CBC journalists took VIP rides aboard government-chartered aircraft as guests of a Conservative minister for stories lauding cabinet’s environmental leadership. The junkets were arranged by Parks Canada at public expense. Journalists who took the trips declined interviews.
“As far as I know all practices were followed,” Evan Solomon, host of CBC-TV’s Power & Politics talk show, wrote in an email exchange with Blacklock’s; “At CBC the producer makes the arrangements.” Solomon referred all questions to an ex-producer who quit the network four years ago.
Financial accounts tabled in Parliament show Solomon was a guest of then-Environment Minister Jim Prentice aboard a private plane chartered by Parks Canada to tour British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas National Park. The trip occurred in June 2010; the $3,308 cost of the charter was only recently disclosed in accounts.
“That plane ride into Haida Gwaii was part of the doc,” said Solomon, adding the trip “complied with CBC policy”. The junket resulted in a 17-minute feature story on CBC National entitled Survivormen: Wilderness Summit that depicted Minister Prentice in a plaid shirt, paddling a kayak, and praising cabinet’s environmental record: “We can talk as Canadians because we’re passionate about outdoors,” Prentice says on-camera. “We care about it. It’s part of who we are and it’s part of what we stand for”; “We are reducing emissions”; “We’re fulfilling our responsibility.”
Survivormen also broadcast images of a grinning Prentice riding in an open boat: “The Minister and I hop into a Zodiac,” Solomon reported; “We get the ride of a lifetime”; “As the waves pound the boat and the ocean soaks us through, I look over at the Minister whom I’ve watched so often debating in the House of Commons. Now he looks like a kid riding on a roller coaster. You can’t fake this part of the job. You either love it or you don’t get into the boat.”
Solomon also lauded the park as a “success of government”: “Jim Prentice’s connection is also personal but it began through politics. After all, under his leadership the dream of this new national conservation area has actually been realized.”
The story did not tell viewers Parks Canada had paid for arrangements. Other guests on the junket were the president of the Haida First Nation; environmentalist David Suzuki; and a park superintendent.
“A Shining Example”
In a separate junket two journalists – an unidentified CBC reporter, and then-Sun Media staffer Kathleen Harris – were Minister Prentice’s guests on a $15,326 Parks Canada charter to Labrador’s Torngat Mountains National Park in 2010.
Harris, now a producer on CBC Power & Politics, also declined an interview, but said in emails she assumed her employer paid for the trip. “I was not a guest,” Harris wrote. “I was a working journalist with Sun Media at the time”; “I wasn’t involved in invoicing or payments for the trip.”
Harris subsequently wrote a news article headlined Canada’s ‘Exquisite Jewel’ that depicted Prentice as an enthusiastic nature lover: “Environment Minister Jim Prentice, an avid outdoorsman who oversees Parks Canada, scans the panoramic view from atop a mountain 4,000 feet high and marvels at the beauty. He calls this an ‘exquisite jewel’ in Canada’s park system – even more precious because it is so pristine and untouched. ‘It’s still part of the great adventure, building the country,’ he says.”
“Parks Canada has been undergoing a ‘renaissance’ in recent years,” wrote Harris, who quoted Parks Canada’s CEO in praise of Torngat as “a shining example internationally of how to establish a national park”.
“Torngat has turquoise shoreline, eye-popping blue bays and magnificent snaking valleys,” Harris enthused. “It has deep fjords, stark plunging cliffs and the highest peaks east of the Rockies. Today, fluffy clouds decorate clear, brilliant skies and soft rippling water glistens from the sunshine.”
Harris cautioned readers the park has no roads — “It is accessible only by charter boat, cruise line or helicopter” — but failed to mention she visited by private aircraft chartered by Parks Canada. Other passengers on the Torngat junket were Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle; two officials of the Nunatsiavut Government; and the parks department’s senior media manager Frédéric Baril.
Blacklock’s contacted Parks Canada repeatedly over a week for details of the flight arrangements, without response. Baril did not reply to an interview request.
‘I Love This Story’
CBC executives also had no comment. Managers of the Crown broadcaster have had an unusually close relationship with Parks Canada in the past, once accepting a five-figure cash payment to cover the agency’s Arctic search for two 19th century shipwrecks.
The network took $97,729 and free travel aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker to cover the story in 2012; the payments were disclosed in 2014 with the release of Access To Information documents.
Files showed Parks Canada was eager for publicity of its search for wreckage from the 1845 Franklin Expedition. “This is the opportune time to get excellent and substantial coverage,” Parks managers wrote in an August 6, 2012 memo.
The agency initially approved a $74,734 payment to the CBC, then added an extra $20,000 after network management balked at the cost of flying National anchor Peter Mansbridge and a TV crew to the Arctic: “At this point we have no charter to get Mansbridge & crew to the ship,” a network executive emailed Parks Canada staff on Aug. 19, 2012; “It’s prohibitive, more than $20,000.”
“No problem,” replied Parks communications advisor Keri Spink: “There should be no problem facilitating this, especially for the specific opportunity”.
“Our desire is to have CBC personnel do live coverage with Peter Mansbridge…which would offer fantastic media coverage,” parks staff wrote in an Aug. 6 memo. Mansbridge and a CBC crew were flown to the search site at Parks Canada’s expense, and subsequently broadcast a series of TV stories on the agency’s project. “I love this Franklin story,” Mansbridge later wrote in a CBC.ca commentary.
Cabinet subsequently cut funding for national parks by 11 percent, to $228.7 million, in 2012. Cuts included a 39 percent reduction in funding for Gwaii Haanas National Park, to $3.7 million; and a 15% cut at Torngat Mountains National Park to $8.4 million.
Codes of conduct for private broadcasters restrict payments to newsrooms by individuals or corporations that are the subject of stories. The Radio Television Digital News Association Code Of Ethics states, “Electronic journalists will not accept financial compensation from those who seek to influence news coverage”. A Canadian Association of Broadcasters Code Of Ethics states, “It shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to ensure that news shall be represented with accuracy and without bias; broadcasters shall satisfy themselves that the arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result.”
By Tom Korski