CBC News stands by Coutts story despite statement from Danielle Smith's office
Alberta premier’s office described report as 'defamatory,' 'baseless'
We use this editor's blog to explain our journalism and what's happening at CBC News. You can find more blogs here.
On Wednesday, the office of Alberta Premier Danielle Smith issued a statement demanding an apology and retraction of a story CBC News broke several days earlier.
That original story of Jan. 19 included allegations by well-placed sources that a staffer had sent a series of emails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service challenging the prosecutors' assessment and direction of the cases stemming from last winter's border protests at Coutts. The premier's office denied the allegations, saying Smith had no knowledge of anyone on her staff doing so.
After a weekend search of nearly a million emails, the government reported that no related emails had been found. Then on Wednesday, Smith's office issued the retraction demand, not long after CBC News had published a separate piece on how the premier allegedly pressured the attorney general and his office to intervene in COVID-related court cases, according to multiple sources.
- No emails found between Alberta premier's office, prosecution following weekend search, justice ministry says
In its statement, the premier's office described our original reporting as "defamatory" and said it contained "baseless allegations."
"The premier calls on the CBC to retract its outrageous story, and further, that the CBC and the Official Opposition apologize to the premier, premier's office staff, Alberta Crown prosecutors and those in the Alberta public service for the damage caused to their reputations and that of Alberta's justice system," the statement reads, adding, "the CBC admitted that it had not seen any of the emails."
The premier's statement generated numerous complaints to CBC's ombudsman, questioning our motives and journalism. Many complainants accused CBC News of lying and inventing the story. Others suggested it was a politically motivated "hit job."
As is our practice, we responded as quickly as possible to those complaints. To be clear, CBC News stands by its journalism.
WATCH | Smith staffer challenged Coutts cases, sources say:
'We remain committed to reporting this story'
In the interest of transparency, I want to share the response that was sent to complainants by Helen Henderson, manager of the CBC Calgary newsroom and a journalist with more than 30 years of experience in the business:
The strict independence of prosecutors, judges and the justice system from political interference is a cornerstone of Canada's democracy. So allegations of interference by the Premier's Office in the prosecution and direction of the Coutts cases are extremely serious. (It was exactly this issue where the federal Ethics Commissioner concluded Prime Minister Trudeau had acted improperly and in contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act when he attempted to influence Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould's decision on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.)
It may be worth recalling that Premier Smith has said publicly as recently as last month that she had contacted Crown prosecutors about the assessment of the charges and pushed back on their characterization, although more recently she has backtracked saying at "no time" has she communicated directly with prosecutors on the Coutts cases.
Those who told CBC they have knowledge of the matter consider the contact "inappropriate" and serious enough that they believe the information should be made public. Not surprisingly, however, the sources who provided the information – and I should emphasize here there was more than one source – asked CBC not to use their names in the story.
That does not mean that they are anonymous. CBC knows the names of the sources, knows where they work, and has carefully assessed the credibility of the information they offered, but agreed not to use their names so as not to put their jobs at risk. CBC's journalistic policy explains it this way: "Our ability to protect sources allows people with important information to come forward and expose matters of public interest. If we do not properly protect our confidential sources, potential sources will not trust us. This compromises our ability to expose abuses of power."
Credibility, being trusted, is the most important attribute of any news organization. That is true of CBC News. So let me emphasize here that we were very careful not only to confirm the bona fides of the sources we spoke with, but to corroborate the information they gave us. It was only after we had spoken with multiple sources and were satisfied with its credibility and authenticity that we published it.
What the story did not say explicitly, but should have is that our journalists had not seen the alleged emails. It was an inadvertent omission. And when our editors realized the story didn't say that specifically, we included that information and added a prominent editor's note to advise readers of the addition.
- NDP wants investigation following CBC report of Alberta premier's office contact with Crown prosecutors
Two days after the CBC story's publication, Premier Smith said she had asked public service employees to review emails sent between the Premier's Office and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service. On Monday, she said the weekend search of over a million emails had turned up no evidence of contact between the two offices.
Does that mean the CBC story is inaccurate? It does not. The exchange of emails is alleged by sources to have taken place last fall. While the search extended back to October, the government has subsequently said that deleted emails are only retained for 30 days, in this instance, that is to December 22. The terms used in the search are confidential, it said, and would not say if the search included all government emails. The opposition has said the government's assurances are unsatisfactory and called for a full and independent inquiry that would include private email addresses.
Journalism is, by its nature, an iterative process. Reporters reveal information as it becomes known and as they can confirm facts to be true. That is the case here. Additional information was posted on January 25 under the headline, "Premier pressured Justice Minister's office to get rid of COVID charges, sources." The story describes the "pressure" felt by the attorney general's office to intervene in COVID-19 related court cases. That pressure, sources say, came from the premier's office. There is much more reporting to be done and stories in the coming days will include further information.
We remain committed to reporting this story and all the stories we carry with transparency, balance and impartiality.
Thank you for taking the time to write. I hope my response has reassured you of the continuing integrity of our news service.