Whose facts are they anyway?

The complainant, David Stow, thought a story about the conflict between the town council and citizens over a development project in Gibsons, B.C., left out some important information about the mayor. He thought the absence of information that could suggest a conflict of interest for the mayor was a significant omission. Not all facts need to be in all stories, and the allegations appear unfounded.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that a story about the ongoing challenges to a development project in Gibsons, British Columbia, omitted important information about the mayor. The story recounted that there were “dozens of legal challenges” against a waterfront development. The most recent, a Human Rights Tribunal challenge, had gone in favour of the town council. You noted that the piece included many comments from the mayor, Wayne Rowe, and the Chief Administrative Officer, Emanuel Machado. You felt this enabled them to frame the discussion based on the fact that the Human Rights Tribunal had dismissed a challenge around this project:

By my reading of the story, Gibsons Mayor Rowe and CAO Machado sought to have challenges in general to a condo/hotel project viewed through the frame of a decision particularly favourable to their position.

What you considered lacking as balance to this framing was information that the mayor’s law firm had done business with the proponent of the development project, including involvement in the acquisition of some properties around the proposed redevelopment area. By way of documentation, you provided a title deed from a 2011 listing from the mayor’s law firm and a copy of a $280.00 cheque paid by the developer to the law firm in 2013. You thought it a dereliction of journalistic duty to omit this information since the reporter gave “considerable latitude” to the mayor to express his views, while neglecting to mention that it was these activities that “gave rise to such distrust” of the project within the community. You also said that the mayor had cast the deciding vote in moving the development through several stages.

At issue is opposition in the community to the redevelopment of the George Hotel. The town council approved its rezoning in October 2015; it has had to deal with a variety of legal challenges since then.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Wayne Williams, the CBC News Director for British Columbia, replied to your concerns. He told you the allegations of conflict of interest - that the mayor’s firm had done legal work for the developer and that he had cast deciding votes - had been talked about in the community for several years. He pointed out that a British Columbia Ombudsperson report had found that there was no conflict. A local newspaper reporter received a copy of the Ombudsperson letter, and Mr. Williams quoted from the story about it:

Journalist Sean Eckford obtained a copy of the Ombudsperson's letter to one of the complainants and he reported," the letter indicates the Office of the Ombudsperson did not find anything to suggest a conflict in the fact that Rowe's law office handled some of the paperwork for land transactions on behalf of Klaus Fuerniss Enterprises, the developer behind the George."

He said that CBC staff looked further into the matter and found what was at issue were two real estate conveyances which had no relation to the George Hotel project, and one transaction six years ago that did include a property in the George development proposal. He told you that there were no other business dealings between the law firm and Klaus Fuerniss Enterprises after the rezoning application was filed in 2013:

The Ombudsperson "determined that any interest the Mayor had in the matter would be remote or insignificant" and that under the Community Charter the conflict of interest rules do not apply.

He also informed you that there was no reason to repeat the allegations, and to have done so would have been “irresponsible.” He pointed out that the story was primarily about the cost to the town over this dispute, and the outcome of a Human Rights Commission challenge.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for fairness and impartiality. There is an onus to provide the facts in a way that reflects the view of those participating in the story. Impartiality also calls for an even-handed presentation of various sides in a controversy, but it also notes that there is professional judgment involved:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

You rejected Mr. Williams’ inference that you thought there was a conflict of interest in this story that went unreported:

Any of four standard criticisms might be aimed at an official with connections to those seeking an approval from him or her: appearance of bias, appearance of conflict, actual bias or actual conflict.

My complaint didn't suggest the CBC had a duty to lob any of these, but rather to report facts that shed light on the context in which a person or entity was shopping a story and a frame to reporters.

Nevertheless, reporting those facts would imply an apparent appearance of conflict of interest or an actual conflict of interest. According to the professional judgement of the journalists, there was none, nor was it correct to provide facts that would imply there might be one. Mentioning the connection between the developer and the mayor in this context would have been a red herring. You believe it is germane to the story - they did not - based on an assessment of the facts.

Given the focus of the story and the facts of the matter, it is a reasonable judgement. The headline and sub-head of the story frame its content:

Luxury Sunshine Coast development pits city against citizens in expensive court battles.

Resident with mobility challenges says project discriminates because she uses car to enjoy waterfront.

The news peg for the story was the Human Rights Commission dismissal of a resident’s complaint that the new development would bar her access to the waterfront because she had limited mobility. The broader context was the number of challenges there had been. The editorial purpose was in part to explore the rights of citizens to oppose these projects, and the burden that is placed on a municipality, especially a town the size of Gibsons. Both sides were heard from - the town officials concerned about the costs and the delays, as well as the complainant in the case. The reporter presents the position of those opposed to the development:

But many continue to oppose the project, claiming it will destroy the peaceful, small-town feel of the area. Others accuse the town of exchanging valuable waterfront property for corporate interests.

The story goes on to cite experts on challenges to towns and municipalities on the best way to achieve responsible redress, and what the best legal avenues to seek a decision are.

If the issue of the mayor’s business dealings had been part of these challenges, its omission would have been a lack of balance. This is not the case, based on the facts and on editorial judgment. Including it would have given inappropriate weight to its importance. There was no violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman