MEDIA WATCH

A sermonette on the practice of journalism

Even precautions, when taken, do not always keep misinformation from turning up, unchallenged, in papers and magazines

GEORGE BAIN September 23 1991
MEDIA WATCH

A sermonette on the practice of journalism

Even precautions, when taken, do not always keep misinformation from turning up, unchallenged, in papers and magazines

GEORGE BAIN September 23 1991

A sermonette on the practice of journalism

MEDIA WATCH

Even precautions, when taken, do not always keep misinformation from turning up, unchallenged, in papers and magazines

GEORGE BAIN

Media people to some extent are at the mercy of their sources. Someone newsworthy says something and the reporter passes it on in good faith. What is supposed to happen next, at least in the print media, is that an editor, coming across something mildly disturbing, exclaims, “That can’t be right!” and asks the reporter to inquire further, or marks a questionable passage for a fact checker to look into, or both. Even such precautions, when taken, do not always keep misinformation from turning up, unchallenged, in newspapers and magazines, or books even, as anyone who reads at all knows. Things are even trickier in broadcasting, where an interviewer may not be quick enough, or have the necessary facts at hand, to argue the point with an interviewee who has just come out with something that carries a distinct whiff of humbug. So off it goes, out upon the vagrant air, untouched.

Sometimes, in either medium, but more often in print, a discerning news consumer writes in to say that the reporter and/or editor have been led up the garden path, duped; the late Eugene Forsey was a great hand at keeping members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery on their toes with pithy letters to the editor. But most often what happens is that nothing happens—except that the innocent reader, viewer or listener is left to swallow as fact what may be quite far from the truth. That is not what the business of journalism is supposed to be about.

What gives rise to this homely sermonette is the evident determination of Daryl Bean, president of the striking Public Service Alliance of Canada, to impress on the public mind the government’s wicked discrimination, taking from the poor (i.e., his ragged troops) and giving to the rich (i.e., the heads of Crown corporations and, worse, itself). Not once, but twice, in an interview with Barbara Frum on CBC’s The Journal on the night of the first full day of the strike, he spoke about fairness as an issue. “We are trying,” he said on the first occasion, “to get the message out there to Canadians that we are being treated unfairly because Mr. Loiselle [Gilles Loiselle, president of the Treasury Board, who was Frum’s next guest] managed to get himself an increase this year, managers [in the public service] got their increase, and Crown corporation heads who make up to $300,000 a year got a 4.2-per-cent increase the day before the budget.” Frum did not follow up to ask what was Bean’s source or to question his accuracy.

A few days earlier, a Canadian Press report said, halfway down the piece: “The federal government is demanding the union accept a plan which would freeze public-sector salaries this year and limit increases to three per cent in 1992 and again in 1993.” A quotation from Bean followed: “It isn’t fair that the Prime Minister and this cabinet give themselves a

3.78per-cent increase. And it isn’t fair that they give Crown corporation heads—who make $100,000 to $300,000 a year—a 4.2per-cent increase.” If the reporter followed that up, neither questions asked nor answers given got into the story.

Well, now. For a start, “the Prime Minister and this cabinet” did not give themselves a

3.78per-cent increase, or any other amount of increase, this year or in any recent year. For 15 years, salary increases, not just for the Prime Minister and cabinet, but for all members of Parliament, have been dealt with according to a formula prescribed in Section 55 of the Parliament of Canada Act. The formula was enacted precisely to free MPS of the embarrassment of having to “give themselves increases.” Previously, pay raises were voted at irregular intervals, and the revision routinely attracted sour comment because the percentage sometimes seemed high—as it necessarily would if several lean years were to be recouped, even in part.

The more important point, which Bean scarcely could be unaware of, is that different sorts of years—calendar, fiscal and contract— were involved in what he was talking about. To speak of “this year,” then, was imprecise and, as Bean used it, masked the fact that what he implied was bunk. The last increase members of Parliament and the cabinet got was, right enough, 3.78 per cent, but that increase overlapped with a period in which the increases among PSAC members were about four per cent, not zero. Bean, in effect, was looking two ways at once—back to what MPs had received before, and forward to the freeze, the zero increase the government wants its employees to accept for the one year.

The formula set out in the Parliament of Canada Act stipulates that any annual increase for MPS shall be the lesser of either (a) the increase in a wage index published by Statistics Canada, minus one per cent, or (b) the increase in the consumer price index, minus one per cent. Therefore, if inflation increases faster than wages, they get the wage settlement rate increase minus one, but if wages go up faster than inflation, they get the inflation rate minus one. It would be interesting to hear Bean—and the postal workers, too—on that as a legislated regular formula for themselves. It would save the country a lot of bother.

On budget night, then-Finance Minister Michael Wilson set out, along with the intention to cap public-service wages, the assurance that the unionized employees wouldn’t suffer alone. His successor at Finance, Don Mazankowski, later introduced a bill, C-20, which describes explicitly how the salaries of the Prime Minister, cabinet and MPs at large would fare in the next three years. In that period, under the proposed legislation, the existing wage formula would be superseded by another formula in which, according to the last budget, they would get no more than “the average of negotiated settlements in the public service”—which would mean no more than zero, three and three per cent. Also in his Feb. 26 budget, Wilson said that the executive category in the public service and heads of Crown corporations would be similarly restricted.

Maybe it is time for the media, ever militant in guardianship of the public interest and aggressive in the pursuit of the truth in government, to consider extending the same standards to increasingly influential interest groups, which constitute themselves as a virtual extraparliamentary opposition, while pressing demands of their own which may have little, or nothing, to do with the larger public interest.