When something smells rotten

Charles Gordon March 7 1988

When something smells rotten

Charles Gordon March 7 1988

When something smells rotten


Charles Gordon

By the time the Conservatives take us to the polls we may have forgotten what all the scandals were about. But we will remember that there were scandals. The expression “scandal-plagued” will stick in our minds.

On our way to the polls we will pass through streets filled with the cry of scandal. The daily papers and the nightly news will talk of scandal, the politicians will talk of scandal, and the daily papers and the nightly news will talk of the politicians.

The Liberals had all that scandal in the 1970s. We remember that, although we may be a bit fuzzy on some of the details. Now it is the Conservatives’ turn. Since it will be all around us in the next election campaign we had better get a firm grasp on it. So, quick: in 25 words or less, what was the Sinclair Stevens affair about? And what about Marcel Masse; what did he do, exactly?

It does not lend itself to snappy summarizing. Unlike British scandals, which involve sex and Soviet espionage, and American scandals, which involve sex and cheating on exams, Canadian scandals involve only money— and only in moderate amounts. To make matters worse, it is not always clear where the money came from and who got it. But it’s scandal, and it will be on the agenda anyway. So we had better understand how it starts.

Somebody writes or phones a newspaper saying the minister of grapes, buses and landlocked salmon is corrupt as hell. The informant offers proof.

At the newspaper office, it sounds pretty good. The minister is taking huge payoffs from a fish food tycoon and doing favors in return. The lawyers are alerted. A story that will blow the town wide open is on the way. Everything is fine until the proof arrives.

The proof is 212 pieces of paper. The reporters cannot read the pieces of paper very well. The documents don’t appear to show that a fish food tycoon paid off the minister to do favors. Instead they seem to indicate that someone the reporters never heard of once owned shares in a corporation the reporters never heard of either.

As a story that will blow the town wide open, it is not going too well so far. The reporters ask some questions

and a couple of weeks later come up with the information that the man they never heard of is the brother-inlaw of the minister’s wife. No, wait a minute. The minister’s former wife, because the minister and his wife separated years ago.

And the company is . . . hold it, the company might be owned by a company that does business with another company that does business with a government department. Not the minister’s department, exactly, but the department he used to be minister of before he was minister of this one.

The reporters feel they are getting close to nailing down the story. They can sense that the minister is in it up to his neck, but all they can prove so far is that the minister’s former wife’s brother-in-law owns stock in a company that does business with another company that does business with a de-

The reporters sense the minister is in deep—but all they can prove is that his former wife's brotherin-law owns some stock

partment that the minister is no longer responsible for but once was.

As the weeks roll by, the reporters become so obsessed with the minute details of corporate interconnectedness that they can no longer speak an ordinary sentence. A meeting is arranged. The reporters tell their editors what the story is about. The editors don’t understand a single word. The reporters are now so deeply immersed in the details of the story that they can’t understand why the editors can’t understand. The lawyer tries to explain. The editors understand even less. They tell the reporters to go away and simplify the story.

The reporters come back with a simplified version. The lawyers say it can’t be printed that way. The lawyers show how the story should be worded if it is to avoid libelling anybody. Now the reporters don’t understand their story.

When the story is finally printed, the headline does not say that the minister of grapes, buses and landlocked salmon took huge amounts of money from a fish food tycoon. It does not say that the minister did favors for his friends.

It says the minister is “linked” to a corporation with ties to the fish food sector. The story itself carries a copyright line, which indicates that it is important. However, nobody can understand it. This is because the key portions, the sections most damaging to the minister, have been written by the newspaper’s lawyers rather than the newspaper’s reporters

Although nobody understands it, the story causes a stir in Parliament. Opposition members rise to demand the minister’s resignation, “in light of these serious allegations.” The scandal has moved into Phase 2. The story is no longer about the allegations; it is about the minister’s resignation.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone can understand the story. In journalism, every story eventually becomes a reaction story and every political scandal becomes a “will-the-minister-resign?” story. The facts that brought about the controversy are quickly forgotten— which is just as well, since not everybody is clear on what they are. If anybody needs to be reminded, the newspaper accounts always include, well down in the story, a paragraph or two of the stuff the lawyers wrote.

The scandal continues. It gets a name: Fish Foodgate. The opposition continues to demand the minister’s resignation. The minister continues to refuse to resign. The Prime Minister defends the minister. The opposition cranks out the Watergate terminology. What did the Prime Minister know, and when did he know it?

The Prime Minister is accused of covering up. He is accused of stonewalling. Figurative smoking guns are waved in the House of Commons. It always happens, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power. The more the scandal dominates the headlines, the more people forget what the scandal is about.

By the time the politicians hit the hustings, all those events the reporters worked so hard to make sense of, and the lawyers worked so hard to make printable, will have been reduced to a series of impressions in the voter’s mind. The impressions are called “Fish Foodgate” and “scandal-plagued government.” By the time the election is called, no one remembers whether the minister resigned or not. And a year later everyone will have forgotten his name.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.