Human Trafficking.

The complainant, Chester Brown, questioned the premise of a series produced by CBC News London about the sex trade and human trafficking. He called it “prohibitionist propaganda” and said the data did not support the assertion that it was “big business” in the area. The series relied on the research and assessment of a variety of professionals. It did not violate policy.


You were concerned that a series of articles about sex trafficking in London, Ontario, misrepresented and exaggerated the severity of the problem. There was no evidence, you stated, to back up assertions that trafficking is “big business” in London. You pointed out that in a story published on January 7, it revealed that only 15 women were rescued and 16 human trafficking charges were laid in all of 2017. You found it suspicious that this story did not even mention the name of the special police initiative, “Project Solstice,” in this report. You pointed out CBC London launched a multi-part series, “Knock at the Door,” which centred on the police project. The series began with an account of a police ride-along with a team of officers who were part of the month-long “Project Solstice.” The reporter accompanied police on one night of their operations, and you noted not one trafficked woman was found. Coupled with the statistics for all of 2017, you challenged the premise of the series:

While we can wish that in 2017 the London police “trafficking” unit encountered zero victims, not 15, the latter number is not an indication that “trafficking” is big business in London. (Indeed, the business is evidently so small that, by the end of the unit’s first year of operation, they couldn’t find any more “traffickers” to arrest. I’m not saying there aren’t any more “traffickers” in London, but if there were lots of them, Project Solstice would have found more than zero.) The majority of the sex-workers in your city are working by choice, as they are in the rest of this country.

You quoted a sex worker rights activist acquaintance of yours who characterized this series of reports as “prohibitionist propaganda.” You believe that CBC news staff are biased and accepting a narrative that sex workers are coerced and that it is the police and the authorities who are violating the rights of these workers and their clients:

This is a human rights issue. The rights of sex-workers and their clients are being violated by cops who enforce evil laws. In presenting stories like this, CBC is on the wrong side of history. You’re not speaking truth to power, you’re siding with the oppressor. Start asking the cops hard questions, and learn about the perspective of sex-worker-rights activists. “Sex trafficking”, which is a small part of the sex-work industry, is the excuse used to criminalize all johns and all third-party individuals who assist sex-workers (such as brothel owners, drivers, and security).

For this reason you also took issue with an interview done on the London morning show. The host of the programme, Rebecca Zandbergen, interviewed a female police officer who had gone undercover as a sex worker. You said Ms. Zandbergen should have challenged the officer when she stated “it's a rewarding feeling when johns are arrested, in the sense that you’re making them realize what they are doing is wrong.” You said most sex workers believe that it is wrong to arrest the john because he and the worker are having adult, consensual sex.

You also took issue with Ms. Zandbergen’s question about whether the clients know the women are trafficked or not:

So, the johns “know” that the sex-workers they encounter are trafficked? Given the statistics, it’s possible to be a john and never encounter a “trafficking” victim. I’ve been paying for sex for twenty years and I’m virtually positive I never had sex with a “trafficking” victim. (I had sex with 22 sex-workers from 1998 to 2003 and none of them seemed “trafficked” and, again, given the statistics, probably none of them were trafficked. For the last 14 years I’ve only had sex with one sex-worker. Over the years we’ve become friends, so I can assure you with 100% certainty that she’s not being “trafficked”.) It’s likely that most of the johns this cop arrested never encountered a “trafficking” victim. You, Zandbergen, and the cops can try to spin things, but those men were arrested for attempting to have consensual sex with an adult (who turned out to be an undercover officer). Those men did nothing wrong; it’s the sex-worker-related laws that are in the wrong. And the cops are in the wrong for enforcing those laws. And journalists and radio hosts who present those cops as heroes for enforcing those bad laws are in the wrong.


The Executive Producer for CBC London, Bernard Graham, replied to your concerns. He told you the “Knock at the Door” series was part of ongoing coverage of the sex workers who are coerced into the trade. He pointed out that since this is an underground industry, it is difficult to quantify or obtain reliable statistics. He did not agree with your assertion that the problem of trafficking was overblown and the purpose of the reporting was to offer insights into ways to curb it:

Police tell us it's “big business”. But we have also heard similar comments from front-line workers, government officials, lawyers, women’s advocates and sex workers. No one locally has ever challenged the premise that human trafficking is a significant problem in London and along Highway 401.

We believe the premise was solid before we set out to pursue the series. As a result, having police justify the expense and the resources deployed was not the focus of our series. The focus was trying to provide our audience insight into what was going on.

He agreed with your point that the January 7th story should have made clearer its links to the subsequent reporting on the human trafficking efforts of the London police through “Operation Solstice.”

These efforts were the focus of the series, and he told you there was no implication or statement that all workers in the sex trade would fall under the category of trafficking.

He told you it was acceptable that Ms. Zandbergen did not challenge the statement that johns are doing wrong buying sex because the focus was not about the state of Canadian law on prostitution:

I understand, as a practising `john` who believes the prostitution laws are evil and police routinely violate the rights of sex workers, that you would take issue with our series. But that is a matter of opinion.


There are two journalistic policies that have relevance in this instance. Under impartiality, the Journalistic Standards and Practices document states: “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” You take issue with the series as being “prohibitionist propaganda.” You make it clear you believe that sex workers are providing a service freely and without coercion. The reporter and the series producers did not blindly follow a police line. There is a great deal of research on the experience of women and girls who have been coerced, and policy makers and front line workers that have a different take on the part of the sex trade industry - which is the focus of this series. There may well be other aspects of the industry where women have full agency over their lives and the transaction is consensual. That is not what was being explored here. I might also observe that your personal experience, while interesting and valuable, would not pass the test of journalistic rigour to assert with any certainty that was the case in anything beyond your own encounters.

The series itself was honest that in the month-long sting operation there were no arrests for human trafficking. However, various articles also explored the other motives the police officers had for launching the human trafficking unit. In the January 7th article, an officer is quoted as saying "We've had to redefine success … Sometimes, a successful operation might lead to no charges and no arrests, but instead a connection with a woman who reaches out for help.” He explained the value of their operation was to make contact with sex workers, make it clear they are not judging them, and provide them with a contact if they need help. Other articles in the series recount an officer being left with no option but to put an underage girl back in the hands of her pimp, because there were no options to place her. In the end, the child opted to go back to her pimps. The term “trafficking” has a criminal code definition - and this might not have met that bar. However, researchers point to the fact that it is a difficult thing to bring charges because women and girls must self-report. An assessment of sex trafficking, a study commissioned by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and released in 2013, observed:

First, trafficked individuals often do not self-identify as trafficked and even when they do, they are frequently reluctant to contact the police or other government officials due to threats, shame, and immigration status.

The reporter laid out the facts and readers could come to their own conclusions about consent and free will. The focus of this series was around the part of the sex trade where freedom of choice is not so clear cut. I did not find its tone judgmental of the women, but rather laid out for consideration some important issues in the public interest. As Mr. Graham told you, there is no claim that the majority of sex workers are victims of trafficking. This series dealt with that vulnerable cohort which you dismiss as very limited in scope, but many others see as much more significant. It might have made matters clearer if the terms had been better defined. While there is a legal definition of trafficking, it is sometimes used to cover a range of situations of exploitation and coercion. Clarity in language would have made that more apparent.

I appreciate you have an entirely different view of the industry and thought there was undue attention paid to this aspect of it. CBC journalistic policy addresses question of balance:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

There are two salient points here. When a subject is explored, reporters and editors take into account the relevance and how widely-held views are. It also calls for a range of views over time.

This series focused around a police programme trying to identify women at risk, especially women who are trafficked. While some or many of them may not reach the legal definition, there are plenty of studies and data to support the idea that there is a level of exploitation by pimps, and defining the line between consensual sex and women who find themselves in a situation they cannot control is not straightforward.

Over time, CBC News has explored issues around the sex trade and presented a range of views, notably in the period before the federal law (Bill C-36) was changed in 2014. Recently, an article was published, based on a University of Ottawa professor’s research, in which she concludes what is needed to control pimps are labour laws, and not criminal code provisions.

You also had a particular concern about an interview with an undercover police officer. You thought Ms. Zandbergen should have challenged the statement that when arresting a customer, she is making him realize what he is doing is wrong. She goes on to say that it’s a criminal offence, and to allow them to gain some form of knowledge regarding what some of these girls may be forced into and are actually having to experience. The context in which she is saying it is clear, and, as noted already, the focus of this discussion was not whether it should be legal or not, but what to do about a segment of the industry where women and girls are exploited and work under dangerous conditions.

There is currently a court challenge to the legality of Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which is part of the Canadian Prostitution Criminal Law Reform. In the course of that coverage, no doubt the views you hold will be presented. There is no obligation for every view to be reflected every time. As public policy and public interest evolves, CBC News should ensure that a wide range of views are represented.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman