Reporting by the Numbers

The complainant, Frank Roark, took exception to a story about money laundering in British Columbia casinos. He felt CBC’s coverage was misleading and showed a partisan bias. Read on to see the results of my review.

COMPLAINT

You raised questions about CBC’s investigation into the extent of money laundering at casinos in British Columbia. The online iteration of the story, published on January 11, 2019, was headlined B.C. gaming investigators repeatedly warned bosses of 'horrendous' money laundering. Versions of the story were reported on broadcast and podcast programs as well.

It was not news that B.C. had an issue with criminals laundering money at provincial casinos; that has been part of the political discourse in the province for several years now. What was new in this story came from secret internal reports CBC had acquired through a Freedom of Information request. These reports estimated that the value of so-called “suspicious transactions” at casinos was higher than assumed, totalling more than $700-million between 2010 and 2017.

You raised three objections to the coverage:

  • First, that it misrepresented the available data. You said that reporter Eric Rankin had been provided with more accurate information from the British Columbia Lottery Corporation. You alerted me to BCLC data on suspicious transactions that can be found online.
  • Second, that CBC’s coverage gives disproportionate credit to the current NDP government for reducing the problem. In particular, a section of the online story which read:

“Attorney General David Eby tightened gaming regulations following an interim report by Peter German, requiring gamblers with more than $10,000 cash to complete a "source of funds" declaration, and placed government regulators in large casinos. The flow of suspicious currency dropped to $2.1 million in the first six months of 2018, according to the B.C. Lottery Corporation.”

You wrote telling the story this way made it appear like “the drop in suspicious money only occurred in 2018 and that people before that were negligent.” In fact, the numbers have been dropping since a peak in 2015.

  • Third, that the CBC should have questioned the author of the internal report for not doing more at the time to investigate and/or arrest people involved in these suspicious transactions.

The final result, in my view, is a story that presents only part of the information in the possession of the reporter resulting in a(n) unbalanced and misleading story.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Shiral Tobin, Director of Journalism and Programming in British Columbia, responded to your complaint.

Ms. Tobin defended as legitimate the data used in the CBC story:

The story was based on actual figures provided by the bodies directly involved in gathering the number of suspicious transactions (SCTs) filed by B.C. Casinos: the Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch and the B.C. Lottery Corporation.

She disagreed that there was any political favouritism at play as well, noting that along with reporting on actions by the current government, the story referred explicitly to measures taken by the previous Liberal government of the province.

She also disagreed with your contention that the author of the internal report - the former senior director of investigations with the province's Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch - had the power to arrest people. CBC British Columbia News Director Treena Wood also weighed in on this subject, telling you that the province’s Gaming Control Act did not definitively grant powers of arrest to the senior director of investigations.

REVIEW

Your first allegation was that the data had been misrepresented. I had the opportunity to review the numbers that CBC used in its story, which were provided to it by the BCLC. They appear to line up perfectly with the data in the link that you shared. The two documents don’t have precisely the same time frame. They also are set up slightly differently. For instance, your chart shows figures from every second month, while most of the CBC’s data list showed monthly figures. Where they overlap, though, the numbers are consistent. That makes sense given that the numbers for both were provided by the same organization. I have no basis on which to distrust them. Therefore, in my judgment, the data should be considered accurate.

Your second allegation is that the story was framed to make it look as though the NDP government is responsible for the fact that the number and value of suspicious transactions has declined substantially since its peak in 2015.

You are correct that the data shows these transactions were on the decline ever since 2015 - it is not a straight line downward, but the trend is clear. I looked again at the document you provided. It shows that by the middle of 2017 when the B.C. Liberals left office, the numbers were down considerably - from the very peak in July 2015 to July 2017 there’s a drop in value of around 80 percent. Then the new government came in, and announced measures of its own. Fast forward another year to July 2018, and the numbers were down another 93 percent from a year earlier.

Whether that means one party should get more credit than another, or whether different measures should have been taken earlier, is precisely the sort of thing that should be for the audience to decide, not the journalist.

You argue that CBC’s coverage makes it seem that the problem was solved only because of the NDP. I don’t believe that argument is borne out by analysis of the coverage, with one possible exception.

Consider that the online story notes B.C.’s Liberal government created an illegal gaming investigation team in 2016, and quotes the finance minister from that government who defends his record:

"Could more have been done, should more have been done? I guess you can always do more," said former Finance Minister Mike de Jong.

"There is I think a tendency on some people's part to want to portray this as a problem that was ignored. It was not. And steps were taken."

Then the story notes measures taken by the NDP when it assumed office and reports on the subsequent decline in the numbers. It’s all factual, and the language used is clinical. I do not see evidence of bias or misrepresentation on display here.

In all the many different versions of this story reported, I came across only one time where the language used was of even mild concern to me. It came in a report on television the night of January 11th. Reporter Eric Rankin said this:

De Jong did create a joint illegal gaming investigation team in 2016 but he and the B.C. Liberals were ousted in 2017. It took crackdowns by the NDP government to vastly reduce the flow of dirty money into casinos in the past year.

That particular phrasing is not ideal - it could be interpreted that the reporter was saying the NDP fixed a problem the other government couldn’t or wouldn’t. However, the fact that it is the only example I could find to give me pause suggests the overall approach to the story was fair, balanced and responsible.

Having said all that, I believe CBC could have done better in this instance by making the raw data available to the audience, especially online. Journalists work in an environment of skepticism these days, where even the most precisely reported stories are called into question. In this climate it is increasingly important for journalists to show people how they know what they are saying is true. It gives people more reason to trust the journalism.

In this case, if a reader could have opened up a link to the data on suspicious transactions, they would be better positioned to judge for themselves whether and when reductions were “vast”, or which government was responsible for the most important accomplishments. CBC already provides access to source documents in many instances. I would encourage programmers to do it even more frequently than is currently the practice.

Your third allegation involves whether the former senior director of investigations at B.C’s Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch should have come under more journalistic scrutiny for this story.

Had this been an investigation focused on determining who should be accountable for the pervasiveness of money laundering at B.C’s casinos, then you might be correct that this was an area worthy of inquiry. However, it is less relevant here. The story in question was on the size and scope of the problem, and the degree to which it has been addressed. I did not attempt to determine whether you are correct about the GPEB’s authority because it was not germane to the story. The fact it was not a part of this coverage is hardly a surprise, and there was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Jack Nagler
CBC Ombudsperson