Journalist Alain Gravel and Société Radio-Canada are jointly ordered to pay $60,000 in damages to businessman Lee Lalli, who was the subject of a report on the show detection titled “Mafia Mined Land” aired in March 2013.
Posted at 12:42 p.m
Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday declined to hear an appeal by the journalist and Crown Corporation, which challenged a decision by the Quebec Court of Appeals made last October, which jointly ordered Alain Gravel and Radio-Canada to pay the $60,000 in question to pay.
The report focused on a staggering win from real estate transactions conducted by Mr. Lalli and linked him to known members of the Italian Mafia in Montreal.
Lee Lalli had filed a lawsuit for $300,000 consisting of $200,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages, alleging damage to his honor, dignity and reputation. The lawsuit was initially dismissed by Supreme Court Justice Lukasz Granosik, who found the reporting was “rigorous” and evidence of such damages “absent”.
Distorted picture of reality
However, the Court of Appeals made a completely opposite analysis. The three judges’ decision, authored by Justice Jocelyn Rancourt, found that Mr Lalli was “portrayed as a person with Mafia connections and access to the city, which enabled him to make immense profit by selling the Bought from land-tracked for $50,000 and resold for $4,500,000”.
According to Judge Rancourt, “The most serious error that [Alain] Gravel and the SRC lies in the distorted picture of reality that emerges from the overall impression that emerges from the broadcast’s account detection “.
This general impression was reflected in the following elements: “Lalli, a member of the Mafia, bought $50,000 worth of land, which he sold a few years later for $4,500,000 thanks to an arbitration brought by Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto was carried out, as well as three zoning changes. Lalli forged the signature of a foundation representative to obtain a power of attorney allowing him to request the first change of territory. It was thanks to his political contacts that Lalli received these zone changes because [le maire de Montréal, Michael] Applebaum approved them against the advice of his specialists. »
“This overall impression distorts reality,” Judge Rancourt ruled.
Among other things, the judge pointed out that the transaction was carried out in two parts for a total of $1.85 million and therefore “the price paid is not really $50,000. [Alain] Gravel knows this and yet chooses to present the whole thing as if it were an outright sale for $50,000.”
Then, he continued, “the report clearly implies that Lalli benefited from the sale of the land for $4,500,000 in 2007 when Lalli had not owned the land since 2006.” The elements of the zone change put forward in the report are unfounded, the magistrate added: “There has therefore been no zone change. »
Among his other criticisms, the judge noted that “the report gives the clear impression that Lalli is part of the mafia and not just that he has ‘connections’ to people in this criminal organization. […] However, all information kept from [Alain] Gravel reveals that Lalli knows [Vito] rizzuto, [Tony] magician and [Frederico] Del Peschio that he is good friends with the latter and has already provided services that do not mean anything illegal [Vito] Rizzuto. [Alain] Gravel has no information that would reveal Lalli’s involvement in Mafia-related criminal activities. »
In short, he concluded, [Alain] Gravel was at fault both in his information gathering by disregarding professional journalistic standards, and in his way of presenting the information. The portrait of the facts is distorted. The aim is to tell a story that is catchier, more sensational and more interesting than it actually is. These errors are also attributable to the CBC,” the judge wrote.
The Supreme Court therefore agrees with these conclusions.
No Punitive Damages
Additionally, the decision was accompanied by an amendment by Judge Martin Vauclair, who would have ordered Alain Gravel, but not Radio-Canada, to pay an additional $15,000 in punitive damages. Judge Vauclair considered that “the decisions made and the mistakes he made [Alain] Gravel are considered to be illegal acts which, in this context, could not help but make the complainant’s reputation extremely likely to be damaged”.
“The report was clearly aimed at linking the caller to the Italian Mafia and corruption for the sale of land for huge profits. The report presents facts that [Alain] Gravel knows incomplete and imprecise,” Judge Vauclair wrote at the time.
Judge Vauclair recalled that “it is undeniable that the media play a leading role in a free and democratic society. But precisely because this role is essential and important, it brings with it responsibility. As the Supreme Court writes, “Freedom of expression, despite its undeniable importance, is not absolute, […] Freedom of expression may be restricted by the requirements of the right of others to have their reputation protected”.
However, the other two judges did not support this desire to award punitive damages.
Disappointment at Radio Canada
Crown Corporation is clearly disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear its appeal.
In a statement released after the decision, the CBC argued that the issue “is of great importance to the practice of investigative journalism. Radio-Canada hopes the country’s highest court will clarify certain aspects of the Quebec defamation lawsuit, particularly as it relates to investigative journalism. »
Radio-Canada’s Director General of Information, Luce Julien, recalled in the press release that “investigative journalism serves above all the public interest and its practice is essential in a democratic society. The work of our dedicated teams raises important questions. It is at the heart of our mandate and our mission to inform. For this reason we will continue to pursue this mission with the rigor that characterizes us and the same professionalism. »