Whose story is it anyway - source or journalist?

The complainant, Bobbie Bees, approached the Go Public team with his personal story. He provided documents and did an interview, but the team decided not to complete and publish the story. Mr. Bees wants the material provided destroyed. CBC journalists have no obligation to do so.

COMPLAINT

You contacted the CBC News Go Public team last August. Go Public is CBC News’ investigative unit. You provided them with personal information as well as contact with others as part of an investigation into alleged child sexual abuse in the Canadian Armed Forces and the manner in which the National Investigation Service dealt with it. You decided to stop the collaboration “due to the unprofessional conduct of one of their [CBC’s] investigators.” You began with one producer, and then there was a personnel switch. You were unable to work with the second producer. You believe CBC dropped the story because of your inability to work with the producer:

You can't sink a story just because someone is upset with the lackadaisical reporting skills of one of your "investigators" and then hold on to all of the documentation provided. Doesn't simply work that way.

You said you would not have shared your documents with CBC if you had known that the story would not be aired. You requested that CBC news staff destroy a recorded interview and all the documents you provided. You said you approached CBC and Go Public and gave them your material on condition the story produced centred on you:

I will make it very clear right now that the information that I have supplied is only to be used for matters involving me.

I have not released my documents or private materials for use by the CBC and its employees or contractors in any other stories relating to the failure of the Canadian Forces military police and the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service to properly investigate child sexual assaults which occurred on the various Canadian Forces Bases within Canada. "

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Wayne Williams, the News Director in British Columbia, replied to your request. He reminded you that you approached Go Public because you wished to share your experience with abuse as a Canadian military dependent. He noted you were interviewed by a CBC journalist and provided documents to back up the allegation. He explained that the story was not broadcast and that CBC staff are not pursuing it any further at this time.

He cited CBC policy on “requests for non-publication” to explain CBC is not obliged to destroy the interview or the documents. He informed you that your situation did not meet the criteria for agreeing to your request. Those criteria are that your personal safety or job security is at substantial risk, or that the material provided is no longer relevant or accurate. He assured you that if the team were to revisit the story, you would be consulted:

However, I would like to be very clear that we are not considering using them for a story at this time. That would change only if we become aware of subsequent information that would assist us in advancing this story. If that happens we will contact you to let you know of our decision.

REVIEW

Your request raises some difficult and interesting ethical questions. On the one side, individuals understandably wish to have some control over information about themselves. On the other is the independence and freedom of news organizations to tell stories, or in this case, to decline to do so, yet retain the information gathered. The fundamental question is who has control over both the material and an interview you gave to CBC. There is no specific CBC policy governing your particular situation. Generally, the dispute is around material that will be used while the source requests that it not be, or that it be altered in some way. The policies Mr. Williams cited in his response to you are the ones that are most relevant because the principles are the same. He told you that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices had this to say about a request for non-publication of an interview:

To preserve our independence, we do not grant veto power to the people we interview.

We may publish any material gathered, provided it complies with our journalistic values and standards.

However, we undertake to seriously consider a request for non-publication. We may decide not to publish the material gathered, for instance where:

1) A person’s personal safety or job security is threatened.

2) The information gathered is no longer accurate or relevant.

Requests for non-publication are referred to the Managing Editor.

The overarching principle of independence and the need to control information given and gathered in the course of reporting is reinforced in the opening principles of the JSP, “To protect our independence:”

We are independent of all lobbies and of all political and economic influence. We uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the touchstones of a free and democratic society. Public interest guides all our decisions.

Go Public is a CBC team which, according to its website, “tells your stories, and holds the powers that be accountable.” The team provides an email contact for individuals to share their stories and concerns. You approached the “Go Public” team in August 2016 with a personal and painful story of abuse while you were a child living on a Canadian Forces base, and your allegation that the complaints you filed were never properly investigated. You provided your own files, and the CBC team was able to find other information as part of the public record. An interview was recorded in December of the same year. I appreciate that sharing your story is a brave and difficult thing to do, and you did so with the expectation that it would be published and that accountability would be sought from the relevant authorities. From discussions with some of the staff involved, they made efforts to find other information and sources so that they could proceed to publication. Go Public often has several investigations going on at the same time, because there is no way to predict whether they will ever amass the information to enable them to finish a story. Investigative journalism, which often involves holding individuals and institutions accountable and calls into question reputation, has an extremely high bar. This is how it is described in the JSP:

Investigative journalism is a specific genre of reporting which can lead to conclusions and, in some cases, strong editorial judgments. A journalistic investigation is usually based on a premise but we do not broadcast an investigative report until we have ensured that the facts and evidence support the conclusions and judgments.

To achieve fairness, we diligently attempt to present the point of view of the person or institution being investigated.

You prefer that this story focus on you and your experience, and not on a broader look at issues within the military. While there is an obligation to consider the wishes of a source, the journalists have an equally strong obligation and the right to develop the story in the way they see fit. In the professional judgment of the team and its leadership, they were not able to fulfill the standards required for publication. They acknowledged there were some personality clashes, but they used their professional judgment and came to the conclusion that they could not proceed to publication, nor did they wish to commit more resources. They agreed that you provided other contacts and leads which were pursued, but were unable to assemble the documents and corroboration required. That is a judgment I have to respect, as it is their editorial right to do so. They have a duty to uphold journalistic standards, and it is solely the decision of CBC journalists to determine editorial direction. However, they do judge that the issue you raised is in the public interest and if there are further developments in the story, there is a commitment to revisit it. I strongly reinforce what Mr. Williams said to you that before anything is published there is a strong obligation to inform you.

The CBC news staff is not in violation of policy in retaining the information and interview you provided. They have no exclusive rights over it either. I understand you still have all the original documentation and therefore you have not lost control over its use in any other context.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman