The ombudsman said that certain statements made by As It Happens to be very close to defamatory.

By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The complainant, Paul Sunstrum, complained that both on air and on its website As It Happens claimed that the bodies of almost 800 children were found in the septic tank of a closed Irish “mother and baby home.” Almost 800 children died at the facility, and some bones were found on the property, but no one knows where they are all buried. As It Happens producers were not careful enough in their use of language, but have since corrected it.

COMPLAINT

In early June, the CBC radio program As It Happens broadcast two interviews about a developing scandal in Ireland relating to “mother and baby homes.” There was evidence that nearly 800 children had died in one of these homes, in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961. There were calls for a government inquiry, which is now underway.

As It Happens first interviewed Susan Lohan, Director of the Adoption Rights Alliance, who was familiar with the history of these homes and the treatment of unwed mothers and their children in Ireland. The next night program host Carol Off interviewed an Irish government minister who also represents the people in County Galway. Ciaran Cannon was calling for an inquiry into the revelations of the high mortality rate of the children living in the Tuam home.

There was some confusion in the early reporting about the burial site for the children. And that is what led to your complaint. In August, you wrote to point out that As It Happens reported on June 3 and 4 that the remains of 800 children were found in a septic tank on the grounds of the Tuam orphanage. You asked some questions:

  1. Since no evidence has ever existed of human remains being found in a septic tank, how did As It Happens report, as fact, that the remains of 800 children had been dumped into a septic tank?
  2. Has As It Happens retracted this erroneous claim, and if it has, could you please inform me as to when or where this erroneous claim has been corrected?

You point out that the claim of the bodies being in the septic tank has been debunked by various people involved in the story, and that there needs to be an explicit on air correction:

I believe statements made by As It Happens to be very close to defamatory and while it is unlikely the elderly members of a religious order in Ireland would take legal action over malicious statements made by a radio program in Canada, professional journalistic standards and simple decency require As It Happens to publicly correct the false claims they have made.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, answered your questions and replied to your concerns. She said the details regarding the Tuam mother and baby home are “indeed complex.” She said As It Happens stands by its coverage because “our focus has always been on how this could have happened, how the babies died, and what happened to their remains.” She mentioned that there is now a full inquiry into the events, and that while the details of how and where the bodies were disposed are still unclear, there is no dispute that nearly 800 children died at the facility, because the death certificates for 796 have been made public.

In reply to your statement that there is no evidence to support the claim of human remains in a septic tank, she talked about two men who discovered some bones beneath a concrete slab on the site of the facility when they were children. She pointed out that others referred to burial there, including an Irish politician.

She told you that because there does seem to be some confusion about the exact whereabouts of the remains, As It Happens altered the information on its website introduction to the second interview it did to “reflect that the children are buried in a mass grave near, but not just in the septic tank.” She said that the woman who discovered the death certificates, Catherine Corless, says that “while all of the children may not have been buried near the septic tank, they are likely buried somewhere on the grounds.” For these reasons, she felt As It Happens did not need to retract what you referred to as an “erroneous claim.”

REVIEW

CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices lists accuracy as one of its core values. In journalism, precision of language is paramount. There is a need to pay close attention to details.

The story of the Tuam mother and child home captured a great deal of attention right around the world. I suspect that is because it is dramatic in its own right and also because the popular movie Philomena has raised awareness of the historic treatment of unwed mothers in Ireland. Many news organizations confused or conflated two facts early on in the coverage.

To continue reading this review, please go the CBC ombudsman’s website where this was originally published.