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Half a Century of Investigative Journalism at the CBC

Categories: Canada


Robert Hoyt, Ken Lefolii, Douglas Leiterman, and Patrick Watson on the set of This Hour Has Seven Days in the 1960s.

Previously, we shared with you a post about the Importance of Being Investigative and why this type of journalism is central to what we do. Well, who are we to argue with serendipity because just today, CBC, along with our colleagues at Radio-Canada, were named finalists for the prestigious Michener Award for public service journalism. Our joint series uncovered links between industry funding and research which downplayed the health risks of asbestos mining. The Michener committee cited our journalism for forcing "the government finally to act on a serious public health issue." Good luck and congratulations to all our investigative journalists.

One of those journalists is Cecil Rosner, our managing editor in Manitoba and the leader of the investigative unit based there. As a follow-up to yesterday's post we asked Cecil to dig deeper and highlight some of the ways journalism shaped the discussion in this country. Cecil is also the author of Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada.

The CBC has created some of the most important and memorable examples of Canadian investigative journalism over the last half century, often leading to sweeping policy and legislative changes.

Modern investigative journalism began to expand in the 1950s, and the CBC was in the forefront of creating new techniques and ways of working. Journalists like Douglas Leiterman, Ross McLean and Patrick Watson made a significant contribution to investigative techniques in those early years, laying the foundation for further advances in the decades that followed.

Here are a few of the stories and significant landmarks over the last 50 years:

•   In 1965, the CBC investigated the case of Fred Fawcett, an Ontario farmer who had stopped paying taxes to protest a municipal road-building decision. The authorities decided he was mentally incompetent and locked him up in the Penetanguishene Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Denied permission to interview him, journalists with This Hour Has Seven Days made one of the earliest uses in Canada of a hidden camera. They smuggled equipment in picnic baskets to his hospital room, and showed a very sane-looking Fawcett articulately arguing his case.

Within two weeks, the Ontario premier announced the case would be reviewed, and Fawcett was released soon afterwards.

The Fawcett story was one of dozens that made This Hour has Seven Days the most popular and influential current affairs program in Canadian television history. When CBS began examining models before creating 60 Minutes in 1968, it studied the Canadian example and consulted closely with the program's producer, Douglas Leiterman.

•   In 1977, the CBC broadcast the first of a series of reports called Connections: An Investigation into Organized Crime. It was the result of more than two years of investigative research that sent shock waves around the country.

Once again, special techniques were used in gathering the information: hidden cameras, concealed microphones and night lens equipment. For the first time, Canadians were shown in vivid detail the extent of Mafia influence in their country. The research revealed how organized crime had infiltrated key segments of Canadian society.

The series caused an uproar in the House of Commons and in legislatures across the country. The CBC, which had commissioned and funded the series, continued to report on the issues in follow-up reports over the next few years.

•   Over the last 50 years, Linden MacIntyre has established a career as one of Canada's premier investigative journalists. But in the late 1970's and early 1980's, while investigating political kickbacks and influence peddling, he also contributed to a lasting enhancement for the rights of all Canadian journalists.

While investigating distillers and wineries in Nova Scotia, MacIntyre wanted to access search warrant documents he knew existed. But court officials refused to turn over the information. So he took them to court, embarking on a lengthy legal challenge that posed fundamental questions about freedom of the press.

In 1982, the Supreme Court of Canada finally ruled in MacIntyre's favour, and ever since journalists have been able to access similar information. It has led to thousands of important stories over the years, most recently to a report by CBC's network investigation unit on corruption in the Ontario construction industry.

•    In 1995, on an edition of the fifth estate called Sealed in Silence, Canadians were first introduced to the mysterious story that became known as the Airbus affair. It focused attention on the rumours and allegations surrounding the 1988 sale of 34 Airbus jets to Air Canada.

Producer Harvey Cashore and his team didn't stop there. Over the next decade and a half, they continued producing documentaries that added more and more detail: secret commissions code-named European bank accounts, and undocumented cash payments from a shady German deal-maker to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

A commission of inquiry was eventually called, and Justice Jeffrey Oliphant concluded that Mulroney's business dealings with German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber were inappropriate. He said the former prime minister failed to live up to the ethics code he himself introduced for elected officials.

It was just one of a multitude of important stories for the fifth estate, a program created by the CBC in 1975 to focus on investigative journalism that served the public interest.

•   In 2009, the team at Enquête, Radio-Canada's investigative program, produced the first of a series of reports into Quebec's construction industry. Alain Gravel, Marie-Maude Denis and a team of journalists exposed the complex relationships between organized crime figures and municipal officials.

Much like the Connections series 30 years earlier, the reports drew back the curtain on the extent of Mafia influence in Canadian society. The documentaries were a key trigger to the appointment of the Charbonneau Commission, which continues to uncover troubling relationships between elected officials and organized crime.

Today, the CBC has more journalists devoted to investigative journalism than any other news organization in Canada. There are teams covering stories in English and French, in network programs and in regional newsrooms across the country.

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