11/24/2011 11:58 EST | Updated 01/24/2012 05:12 EST

CBC Access To Information Battle: Truce Called In Dispute At Commons Committee


OTTAWA - An uneasy truce was called Thursday in a nasty spat between the CBC and a House of Commons committee.

The access-to-information and ethics committee agreed to return sealed documents to the public broadcaster rather than press ahead with a proposal by Conservative MPs to examine the sensitive material.

The sealed documents are at the heart of legal tussle that pitted the Crown corporation against Canada's information watchdog, Suzanne Legault.

The CBC has refused to release the internal documents after receiving formal requests for them under the Access to Information Act. Legault has twice gone to court to assert her right to review the CBC's decision by examining the material.

On Wednesday, the Federal Court of Appeal sided with the information watchdog, with a caveat that she could not inspect any records containing information about CBC's journalistic sources.

CBC president Hubert Lacroix says the corporation will decide in the next two days about whether to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. But he said the appeal court's ruling on journalistic sources allays one of the broadcaster's primary concerns.

In the meantime, Tory MP Dean Del Mastro — who has led the committee's effort to review the sealed material — agreed the documents can now be returned to the CBC, given recent developments.

"I do not see the need at this point to open any sealed envelopes that have been provided to this committee," he said at Thursday's meeting. Committee members agreed to hand them back to the broadcaster.

The repatriation also satisfies a request from Legault, who wrote to the committee chair, New Democrat MP Jean Crowder, to say she would resume an investigation into the withheld documents.

"Since some of the documents filed under seal with the committee are the subject of unresolved complaints to my office, I feel that as information commissioner, I must share certain concerns with the committee," Legault wrote on Wednesday.

"In my view, the disclosure of the contents of these documents, directly or indirectly, could undermine these investigations."

Legault's office is probing 16 complaints against the CBC after the corporation refused to release sensitive material, invoking a clause in the Access to Information Act that protects its journalistic, creative and programming records.

The CBC, which became subject to the Access to Information Act in 2007, has argued the documents are fully protected from disclosure under Section 68.1 — and that the information commissioner has no legal authority to inspect them. Both the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal have rejected that claim.

Legault had suspended her investigations into the 16 complaints pending those court rulings, and has a backlog of another 200 complaints against the CBC, all involving the same section of the act.

Thirteen of the 16 complaints to her office came from a law firm representing Quebecor Media Inc., which has pilloried the CBC in its newspapers and on its television network for alleged wastefulness and lack of transparency.

The CBC has since released a response to one of the Quebecor requests, a list of the more than 700 vehicles the broadcaster owns or leases, which it provided to the committee and posted on its website.

Despite the apparent truce, Tory MPs who hold a majority on the committee continued to press Lacroix for more transparency during an occasionally testy hearing Thursday.

Del Mastro noted the cost to taxpayers for the CBC — about $1 billion annually, or $34 for each Canadian — is about a week's worth of groceries for a family of four in his riding.

The CBC's purported transparency in the form of regular financial statements and audits is insufficient, and might well disguise improper spending, he said.

"An aggregated financial statement does not provide any kind of transparency," Del Mastro said. "It simply puts all the numbers in a big heap."

"It doesn't provide the kind of transparency that somebody in my riding, that's providing you a week's groceries that they could buy for their family, is asking and is seeking."

But Lacroix countered that the Crown corporation has numerous checks and balances, ranging from its cabinet-appointed board and outside auditors to the auditor general of Canada and the proactive posting of executive expenses online.

"We believe in accountability. ... It's one of the core principles and core values of the public broadcaster," he told MPs.

Witnesses and federal court judges have all criticized the unclear wording of Section 68.1, an amendment drafted by the Tory government in 2006.

Del Mastro said the committee should press for a rewrite that follows the examples of Ireland and Britain, both of which require far more disclosure from their public broadcasters.

"I think it's something we need to do," he said.

The committee plans to review other, unsealed access-to-information documents that it ordered the CBC to produce earlier this month — but only in a closed-door session.

The CBC says it has handled 1,477 access requests since 2007 and released 80,000 pages, of which 27,000 are posted on its website.