MEDIA WATCH

Secret papers and the right to know

George Bain December 17 1984
MEDIA WATCH

Secret papers and the right to know

George Bain December 17 1984

Secret papers and the right to know

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

One hazard of teaching, which I do in journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, when I am not doing this and things like it, is that students ask questions, not all of which are easy. For instance, what does an old journalist, not wanting either to be prissy or to trample youthful ideals underfoot, say to a new journalist who asks: “What do you think of the newspaper that dipped into the finance minister’s notes and published excerpts from them? Was that right or wrong? ” The hard-nosed, straight-from-themovies answer to that would be: “Look, we’re j ournalists, right? Our j ob is to get the news and to print it. If politicians have information they don’t want to get out, they should look after it better.” That is not quite what I told the student but is essentially the way Murray Burt, managing editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, sees the case of Michael Wilson’s papers. Burt’s reporters, Frances Russell, a veteran political writer, and Cecil Rosner, saw the finance minister come to an informal press conference in the lobby of the Westin Hotel carrying two folders. He left without them. Careful to avoid any accusation of theft, Russell and Rosner left the folders where they were, the briefing notes partly showing. After Rosner had phoned their city editor, Russell provided a screen, ready to chat up any nosy passers-by, while Rosner dictated passages from the notes into a tape recorder. The notes, to assist the minister in financial talks with the province, had been prepared by, among others, Marshall (Mickey) Cohen, his deputy.

“I venture to say that they [the papers] didn’t move three inches from where they were,” managing editor Burt says. When the loss of the papers remained undiscovered by Wilson’s people nearly V-k hours later—Russell and Rosner had had lunch in the meantime —they passed word to a Wilson aide. Burt says that, in a busy hotel, the papers could have been discovered by anyone. He also says that callers on a CBC phone-in show on which he appeared overwhelmingly supported the newspaper.

None of this answers the student’s question, “Right or wrong?” Burt makes the further point that some of his media chums who have criticized the Free

Press for dipping into the finance minister’s briefing notes have themselves received cabinet documents in brown paper envelopes in the mail and have not hesitated to make them public. Numbers have; I have. In the aftermath of the Quebec crisis in October, 1970, I received a paper that disclosed prior consideration by a cabinet committee of possible use of the War Measures Act in the event of an apprehended insurrection, a decision represented at the time as having been taken only in the heat of circumstances and with some distaste. It seemed to me something the public was entitled to know about. On another occasion a bundle of materials turned up from a minister’s private files, including notes from an aide on certain things the minister should do if he intended to challenge for the leadership (he never did). Those papers had nothing to do with public policy, and I returned them to him.

Such experiences, which are fairly common among political reporters, make it difficult for media people to judge the actions of their peers without seeming to be hypocrites. What’s the difference between receiving something in the mail from an unknown source and sneaking a look at a minister’s private notes? A possible difference is that in the first case the source is unknown; there is no one to send the material back to and, in any event, the material is, at that point, in the public domain: there can be no knowing how widely it may have been mailed out.

But the Toronto Globe and Mail's rummaging through the garbage of a printing company seeking bits of the Ontario budget that the company was preparing was scarcely passive. I defended that in this column. But again the circumstances were different. The government had boasted that the budget process was secure; the newspaper was testing that claim. In addition, the material was clearly discarded; it was garbage. Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s notes were not. Neither was there any likelihood that they had been widely disseminated. This was a case of a known person, still in the hotel, capable of having been reached, who—unlike former Liberal finance minister Marc Lalonde, who himself flashed his budget to a TV camera—simply had left something behind. I told the student that the Free Press was wrong.