It has always been my innocent belief that it is the purpose of newspapers to publish news. Since government budgets are supposed to be secret until delivered, the leakage of budget information beforehand is news. Where that leaves me, in looking at the spate of letters berating the editor of The Globe and Mail for publishing carelessly disposed-of bits from the Ontario provincial treasurer’s then-undelivered budget, is half-believing that many Canadians consider the nature of news to be altered by the circumstances in which it is come by. Picking it out of garbage cans, Globe and Mail readers in their dozens have been declaring vehemently, is Not On. Witness this letter, typical of many: “A few politically motivated people are calling for Treasurer Frank Miller’s resignation. [The Globe and Mail, incidentally, was not.] I am calling for the firing of The Globe and Mail reporter who initiated the story and a public apology from the paper.”
If we accept that it is the business of newspapers to publish news and that it makes legitimate news if the provincial treasurer’s budget security isn’t what he intends or thinks it to be—certainly it seems to have come as news to Frank Miller that his wasn’t—what is reporter Robert Stephens to be fired for? For having found the news in a couple of garbage bags left outside the suburban Toronto plant where the budget was being printed? But if that is the offence, what we are being asked to accept is the proposition that news gathered in circumstances that are Not Nice—garbage bags, ugh, yucky!—is not news.
As for a public apology—to whom, and for what? Circumstances are imaginable—just—in which information in the hands of a reporter would be withheld voluntarily because publication might endanger national security. But that sort of thing is hardly commonplace; I have never found the nation’s fate trembling in my hands and don’t know anyone who has. Setting aside that sort of rare occurrence, it is not the business of newspapers to protect government secrets; the responsibility for keeping secrets secret belongs to the people who have the secrets. No part of it can be pushed off onto the newspapers, which weren’t asked to share it and would wisely refuse if they were.
Newspapers are not any sort of adjunct of government. They are not official gazettes existing to publish court notes and sanctioned accounts of events. Before The Globe and Mail started hearing from readers about the garbage bag caper, there were already people writing soulful letters to editors complaining about the media having been Not Nice to Finance Minister Marc Lalonde, who had been ass enough to wave his budget in front of the cameras, unmindful of the fact that cameras take pictures. Those letter writers were sucked into a misconception of the role of the media by Lalonde’s claim that the picture-taking was “contrary to the spirit of the occasion.” That was a fraud, designed to bind the picture people to the official purpose. What Lalonde’s remark implied was that the cameraman should consent to join in as a stooge, making publicity pictures for the department of finance and forget that he had come as a newsperson. But the cameras were there for news, and a finance minister playing flasher with his budget is irrefutably that.
Admittedly, I am not impartial about The Globe and Mail; I am a columnist for the paper and have had a long association with it. But it does seem to me, and long has, that we have a terrible tendency in this country to be nicey nicey about our news—much more so than people in the United States or Britain. The breakup of the prime minister’s bizarre marriage was treated with delicate circumspection, not because it had no bearing on his public career—it had; it reflected very much on his judgment—but because it was Not Nice to talk about it. The peculiar activities of the RCMP a few years ago, which the McDonald royal commission eventually inquired into with negligible consequences, brought bagsful of admonishing letters to newspapers that reported on it because to write bad things about a national institution was Not Nice. No Watergate could have been exposed here—the skulduggery and coverup over the misuse of the Security Service made a not-bad equivalent—because it would have been Not Nice.
True, it is Not Nice to go digging through garbage. But not to be curious enough to inquire if the public business is carried on as it is said to be carried on is worse than Not Nice; it is lousy journalism.
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