Getting to the truth, one story at a time.

The complainant, Shahsultan Karmali, filed his complaint on behalf of a group of people. They all objected to an article on CBCNews.ca about the ownership of a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan. The article laid out the complexity of the structure of the ownership and provided expert analysis - including the observation that this kind of setup has been used by companies and people wanting to evade or avoid taxes. The complainants thought the article totally unfair and dealt in speculation and innuendo. It laid out facts and some possible explanations. It did not violate policy.

COMPLAINT

You wrote on behalf of a group of individuals who objected to a story about the Aga Khan and the ownership of a private island in the Bahamas. You and others felt that “it is most unfortunate that the Canadian national news and information service stooped to these measures for a story being investigated by the Ethics Commissioner.”

Although not the focus of the article you objected to, the story you are referring to forms the backdrop to it. Last Christmas, the Prime Minister and his family vacationed on a private island in the Bahamas at the invitation of the Aga Khan. After questions were raised by the Opposition, an investigation was undertaken by the Federal Ethics Commissioner under Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act. The particular coverage which concerned you was published in May 2017 entitled: Aga Khan island that hosted Trudeau owned by company with offshore ties, records show.” This article set out the details of the ownership structure of the island, involving several companies. It laid out the complexity, including links to companies mentioned in the Panama Papers, an international investigative effort into countries and companies involved in tax evasion and avoidance. You thought there was no proof that anything illegal had been done and that the article strongly suggested that the Aga Khan was involved in tax evasion through this ownership structure. You did not think there were any facts to support the implication that tax evasion was at play and the entire article was speculative:

In my mind, she [the reporter, Elizabeth Thompson] acted as judge and jury in insinuating that the Aga Khan (not a resident of Canada) had the malevolent intention of tax evasion because of the corporate structure used in acquiring Bell Island.

In your complaint you provided the analysis of another individual, Khalil Andani, who said that “the only fact established by your investigative journalism was the existence of offshore companies in a corporate structure being used by the Aga Kahn.” Everything else is speculation, he said. He added that it is quite common for international investors to use this kind of structure:

The many references to tax evasion leave the impression that is the case here, and there is no evidence. In fact, there is a 60-year record with no evidence of any activity of this kind.

He objected to the incomplete portrait of the Aga Khan. He thought it was unfair not to mention his numerous awards, accolades and charitable contributions, including those to Canadian institutions. He also questioned the timing of the publication of the article which coincided with the Aga Khan’s visit to Canada to open the Global Centre for Pluralism’s new headquarters in Ottawa. You thought it was not in the public interest to detract from the opening of an organization that “aims to help the state of the world.” The think tank was founded by him, and is supported through his foundation and funding from the Canadian government:

It would have been beneficial to Canadians and the world for the Global Centre’s opening to receive full media coverage without distraction - given the rise of populism and racism in the West. However, your article seems to have been released the same morning precisely to overshadow and direct the Canadians’ attention away from the Global Centre for Pluralism’s opening with the Aga Khan’s visit.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, the Senior Producer, Politics, replied to your concern. He told you the story arose out of the ongoing controversy over the Prime Minister’s vacation on Bell Island, owned by the Aga Khan. The investigation into ownership of that island was prompted by the nature of a statement made by the government about the reimbursement of expenses of a Privy Council technician who had accompanied Mr. Trudeau on the trip. The government stated that the payment was made to the “owner of the island.” He explained this piqued their journalistic interest - they wanted to find out precisely who the owner was:

The use of that phrase – “the owner of the island” – and the government’s subsequent refusal to answer follow-up questions prompted reporter Elizabeth Thompson to try to determine exactly who is the legal owner of the island so that we would not mislead Canadians about who received the money from the federal government.

Their decision to publish was to coincide with the Aga Khan’s visit to Canada to open the Centre for Pluralism to provide another opportunity to get a response from him or his representatives. Ms. Thompson attended the opening hoping she might get his comments on the story. He noted there had been many attempts to do so in the course of developing the story.

He told you that the article laid out the results of the investigation “surrounding the layers of ownership behind Bell Island.” He added that in order for readers to judge the facts, context was provided. He said that the article pointed out that there were plausible and legitimate reasons to structure the ownership in this fashion. There were several experts quoted; some provided explanations that were benign, and some noted that the structure is similar to that which can be employed for tax avoidance - which is not illegal - or tax evasion. He emphasized that the article did not draw any conclusions.

He did not agree with your assessment that the Aga Khan was not treated “even-handedly” because there was no mention of his humanitarian work, including contributions to Canadian endeavours. He explained that although the story focused on ownership of the island and not the Aga Khan, there was some mention of his accomplishments and stature:

I would note that a brief biographical sketch is included in the story. In that sketch, we noted that the Aga Khan is both a philanthropist and spiritual leader among his other accomplishments. Here’s what it said: His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is often listed as one of the richest men in the world. While he is a philanthropist and spiritual leader, he has also earned a reputation over the years as a savvy investor and businessman.

REVIEW

The editorial judgment to proceed with this story was based on an assessment of its newsworthiness and its public interest. As Mr. Carter explained, there were many unanswered questions around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Bell Island. The journalists thought the vague answer about who was being reimbursed was worth exploring. The Aga Khan is a prominent and well-known individual, with, as you pointed out, links to Canada and to Mr. Trudeau. It is legitimate, no matter how excellent his reputation is, that the story be pursued. Its newsworthiness was also enhanced by the fact that there was an ongoing investigation into Mr. Trudeau’s visit to the island.

You observed that as a scientist you rely on facts and not implied facts. The facts as laid out are not implied, they are documented. The issue that reporters face having amassed the facts, as Ms. Thompson did in this case, is to provide some meaning to them. That is what is meant in the commitment to impartiality which states “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.” Journalism is an iterative process. Its purpose and standards are not identical to scientific scholarship. In their book “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write:

An individual reporter may not be able to move much beyond a surface level of accuracy in a first account...but the first account builds to a second, in which sources of news have responded to initial mistakes and missing elements, and the second account builds to a third...The truth is a complicated and sometimes contradictory phenomenon, but if it is seen as a process over time, journalism can get at it.” p58.

Mr. Carter told you that one of the reasons for the timing of the publication was to try to get some feedback and comment from the Aga Khan. The story itself noted that officials connected to him declined to comment. You note in your correspondence that “neither he nor his staff are obliged to answer any questions on this matter.” You are correct. It is a choice to be respected, but it does leave the published work without some important context and explanation to help readers assess the facts presented. The lack of comment does not, in all cases, constrain publication of what is known. You say there is an inference that tax evasion is at work here. It is not an inference, it is presented as one possibility given the known facts; it is never stated that it is the case. In fact, the story is quite clear at the outset:

Setting up offshore companies is legal and there can be legitimate reasons for using networks of offshore companies with nominee directors.

It then presents an alternate interpretation:

However, experts say it is also the kind of structure often used by those who are trying to hide assets or avoid or evade taxes. While tax avoidance can be legal, evading taxes is not.

You characterize the analysis provided for both scenarios as speculation. In the broadest sense I suppose it is - but the experts are providing their interpretation of a set of facts that are documented. That is a proper journalistic function.

You also raised the issue of providing balance by citing the extraordinary work the Aga Khan does. As Mr. Carter told you, there was a brief mention of his status and humanitarian activity. His prominence and his connections to Canada are some of the factors that went into making this a newsworthy story. The balance in this story is to provide an assessment of the meaning of the ownership structure - it is provided by a number of expert voices. The missing voice, through no fault of the team, is from those associated with the company. As I previously mentioned, that is a legitimate choice. I note too that this article linked to coverage of the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism. While that article included some of the information reported in this story, it also talked about the work of the Centre. CBC has published previous articles about the creation of the centre, and the contribution of the Canadian government to its operation. Reporting on the business operations does not require balance by reporting on philanthropic work. An event or situation should be judged on its individual merits.

There was no violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman