TORONTO - The CBC is fending off accusations that it tinkered with a documentary about China's repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement under pressure from Chinese officials and amid fears the broadcaster's deal to broadcast next year's Beijing Olympics would be jeopardized.
John Cruickshank, head of news for CBC, denied receiving any veiled threats from the Chinese about the Olympics.
While the public broadcaster's reporters in China have been contacted by the country's authorities about "Beyond the Red Wall: The Persecution of Falun Gong," no one at CBC headquarters has heard from the Chinese, Cruickshank said Tuesday.
"It's hard for me to answer the accusation because it's just so beyond the realm of possibility," he said.
"I would have had to go to the president or the chairman of the corporation about that and they'd be so offended if I did. I can't imagine what Robert Rabinovitch would say. Probably 'You're fired' if I went and said: 'Should I compromise our journalistic ethics over the Olympics?' I mean we're the Canadian public broadcaster. The idea that we could be pushed around over venal stuff is just so crazy."
But Peter Rowe, who spent three years making the documentary, said there has been much talk that the controversy is related to the Summer Games.
"Many people are suggesting that it has something to do with the Olympics, and the CBC certainly wouldn't want to upset the Chinese because of the Olympics, but I have no proof of anything about that," Rowe said.
Nonetheless, Rowe said, he was asked by the CBC to make a number of cuts to the piece even after it had aired, unedited, one night last year without promotion. He charged that many other documentaries have aired on the CBC, including "Fahrenheit 911," that were potentially more incendiary than his.
The final edited version of "Beyond the Red Wall" was to air Tuesday night on CBC Newsworld. Rowe had already made five minutes of cuts to the film at the CBC's request, but the public broadcaster continued to tinker with it this week after he refused to edit it any further.
"I've never really heard of anything like this before but everybody does seem to handle China with kid gloves because of its massive control of our economy, because they're the factory of the world and now they're the host of the Olympics," Rowe said. "And let's face it - they're a totalitarian government that has been known to do some nasty things to people."
David Kilgour, a former Liberal cabinet minister who wrote a comprehensive report on the Falun Gong for the federal government, said he suspected the CBC was nervous about the Olympics.
"No doubt, the first line of attack on the CBC was to threaten its broadcast rights at the Beijing Olympics, although CBC management can hardly admit this now," Kilgour said.
"I give credit to the corporation for allowing the independent production on a vitally important issue to proceed. We'll all know (Tuesday night) whether they allowed the embassy or the consulate to pressure them into removing anything offensive from the production. As a Canadian, I very much hope not."
But Cruickshank said his only issues with the documentary, which aired once in late 2006 before he joined the CBC, were journalistic in nature once he took a closer look at it.
"What I was nervous about was the fact that it seemed to me in some cases we were treating allegations as truth and we didn't have the evidentiary basis to do that," he said.
"The Falun Gong - they want it all their way. They wanted it basically to be their show. Peter Rowe used an awful lot of Falun Gong footage, and just at a certain point we got uncomfortable with the degree to which we were basically putting their show on to television without there being a reflection about what was actually credible."
He was backed up by CBC reporters working in China and acclaimed documentarian Mark Starowicz, a CBC veteran who felt the original version of "Beyond the Red Wall" presented allegations as fact and needed to be toned down.
"Our guys are good," Cruickshank said of his team in Beijing. "They had seen an early version of the script and they were horrified by it - they said that what was being treated as truth in this show was not accepted by any credible organization."
Starowicz also weighed in, he said.
"Mark Starowicz saw it and he's had a lot of dealings with the Chinese and has always been tough-minded about it, and of course he's one of the great documentarians, and he just sat back and said: 'We can't let this happen.' It wasn't a matter of saying you can't make allegations, and we've certainly allowed the allegations to go forward, but you can't just treat them as fact."
In the end, Cruickshank said, Rowe's documentary remains a scathing indictment of the Chinese government, even after the cuts.
"It's a very brave documentary, it's a very harsh documentary, it charges the Chinese government of violations of both civil and human rights and pulls no punches in doing that."