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CBC Punished for telling the truth

Trish Wood

In 1996 the fifth estate exposed Dr. Frans Leenen who was doing research for the Heart Institute and was in conflict with a drug company manufacturing one of the pills he was testing. The doctor sued and an Ontario judge awarded the doctor a million dollars.

Trish Wood was the frontline person on the piece the doctors successfully sued about. The loss of the appeal puts a chill on the media but it does not change the truth: Unscrupulous doctors take advantage of patients who are at their most vulnerable when they seek medical advice. We wonder if Dr. John Schneeberger is going to sue W5 now.

Meanwhile, we should remember other stories brought forward by Trish Wood on fifth estate: Mistaken Identities, and her piece on Karla Homolka come to mind.

CBC loses bid to appeal $1M defamation case

OTTAWA - The CBC must pay one of the largest defamation penalties ever imposed on a Canadian media outlet after being denied its final avenue of appeal.

The Supreme Court of Canada announced Thursday that it will not hear the case. The top justices never give reasons for refusing to hear appeals.

Two years ago, the CBC was ordered to pay close to $1M in damages to medical scientist Dr. Frans Leenen of the University of Ottawa because of a story that ran on the investigative program the fifth estate.

It was also told to pay another $200,000 in damages to a Toronto cardiologist, Dr. Martin Myers.

The two doctors had sued the CBC over a story about the safety of heart medication that had been broadcast in 1996.

They accused the investigative report of being malicious, unfair, defamatory and sensationalized.

The story looked at the potential dangers of a drug and whether the public had been notified. It alleged a possible conflict between researchers and drug manufacturers.

In his ruling in April 2000, Ontario Judge Douglas Cunningham called the report "the product of months of preparation and absolute adherence to a slanted and biased story line."

Last year, Myers won another $150,000 in aggravated damages after the CBC lost at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

"I consider the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to be the ultimate vindication of my reputation as a physician and scientist working in the best interests of my patients," Leenen said in a statement issued Thursday.

"I remain disappointed that the CBC pursued this matter until the bitter end. In doing so it has wasted millions in taxpayers' dollars fighting a case which could have been settled years ago with a simple on-air apology and $10,000 in damages."

The CBC said it respects the court's decision, but expressed concern that important guidelines about investigative journalism will not be reviewed by the top justices.

"We are disappointed with this news because we felt that these cases raised crucial questions about freedom of speech, the law of defamation, and the media's ability to report on issues of public interest," said Ruth-Ellen Soles, head of media relations for the broadcaster.

"We will take these judgments into account in our programming," she added. "We will also discuss the profound implications of these judgments with our journalists, journalists in other media organizations, and members of the legal community."

It's not clear how much the CBC will have to pay in the end, because the corporation is still adding up court-ordered damages, legal fees, and other costs. The total is expected to be several million dollars.

The CBC news magazine fifth estate has served a necessary muckraking role in Canada for decades. The show is no stranger to lawsuits. Dr. Frans Leenan has won a couple rounds in his bid to have his reputation restored. The judge was particularly sensitive to the use of creepy music. The main point of the show was to demonstrate the researcher's conflict of interest in receiving funding from the drug company who produced the pill he giving patients to take.

My personal experience in this area is with my nephew Steven who was invited to be part of a study for treatment for muscular distrophy. It rapidly became clear that Steven was receiving pretnazone and not the experimental drug. He was unhappy and miserable and his parents took him off of it. He was told that for this reason he would not be able to get access to the trial drug even if it proved to be helpful. Now that is creepy.

In Saskatchewan we are familiar with such conflicts as Monsanto controls a big piece of the University of Saskatchewan's agricultural research. The fifth estate has also exposed that. It seems the public increasingly accepts that corporations can buy favourable results of academic research. That doesn't make it right. As far as the libel part of this case goes, we would point our visitors to Judge Paul Hrabinsky who got all gooey about the golden reputation of Sgt (now Superintendent) Brian Dueck, the bullying cop in the Saskatoon Police Service, when he found John and Johanna Lucas guilty of libelling him… None of this is over, yet…

CBC must pay $1M to doctor in libel case

Judge calls filmmakers 'parasitic sensationalists'

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been ordered to pay an Ottawa physician nearly $1M in damages for libelling him during a story reported on the fifth estate, in what is being called the largest libel award against the media in Canadian history.

Dr. Frans Leenen, an Ottawa Heart Institute doctor, sued the public broadcaster and five of the show's employees in 1996 for a story about the safety of a heart medication, which claimed he and another physician were in a conflict of interest because of associations with drug manufacturers.

The program, seen by an estimated 1.4 million viewers, said a Health Canada committee Dr. Leenen chaired failed to alert the public to potential dangers of calcium channel blockers.

Dr. Leenen said he felt a flood of relief after hearing the ruling.

"There has been so much pain over the last four years that you can't call it happiness. Happiness is a different feeling," he said from his lawyer's office in Ottawa.

"It really is total vindication, and I think this will restore my reputation as a physician, as a scientist, not just in Ontario but across Canada, and hopefully in the world as well. I was known around the world."

In his judgment, Justice Douglas Cunningham of the Ontario Superior Court brands some CBC fifth estate filmmakers as "parasitic sensationalists."

"This is as serious a libel as can be imagined," he writes.

"Parasitic sensationalists should not be allowed to prey upon society's obsession with scandal and to reap personal benefit from their irresponsible actions.

"The malicious, offensive, cruel and insensitive conduct on the part of the defendants from the very beginning was such that I have little hesitation, on the facts of this case, in concluding that punitive damages are warranted."

The program characterized Dr. Leenen's views about the drug dishonestly and portrayed him as a "devious, dishonest, bumbling fool in order to advance a story- line." The program broadcast shots of Dr. Leenen fumbling because he did not have his glasses and used sinister music.

The judgment awards Dr. Leenen a total $950,000 general damages, aggravated damages and punitive damages. Most of the damages are against the CBC, but includes damages against the filmmakers.

Richard Dearden, Dr. Leenen's lawyer, said interest will bring the award to $1.2M, and he will ask for another $1M in costs at a later hearing.

During the 10-week civil trial, which wrapped up last November, host Trish Wood testified the program reported its subject fairly.

Ruth-Ellen Soles, a spokeswoman for the CBC, said the broadcaster is considering its options in consultation with its lawyers. The CBC has appealed a separate $200,000 libel ruling in the case of another doctor in the same documentary.

Dr. Leenen said that after the program aired, there seemed to be a ceiling on his rapidly ascending career. "We only asked for a public apology, that is what I was after, and $10,000 in a symbolic award," Dr. Leenensaid.

"It was that apology I was after. If the CBC is not willing to do that, the only way to get that to the public is by getting an award of this magnitude."