Examiner. We think he is well qualified to offer commentary on these matters.

He concluded by telling you that CBC News in Winnipeg will continue to monitor developments and report on this project and your company in an appropriate way.

REVIEW

There are some fundamental principles at the foundation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. In committing to Fairness, it states that in pursuing their newsgathering and reporting, CBC journalists treat individuals with openness and respect. In the course of gathering information in the public interest, reporters may probe and search in places that are delicate and exploit any link or connection to try to further their knowledge. Ms. Levasseur sent a straightforward message via Facebook to the wife of a principal of a company she was investigating. It is the job of journalists to seek out information, especially information that those in a position of authority might not wish to disclose. Their job is to look for it - that does not imply bias. The whole point is that if the reporter cannot find corroboration for a hypothesis or a tip, then there is no story. However, you don’t know until you try to find information. You see it as inappropriate and overly aggressive. As in most things, context is everything. There was one approach, via a social media message. There were no phone calls, no follow-up emails or attempts to reach Ms. Rathore. In the world of workaday journalism, that is doing one’s job and doing it in an open and respectful manner.

You raised concerns about who CBC Manitoba’s sources are for these stories, citing one individual you find particularly suspect. He is not quoted in any of the stories. Mr. Rosner told me that the reporters have developed a variety of sources in coverage of Fortress and the SkyCity development. CBC journalistic policy calls for confirmation from more than one source in reporting. There is nothing to indicate a violation of that practice, especially since some of the sources in these stories are public records.

I looked at much of the coverage of Fortress published on the CBC Winnipeg website. I find no particular difference in tone or approach in those articles with Ms. Levasseur’s byline and the others. You characterized the coverage as sensationalistic and query why matters you consider insignificant merited coverage. I spoke to Mr. Rosner about the editorial thinking behind the coverage. In his estimation, this is an ongoing story in the public interest involving some public funding. He explained Ms. Levasseur’s involvement is through their investigations unit. She has worked with the city hall reporter to provide broader coverage of an ongoing story. There is nothing personal in her approach to the work, and looking at the totality of coverage, I think it wrong to attack this one reporter. There are actually more stories written by others. The decision to scrutinize this ongoing development is an editorial decision of the station; doing so is clearly not a violation of journalistic policy. While you disagree that it is worthwhile to report on a $75,000 loss due to a lapsed work permit in a project worth $200 million, the fact that this context is provided is the opposite of being sensational. It is giving a bigger picture so that readers might form their own conclusions. The story began this way:

A permit that would have allowed Winnipeg's tallest structure to rise downtown has expired, putting its developer in position to forfeit $75,000 in fees.

Richmond Hill, Ont. firm Fortress Real Developments plans to build a 388-unit, $200-million condo tower on a surface-parking lot on the northeast corner of Graham Avenue and Smith Street. The proposed 45-storey building, called SkyCity Centre, is billed as the tallest in Canada between Calgary and Toronto.

Later in the article, a spokesperson for the company is quoted:

​The company, however, says the project is going ahead and construction will commence during the spring of 2017.

"Permit drawings will be submitted in full in the new year. The team along with the builder, EllisDon, is currently undergoing a detailed value engineering exercise that is focused on finding efficiencies in materials and construction timeline," Fortress spokeswoman Natasha Alibhai said Monday in an email statement.

The firm has drilled bore holes into the site over the past few weeks in order to investigate soil conditions in advance of excavation, she added.

Alibhai also said more than 50 per cent of SkyCity's proposed residential units have been sold and Fortress has hired Cushman & Wakefield Winnipeg to sell office condominiums at SkyCity.

"The program is underway and in the new year we will begin exploring offers on the retail space. Fortress will continue to focus on sales at SkyCity and financing discussions are underway," she said.

"We do not anticipate any delays to starting construction in the spring and first occupancies of residential units are still planned for the end of 2019."

This story and others consistently provide the perspective of the company you represent. It conforms to CBC journalistic requirements of fairness and balance.

In one aspect of the coverage, there was a violation of policy. CBC reporters are obliged to follow up on court stories, to ensure that the record is updated on the outcome of legal proceedings. There was nothing wrong with the original coverage when the class-action suits were filed. You pointed out that the story quoted heavily from the statement of claim. That is the case. It also made clear that no statement of defense had yet been filed, nor were any of the accusations proven:

The lawsuits have been commenced by representative plaintiffs that bring the case forward on behalf of a larger group of investors. They must still be certified by a court before they proceed.

The allegations have not been proven in court and no statement of defence has been filed. Fortress spokeswoman Natasha Alibhai said in a statement this week the firm intends "to vigorously defend these actions, which are being initiated and pursued by someone that seems to have an ax to grind against Fortress."

When the statements of claim were rejected in August, there should have been a report to update the story. That was an error in judgment Mr. Rosner acknowledged. Since receiving your complaint, a story with the updated information has been published on the CBC Manitoba website. It also provides some new information about a project in Barrie, Ontario, which you brought to Mr. Rosner’s attention.

Other than the late response to the developments with the class-action suits, there was no violation of CBC journalistic policy. The tone of the stories is measured; the company’s views and responses are present.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman