The libel line

t seems that nobody can resist a tantalizing story of drugs, money and corruption. Such was the case with a recent documentary aired on the 5th Estate, the CBC’s–and indeed, Canada’s–leading TV newsmagazine show. At $2.8 million dollars, that documentary culminated in the largest libel lawsuit in Canadian history.

The story began in 1995 when freelance journalist Nicholas Regush approached the 5th estate with a sensational story about corruption among doctors and drug makers. Four-and-a-half months later, the The Heart of the Matter (the documentary’s title) aired on Feb. 27, 1996 across the nation. Ironically, the episode was deemed by CBC producers and lawyers to be low in lawsuit risk, and was hardly among the most controversial stories the 5th Estate had come to be known for.

Six weeks later, that "low-risk" libel lawsuit was filed against the CBC. Two doctors, Dr. Frans Leenen and Dr. Martin Myers, both negatively portrayed in the show, each asked for an apology and damages totalling $35,000. The CBC denied their requests.
A trial and a subsequent appeal both favoured the doctors, resulting in the $2.8 million in damages that the public broadcaster, and hence Canadian taxpayers, will now shoulder.

Implications loomed large from the ruling. Foremost among journalists was the spread of "libel chill"–where the mere mention of a libel lawsuit was potentially enough to scare away timid journalists from an explosive, yet accurate, story.

A deeper question arose as to how the country’s leading investigative journalism show was judged to have acted maliciously. Was the investigative journalistic enterprise so fallible? Did producers of the 5th Estate, recognized by several trophy cases of journalism awards, let Regush go further than he should have? Did the judges?

For those who deal with the media on a regular basis, this story holds some particular lessons and conclusions for both journalists and the people they report on. Those who choose careers in the industry should learn that journalism is a rough enterprise where the truth, and the pursuit of truth, is a consuming affair. When the dust settles, they must remember that truth takes precedence over narrative; that a story, regardless of importance, should not compromise higher ideals of reason and unbiased news reporting. Both sides of a story must be represented honestly.

Those opposite to journalists (be they government, corporations or individuals) should take heed that our industry is a human enterprise simultaneously subject to error and to profundity. The construction of news, like any other pursuit, is a theme on which everyone should be educated–for the media possess a power that when harnessed appropriately, can be used towards significant ends. It is undoubtable that the media can follow particular agendas or represent certain ideals. However, it is up to those under the journalistic eye to influence those agendas, and hence the greater public.

Ultimately, it is up to journalists themselves to decide what those ends will be. As interpreters of social realities, journalists do not take their responsibilities lightly. From those we report on, we expect the same.

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