APTN sharpens its investigative chops

From a tip about a former advisor in the PMO’s office to one of the juiciest political scandals of the year. David McKie talks with Paul Barnsley, executive producer of APTN Investigates about the Bruce Carson story. This Q&A is the first in a series, as part of our new content-sharing agreement with Media Magazine.

With the second season just completed, Paul Barnsley, executive producer of APTN Investigates has a full slate of stories upon which he can reflect: everything from missing aboriginal women, to the use of  the drug OxyContin in First Nations communities. However, it’s the story about Bruce Carson that still has reporters,  politicians and political observers on Parliament Hill talking, something that surprises Barnsley, which is not easy to do, given that he has been covering aboriginal issues for 18-years.

Bruce Carson, affectionately known by political reporters as “the mechanic” for his ability to fix sticky situations, was an advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office. He left in 2008. Now he’s facing questions about his past, and allegations that he used his political connections to lobby for a company that employed his 22-year-old girlfriend-turned-fianceé Michele McPherson, a former escort, who went by the name Leanna VIP. The following is an edited version of a conversation Media had with Barnsley, who, as the show’s executive producer, is still in the throes of helping his two-year old show find its feet.

Media: What are the origins of the show APTN Investigates?

Barnsley: [Investigative journalism] was something that APTN was committed to do and they brought me in in 2007. The idea that coming out of the gate with a full-blown investigative magazine show, trying to do 26 episodes in the same season when everything is being invented from scratch was probably biting off more than we could chew.

We did 11 shows the first year. And that was enough for the first time out. It had its ups and downs.  We expanded to 13 this year. And I think we’ll probably stay at that level for next season, but that decision hasn’t entirely been made yet. The idea was to not over-extend and grow faster than we could handle. Because you know yourself with investigative journalism, if you’re out there on the branch, you’ve got to have the resources and the time and the discipline to get it right. So we’re still putting things together. I’m quite happy with the group of folks we’ve got right now. But it’s still not anywhere near where it can be when we get fully developed. When you’ve got a lot of reporters with a daily news mindset, it takes them a little while to shift gears and say ‘alright, here’s what’s different about long-form, investigative work.’

Media: How many people work on the show?

Barnsley: We have seven people who work on the show full-time. For the Carson show, we had our web writer, who is technically a daily news reporter, was working on it with a freelancer. So, in a sense, we had nine of our people working on that story. And more, because some of our daily news people did file stuff.

Media: What was the genesis of the Bruce Carson story?

Barnsley:  Our freelance reporter, Kenneth Jackson, who used to be a crime reporter with the Ottawa Sun, and just recently decided that he could have the freedom to do the kind of investigative work that he likes to do, approached Jorge Barrera, a friend, and our web writer in the Ottawa bureau, and said ‘I got a call. Somebody gave me a whole pile of emails and bank records. It’s got to do with first nations stuff and all political stuff.  I’m a crime reporter, I don’t know anything about politics, or First Nations stuff especially. Maybe we should work together.’  And then Jorge called me and told me to get in touch with Jackson. I flew to Ottawa to look at what he had and that’s when we realized that it had the potential to be big. Because it was a person who had very recently been working in the Prime Minister’s Office, and it did look like he was lobbying on {the water filtration company’s] behalf.

Media: Is that what the correspondence showed?

Barnsley: That’s what we’ve been arguing, I guess. I don’t think there’s any doubt the Bruce Carson was lobbying on behalf [of H20 Global Group]. The big question that’s going to come out of it is, is there anything wrong with it? There is that 20 percent exemption in the Federal Accountability Act where, if you’re not spending more than 20 percent of your time on lobbying, you don’t have to register.

But what’s interesting, is we weren’t raising any allegations. Once we got the stuff and looked into it and verified it. And when the Prime Minister’s Office came in and they looked it over and said they’d get back to us. I got a call from  Dimitri Soudas, the director of communications for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and he informed us that they were going to call in the RCMP and the ethics commissioner and the lobbying commissioner. So the Prime Minister’s Office obviously saw a lot of significance in what we had shown them. I’m under some constraints here. I’d prefer to let the story speak for itself. But once the PMO informed us that their comment was going to be a public statement [about] three letters issued, one to the three parties I mentioned a moment ago, RCMP, ethics and lobbying commissioner, we realized that our March 25 date to broadcast this was not going to work out.  (laughing)

Media: So how did you tell the first stories?

Barnsley: The first night, within a couple of hours of getting these letters from the Prime Minister’s Office, we had to rush just to get a couple of lines on our afternoon newscast. I think it was the very last item of the night. It was funny because if we’d had a little bit more time to prepare, it would have been the lead story. And then Jorge was furiously working away on the web story, which is where the details first started to come out.

Media:  So did you use the web to break the story?

Barnsley: That’s right, yes. And then the next night, Jorge had a three- or four-minute television story ready to go. And we kept doing web stories and TV stories.  The story that aired on March 25 is where we showed the entire confrontation with Bruce Carson. Some people have described it as brutal. It was tough to watch when he suddenly realized what we had. He himself on a couple of occasions said, ‘you’ve ruined me.’  And ‘I’m going to be in so much shit’ was another quote. He wasn’t specific about what he meant by that.  But I think it was pretty clear that he realized that the information we had went public and there was going to be some kind of fallout.

Media: And how did you guys feel about that because the interview with Carson was tough to watch?

Barnsley: It was. Our guys were respectful. They said, ‘sir, you want the opportunity to comment on this. You need to answer these questions. We’re doing our job by telling you what we have and giving you the opportunity to respond.’ Because he complained that it was an ambush. They’d done a couple of preliminary interviews to find out more about the company. And as any investigative reporter has ever done, you don’t show all your cards the first time. And when it was time to show him what we had and give him the opportunity to comment, he may have felt ambushed.

Media: Was he?

Barnsley: We went to a central player in a story with a lot of information. And we asked him to comment on it. If that’s an ambush, I think every journalist does nothing but ambush. The way I see it we worked our way into the story, and then we fully deployed all the information we had at our disposal.

Media: But clearly, he didn’t know exactly what you had when you sat down with him.

Barnsley: No, there is a point in the interview when we started to ask about his 22-year old girlfriend and he said ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ And then we said, ‘well, you’ve talked about it openly previously, why not now?’ I think that’s when he first realized that these guys have got something. And the expression on his face… that’s the power of television. I want to let the story speak for itself. All I can say is the audience saw his reaction.

Media: How many sit-down interviews did you do?

Barnsley: Three in total.

Media: Was each interview on a different topic?

Barnsley: It was generally talking about his interest in getting this company some government contracts to work on water systems in first nations territories. The first interview was just getting the broad strokes. The second one was more detailed. And the third one was when we rolled out the stuff what had been leaked to us.  

Media: Did the reaction from the other media surprise you?

Barnsley: I was a little bit surprised by the ferocity of the reaction. We knew we had a significant story. We didn’t anticipate the energy that all the other media would bring to it. This one, because of Michele McPherson (his girlfriend-turned-fiancé who stood to profit from possible deals with the water filtration company, and  a former escort who went by the name Leanna VIP) and because of aspect of things, resonated in a way the other… typical Ottawa scandal stories didn’t.

Media:  Could it be argued that the bigger story is the fact that there are still First Nations communities without clean and safe drinking water?

Barnsley:  I tried to keep that front and centre. But I realized that I was facing a bit of a losing battle because that’s not what people were interested in. It’s what we’re interested in. Believe me. The there are desperate situations where people in first nations communities are living in Third World conditions. It has become a cliché. You hear it all the time if you follow first nations’ politics. There are places where there’s no running water. Where people have to go to a heavy pump a mile away and carry a heavy bucket if they want to have any kind of water at all. That shouldn’t be happening in a country like Canada. And yet it seems like the way the department of Indian Affairs does business, it’s not [about] maximizing every nickel that comes out of Treasury Board. It’s not against guarding against companies trying to make a profit, whether it’s a reasonable profit or not.

There was the big announcement that then-Indian Affairs minister, Jim Prentice, made a number of years ago identifying 21 of the communities that needed the most attention. They had a plan in place. A lot of money was targeted. One of the reasons why Mr. Carson was able to get involved in this particular situation was that in some circles in Ottawa it was known that $400-million of that money just never got spent and was available. H20 Global Group had a plan. It was going to provide its product and access that money. I think I can say with no fear as far as the legal aspect goes that Mr. Carson set out to help the [company] access that money. I think it’s important to note, as his attorney has said to us, that Mr. Carson did not benefit directly from this. He was not paid to be a lobbyist. But the company stood to make a significant amount of money if it was able to use his assistance to get these contracts.

Media: If he’s going to marry Michele McPherson, then would be there be an indirect benefit because she stood to make money on a possible deal?

Barnsley: Well, that’s not for me to say. But the thought has crossed my mind.

Media: What was the biggest challenge telling this story?

Barnsley: I think it was just nailing down the many, many details. We were given a lot of information. And as most investigative stories are, it was complicated. It involved a lot of people with a lot of different perspectives.  

Media: It’s one thing to do stories such as this, and another to turn the camera lens inward towards the communities themselves, addressing problems such as child abuse, wife abuse and alcoholism. How free are you to tell those kinds of stories?

Barnsley: That was part of our central mandate when this unit was created. Our chief executive officer said at the time that there are way too many things in our first nations’ communities that everyone knows and no one talks about. We were building capacity for the first two seasons. And those are going to be the biggest challenges for us. But they are key elements in what we’re going to do.

Media: Do you anticipate fall-out from doing these kinds of stories?

Barnsley: Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. There are some very difficult stories to tell, stories that will be hard to watch. Some of these communities are in great trauma. And some are not. That’s the thing. We don’t want to say it’s all doom and gloom. But there are several communities — I’m not going to name names, and get myself in trouble — [where]  we’re talking about family violence, drug and alcohol problems and all the things that come from that.  We see this a lot where broad strokes are painted to describe First Nations. I don’t want to do that.

Media: The mainstream media tend to focus on those kinds of stories. But if you are an investigative show, are you not obliged to delve into those issues as well?

Barnsley: Oh, yes. We would have no credibility if we didn’t do that. If we’re going to go after the feds or the mainstream public governments and we’re not willing to hold our own leaders accountable and look at some of the most difficult stories in our own communities, we’re going to get dismissed. We’re aware of that.

David McKie is an investigative reporter in the CBC News parliamentary bureau and editor of Media, a magazine published by the Canadian Association of Journalists. He can be reached at david_mckie@cbc.ca