CBC explains how it got the tax haven series, which all began when almost a year ago when Frederic Zalac, a reporter for the Radio-Canada program Enquete and our Special Investigations Unit, was approached by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

By the office of CBC's general manager and editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire 

Every exclusive news story has a back-story of its own, the tale of "how we got that story". CBC News broke a major exclusive last week. It led our news reports on radio, television and cbcnews.ca and it became a national talking point, chased by other news organizations.

Our story of how 450 wealthy Canadians put their money in offshore "tax havens" detailed the complex measures they took to stash their cash in places where regulation is loose and few questions are asked. It was the first in a series of stories we'll be publishing throughout this year.

It was nearly a year in the making. Here's how it happened.

It began when Frederic Zalac, a reporter for the Radio-Canada program Enquete and our Special Investigations Unit, was approached by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.


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The ICIJ, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., had received a "dump" of 2.5 million documents–30 years of data entries, emails and other confidential communications from financial institutions in places like the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands, Bermuda and Mauritius.

The ICIJ invited selected media outlets in nearly 40 countries to form a joint effort. The partners include France's Le Monde, Britain's The Guardian, Japan's Asahi Shimbun, and The Washington Post.  Thanks to Frederic Zalac, CBC/Radio-Canada became the sole Canadian partner.

CBC News formed a team around Zalac, led by Harvey Cashore, Senior Producer of our Special Investigations Unit. Sensitive to the contents of the files they were, they worked under strict confidentiality and a code name: Project Z.

"This secret world has finally been revealed," said lawyer and international tax expert Art Cockfield, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. He examined the Project Z documents as an expert consultant on the file.

The leak amounted to 260 gigabytes of data, or 162 times larger than the U.S. State Department cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010.  The CBC team took months to sift its share of the leak, corroborate and context what it showed, and determine how best to tell this complex story thoroughly and fairly.

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Due to the sensitive nature of the material the first priority was to make sure the hard drive was not distributed beyond the core team — and that the story itself not leak out before all 38 media partners had agreed to broadcast and publish.

In the meantime we set up a small but diligent research team who painstakingly went through everyone of the 450 plus names.  Names were entered into our own spreadsheets, along with all relevant documents, e-mails and other information.  We set up confidential secure files that let team members from Vancouver to Toronto to Montreal access the same research materials.  Along the way we built detailed chronologies and prepared summary reports to help make sense of the material.We realized as the research grew that we had more than one story to tell — we had several, each requiring its own due diligence and fact-checking.  Eventually we decided to "park" many of the research files and focus on only a couple of stories at a time. This meant that we could plan a multi-stage rollout of stories, continuing for weeks and even months to come.
The Project Z group identified a number of relevant stories, and background information about how the "offshore" system works.

Our initial story last week, "Selling Secrecy", told how a prominent Canadian lawyer, Tony Merchant, husband to a Liberal senator, moved nearly $2 million to secretive financial havens while he was locked in battle with the Canada Revenue Agency over his taxes.His wife, Senator Pana Merchant, as well as their three sons are named in the documents as beneficiaries of the funds.

CBC/SRC spent months going through old court cases, collecting thousands of pages of documents and verifying the offshore documents with materials we had collected here.  In the end our database of information on the Merchant story alone ran more than a thousand pages.

We made repeated attempts to speak to both Anthony Merchant and his wife, Senator Merchant.  Anthony Merchant did not respond to several phone messages, e-mails and approaches. Pana Merchant also did not return our phone calls.  We will continue to seek their perspective.

That story was a CBC exclusive, but it soon became headline news across the country. Every Canadian news organization picked it up, many of them quoting CBC, as did newspapers and broadcasters around the world.

Accompanying that story was a specially-constructed interactive web feature, called "Stashing Their Cash". It too was widely reported and linked into by international media, including The New York Times.

In the weeks and months to come there will be more stories about other Canadians in the accounts.  This major exclusive vividly demonstrates our commitment to original journalism: looking beyond the day's events, digging deeper, and staying connected to the community to give Canadians truly meaningful stories, stories they can trust, stories they won't find anywhere else. 

This article appeared originally on CBC's newly launched Editor's blog. It was republished here with CBC's permission and has been modified to reflect the changes made by CBC from an earlier version of this article. 

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.