MEDIA WATCH

Harsh lessons from an inquiry

George Bain August 24 1987
MEDIA WATCH

Harsh lessons from an inquiry

George Bain August 24 1987

Harsh lessons from an inquiry

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

The occasional lamentations in the media about the costs of the public inquiry into allegations of conflict of interest against former industry minister Sinclair Stevens, and of the government’s assuming his legal bills, are odd. Hardly anyone can have expected that an inquiry could have been held at no cost. About Mr. Stevens’s bills, it makes a nice ethical question whether the media ought to be fostering the idea that someone they have been mainly responsible for placing in the dock ought to shoulder alone the costs of clearing his name. Given the unique vulnerability to personal attack of persons holding public office, the likeliest result of any policy of automatic abandonment if accused would be an enhanced rush of worthwhile people away from politics.

Here and there, there have been hand-wringing editorials and broadcast commentaries, but mostly what has been reflected is private opinion. A recent example—a letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail, published on Aug. 8—said in part: “Can the federal government justify spending that much [nearly $3 million for the inquiry, a further $300,000 for Stevens’s legal bills] on an inquiry that serves no useful purpose, except possibly to exonerate Mr. Stevens? I think it’s time to institute a policy to handle cases such as this and prevent a cabinet minister from having his name cleared at great expense to the taxpayers.”

The presumable intent of the letterwriter was not to say that ministers should be prevented from having their names cleared but that they should be left to their own resources in doing so. There is in fact a better way, or at least cheaper way, to perform such inquiries than by setting up a full-blown commission of inquiry under a judge— in this case Chief Justice William Parker of the High Court of Ontario. That is to use a parliamentary committee to weigh the evidence and report, preferably not just guilt or innocence, but the whole findable circumstances, including how, by whom and with what reliability the allegations were made. That would demand parliamentarians who were not so obsessed with scoring partisan points as to be incapable of making fair judgments.

The scene at one committee meeting

attended by Stevens was scarcely encouraging; as related on May 8, 1986, by William Casey of CBC TV, a “roughhouse mêlée” occurred. “Liberal John Nunziata tried to push his way through; another cabinet minister, André Bissonnette, elbowed his way in to block him; a fellow Liberal collared Nunziata to try to settle things down. Liberal Sheila Copps hurdled chairs to chase the minister down the hall. Outside, Nunziata ran after Bissonnette claiming the minister had assaulted him, and threatened criminal charges.” Somehow—witness the recent calm, evenhanded hearings on the Iran-contra affair—they do these things better in Washington.

But to look at the question only as one of a forum is to leap over a lot of important intermediate ground—as, for instance, the quality of the 146 allegations, mainly from the media, with

The point is that much of the reporting on Sinclair Stevens was bad— including making charges on no proof

elaborations from MPs. However, these MPs, in preliminary interviews with commission counsel, proved to have next to no original information. Consequently, there are on the record various journalists, who may have had no original information themselves, interviewing opposition MPs, who had none, and together producing damaging innuendo. For instance, an item on CKO on May 5 began: “It’s been confirmed now that [Stevens] personally let the [Hyundai automobile] company off the hook for $300 million. . . .” Liberal Lloyd Axworthy: “It seems to me that is an unacceptable betrayal of Canadian economic interests. And we really want to know how much it’s tied up with his own personal arrangements.” Interviewer: “What you’re suggesting is that there may be ... I don’t know, this is a pretty strong word . . . but some sort of kickback philosophy going on here?” Axworthy: “Well, we don’t know. . . .”

Fifty allegations related to a loan Stevens got from the Canadian subsidiary of the Hand Bank of Korea before he was a minister, the fact that the multifaceted Hyundai company had a

small financial stake in the Hand Bank and the terms on which Hyundai set up manufacturing in Canada. A Canadian Press report (Feb. 17, 1987) on the summing-up of commission counsel David Scott said, “He acknowledged the relationship between Hand Bank Canada and the Hyundai motor company was insufficient to establish that one could exert control over the other and said there was no evidence Stevens knew the link existed.” The supposed Korean Connection was one of the two pillars on which the case against Stevens originally was based; in effect, it now has been found not to have existed.

Also, the second original pillar was diminished in the summing-up, again as reported by CP: “Scott said commission lawyers also had concluded that there was no evidence Stevens bestowed preferential treatment on Magna [the car parts firm]. However, they said he was in conflict of interest for entertaining Magna’s bids for government aid while allegedly aware his wife had received a [$2.6-million] loan from a former officer of the firm.” Even while the crucial point there awaits Chief Justice Parker’s judgment—his report may be out next month—it is evident that if Stevens was aware of the loan, which he has denied, there can have been no worse than an appearance of a possible conflict of interest; nothing he was entrusted with as a minister was given away.

The point here is not to try to anticipate the commissioner’s report but to say that a lot of the reporting, read in extended chunks, was bad, including the making of charges on no proof (“The minister of industrial expansion is asking people who want to be on the short list for grants, contracts, whatever, to be nice and sympathetic to his wife’s business”—Ottawa CBC TV commentary); relaying, unquestioned, material from the House that would be libellous if not privileged; nearly total one-sidedness in the use of opposition MPs as commentators—and often, the least responsible of those; and more simple misstatements of fact than managing editors like to admit ever get by them. It is not so shining a journalistic record that media people can be confident that public anger at the high cost of name-clearing will not turn their way if Chief Justice Parker finds the affair to have been vastly overblown.