MEDIA WATCH

Fever in a climate of scandal

George Bain February 23 1987
MEDIA WATCH

Fever in a climate of scandal

George Bain February 23 1987

Fever in a climate of scandal

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

As truth has been said to be the first casualty in war, fairness—or balance—is the first in times of scandal. In the media, scandal affects judgment. Richard Gwyn made the point more generally in The Shape of Scandal. Speaking of scandals, current and past, he wrote that “specific content of even the most famous of scandals, once the gossip was separated from demonstrable evidence, was much less than the excitement of the moment suggested. . . .” The scandals he wrote about were those that fell on the government of Lester B. Pearson, one after another like a stick of bombs, between November, 1964, and July, 1965. The proposition that the quality of reporting deteriorates in a climate of scandal goes back with me to that time.

If anything, the specific content of the prime scandal then—the Rivard affair—was more substantial than in the Oerlikon affair so far. The lesser scandals were no more, or less, squalid. In the first, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary resigned, having acknowledged intervention in behalf of a drug smuggler, Lucien Rivard, who was in jail awaiting extradition and trial in the United States. Three aides to cabinet ministers were accused—not improperly, a subsequent inquiry found—of involvement, one of having offered a lawyer a $20,000 bribe not to oppose bail.

In an unrelated matter, a minister was forced to resign following accusations of having accepted a bribe. In another, a judge—a Liberal appointee— was accused of accepting gas company stock from which he profited. Between these and others, there was the furniture scandal. Documents held by a bank, creditor of a furniture company that figured in investigations of bankruptcy fraud, showed that two federal ministers had bought quantities of furniture with nothing down and no subsequent payment.

Whether, in unfevered times, such a private default would have been seen as compromising a minister’s independence is at least debatable; it was then scarcely questioned evidence of corruption. Any journalist in a career will write items that, on reflection, he would rather not have. I wrote an excessively moral column recalling president Dwight Eisenhower’s taking the resignation of his chief White House

aide, Sherman Adams, for having accepted the gift of a vicuña coat, and arguing that the prime minister should do the same. The bothersome question later was not whether the column was wrong in fact and the argument indefensible but whether, away from the context of scandal, it would have been written at all. The indicated answer was no.

The same question arises now—with, for example, the page 1 headline in the Jan. 23 Globe and Mail:“ PM reported to have land-deal proof.” The Canadian Press story below did not say the Prime Minister had proof of anything but that “an insider”—somewhere, unidentified-said the Prime Minister had evidence. Even in a headline, where a comprehensible thought must be conveyed within an inflexible number of units of type, translating “evidence” as “proof” is gross inaccuracy.

The rich innuendo of the heading ivas nowhere borne out What, then, justified the story except the climate of scandal?

The story itself went on to say flatly that the minister’s wife, “Anita Laflamme, received $400,000” and that “the exact amount Mr. Bissonnette received has yet to be determined . . . but the source said it is sizable.” In ordinary circumstances, especially if the persons involved were in private business, any news organization would recoil from such statements from an unnamed source—if not in fairness, then in fear of a libel action.

The same story, as originated by the CBC and The Toronto Star, was attributed to “sources,” who could be anyone. These stories were then translated by the opposition into accusations that the Prime Minister’s Office itself had leaked the information. In NDP Leader Ed Broadbent’s words, the Prime Minister himself was “having officials in his office systematically leak . . . slanderous information.” Whether such accusations are true or untrue, what is certain is that neither leader got his information from the PMO.

That leaves two possibilities—that the comments of the opposition leaders were wholly irresponsible, or that, assuming the PMO was the source, some

media people, playing a double game, relayed to the opposition information they were not prepared to give their readers and listeners, having got it off the record. That latter would—or ought—to raise interesting ethical questions in journalism seminars. The scandal syndrome is not unique to The Globe, but as the newspaper that supposedly sets the standard, in national affairs reporting, it is not unfairly judged. Other examples from the national edition include a staff story, datelined Montreal, Jan. 29, headed: “Bissonnette’s ethics come under scrutiny of investigation firm.” The rich innuendo of the heading was nowhere borne out. Last year someone unidentified asked a private investigator for a report on the then-minister, evidently for business purposes, unrelated to the Oerlikon affair. It found him “a competent and aggressive businessman.” What, then, justified the story except the climate of scandal?

On Jan. 27 a page 1 story headed “Bissonnette interviewed defence contract bidder” began, “At least one of the companies bidding for the $600million air-defence contract eventually won by Oerlikon Aerospace Inc. was interviewed by André Bissonnette as part of the tendering process, one of the bidders has told The Canadian Press.” It also reported the unnamed informant saying, to sinister effect, that Sinclair Stevens, Bissonnette and Robert Brown, deputy minister of industry, were “up to their eyeballs in it”—which is to say, assessing the socioeconomic benefits that might be derived from the various bids. As Stevens was industry minister, Bissonnette his junior and Brown the deputy, and recognizing that this aspect of the contracting came within the purview of the department, again, what was the story?

The Globe also has had great difficulty getting the contract values straight: “a $l-billion federal contract” (Jan. 19); “a $l-billion contract” and “a $600-million contract” (Jan. 22); “the company was awarded the $600-million contract” (Jan. 24); “it won a $l-billion federal defence contract” (Jan. 26); “bidding for the $600-million air-defence contract” and “the $l-billion low-level air-defence contract” (Jan. 27); and so on and so on. As a journalist friend said, you can bet the publisher wouldn’t stand still for figures with a 40-per-cent margin of error from the circulation department.