We use this editor’s blog to explain our journalism and what’s happening at CBC News. You can find more blogs here.
It is not unusual for CBC News to get complaints about our stories. We publish and broadcast hundreds of stories across the country each day, on every conceivable topic.
As I’ve written before, we hold ourselves accountable to some of the highest journalistic standards in the industry (read them here), regularly answer public concerns about our journalism and transparently correct errors. Our journalism is subject to review by an independent ombudsman, who publishes his findings here.
Despite these safeguards, we do hear from people who have concerns about what they’ve read, watched or listened to on any given day.
What is unusual is to receive dozens of complaints about a story before a single word of it has gone to air or online.
Such was the case with an investigation into the WE Charity by our flagship investigative journalism program The Fifth Estate. It aired Thursday.
Letters and inquiries
For the past several months, as our journalists conducted research and interviews, we received more than 30 letters of complaint with multiple signatures from WE Charity donors who expressed concerns about our journalism, questioned the integrity of our reporters and urged us not to publish or go to air with the story.
They wrote to our journalists, to the leaders of The Fifth Estate, to me, to the president of the CBC.
Now that the Fifth Estate investigation has aired and the feature has been published to our website, we want to share a bit of the story behind the story. We believe there’s value in explaining how news gets made and the obstacles journalists sometimes face when trying to get important information to the public.
First, some background.
In 2020, the federal government announced WE Charity would administer the Canada Student Service Grant, a financial aid program meant to give post-secondary students who couldn’t find summer jobs a chance to earn money while volunteering in “national service” activities. Controversy erupted over the sole-source contract and the fact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau had not recused themselves from cabinet discussions about the contract despite family ties to the charity, which had been founded 25 years earlier by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger.
(Trudeau was later cleared of wrongdoing in the affair by the federal ethics commissioner, while Morneau was found to have breached the Conflict of Interest Act.)
Investigations by two parliamentary committees commenced. In testimony before one of them, WE Charity donor Reed Cowan told the ethics committee that he had raised funds for a school to be built in Kenya in memory of Wesley, his deceased four-year-old son. He later learned that a donation plaque on the school bearing Wesley’s name had been removed and replaced with the name of another donor. Cowan told the committee he wondered if more than one WE donor had been told they had funded the construction of the very same school. WE Charity said the replacement of the plaque was a mistake.
Our Fifth Estate journalists wondered if there were other donors like Cowan who had been told they had funded the same school. If so, how many schools were built? The Fifth Estate team began to investigate.
Then came the letters to CBC.
First, there was a letter in mid-September signed by more than 70 major WE donors, including Canadian Football League legend Mike “Pinball” Clemons, Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon Athletica, and former prime minister Kim Campbell. A version of this letter was published Saturday as a full-page ad in some national newspapers.
“The Fifth Estate has repeatedly reached out to many of us and/or to members of our organizations over the last few months,” the letter stated. “We do not agree with their thesis that we, as donors, were misled about the projects in Kenya. We do not see any public interest in this kind of journalism.”
However, our journalists felt that the public interest case was solid. Charitable status gives organizations credibility, income tax exemptions and other benefits. Donors big and small, taxpayers and the government expect transparency. Why wouldn’t we examine the workings of WE?
Our team responded to the concerned donors and assured them their views — and WE Charity’s answers to our questions — would be included in the final story. Our team also asked many of these donors to share with us their donation agreements with WE so we could see what was promised in return for their money.
Meanwhile, our Fifth Estate crew visited Kenya to find answers for other donors who told us they believed their money had been used to construct new buildings but were no longer confident that had happened.
For the record, WE denies misleading donors and says that donors knew their funds were being pooled for such things as teacher accommodations and training, administration spaces, libraries and student lunches.
We built a database to track the number of schools donors had been told they had funded, then went into Kenyan villages to count how many schools were actually built.
While WE Charity had earlier told Parliament it had built 360 schools in Kenya, a WE charity official on the ground told us the 360 figure was a mistake because it didn’t include renovated buildings, high schools and other structures. The correct number was 852 schools, we were told.
While in Kenya, the team interviewed the governor of Narok County, Samuel Tunai, a WE supporter who has lauded the charity for changing the “landscape and lives” of the people he governs. Tunai greeted our team with his own camera crew and recorded our interview. Within hours, a WE Charity lawyer based in Toronto wrote to The Fifth Estate quoting part of the Tunai interview, stating, “It is clear that CBC has been presenting as ‘fact’ inaccurate information.”
Next, the CBC received a letter from Kenya’s Ministry of the Interior with allegations that our reporters had engaged in criminal activity, including a claim of trespassing on government property. For some reason, the letter was copied to the WE College in Kenya.
Incoming criticism before reporting was done
Over the next two months, more than 30 letters were sent by groups or individuals, all taking issue with a story we had not yet reported. Many were from educators and charitable foundations.
Some of the letters accused our journalists of bias, unprofessionalism and self-interest. The letters were sent to managers at all levels of the CBC.
Others threatened to sue. One letter from a family foundation warned us that if The Fifth Estate reported a story that didn’t match their views of WE Charity, “there will be peripheral damage” to the foundation’s reputation. “I am aware that other donors are organizing funding for a defamation lawsuit against the Fifth Estate if the network [CBC] proceeds to misrepresent WE Charity,” the letter noted.
Many of the letters followed a similar pattern. The authors spoke of positive experiences donors had with the charity, including trips they’d taken to Kenya. They said their money was being used for good and asked that CBC stop asking questions about how many schools were built.
“There is a very loud voice of support emerging from all those who have witnessed the worth of the WE organization, and CBC would be well advised to listen and discern and consider changing this present course of reporting,” said one typical letter.
The similarity among the letters suggested to us a co-ordinated campaign. At the bottom of one long email sent to the CBC from a high-profile donor was an attached email titled, “draft for consideration.” The donor later told us he had shared the email with Craig Kielburger to ensure accuracy before sending it to us.
Regardless, our journalists persevered as we expect them to do, without fear or favour. We stand by them. We believe their work lives up to the five principles of our journalistic standards: accuracy, fairness, balance, impartiality and integrity. We invite you to judge for yourself by watching the program here and reading our story here.