MEDIA WATCH

The public’s right to know

George Bain May 23 1988
MEDIA WATCH

The public’s right to know

George Bain May 23 1988

The public’s right to know

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

The suppression of almost anything that we, the media, think we have a right to see is subject to being denounced as censorship. Aspects of the law that give us pausesuch as the requirement in the law of defamation that to have access to the defence of truth a defendant must be prepared to prove truth—are said to inhibit investigative journalism and to constitute a sort of legal intimidation. In politics, anything but full and immediate disclosure of information relative to any matter of current excitement is susceptible to being called a coverup, and almost any meeting to discuss public business that is not open to the media is likely to be described heavily as “a secret meeting.” Naturally, all this zeal for public openness is represented as springing from no selfinterested motive but to be entirely in defence of “the public’s right to know.” But what becomes of this asserted right of the public to know if the media back off from covering something they previously have declared to be vital news or subordinate their ordinary criteria of news judgment to executive decision to report less and to present it in ways to attract less attention—not usually media objectives? The first trial of Ernst Zundel on the charge of publishing news he knew to be false was covered nearly everywhere, mostly to excess. The second trial, which ended last week in a second conviction and a sentence of nine months in jail—the first was negated on appeal—got so little coverage that Zundel, who crowed over the earlier publicity, denounced the media before the trial was over for having “acted with the utmost of cowardice and lack of morality.”

No tears are to be wasted on Ernst Zundel, who has adopted as his (so far as we know) self-appointed mission to persuade the world that the mass killing of Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War was a hoax. But the second trial was not simply a rerun of the first, and the changed performance of the media-going from extreme overcoverage to very-nearly proclaimed uninterest— contains faint echoes of James Thurber’s fable of the reformed bear whose boisterous good spirits when sober became as frightening to his family as his crashing into the furniture when drunk. Thurber’s moral was, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.”

Putting aside for the moment the reasons for the media’s having leaned so far over backward, let’s look at some examples. The CBC’s main news program, The National, did not cover the second trial until the verdict, nor did it have anyone regularly monitoring the proceedings. How, then, could it know if a development occurred that warranted coverage? “That’s what we have wire services for,” John Owen, chief news editor for CBC TV, told me. But the wire service the Canadian media mainly rely on, The Canadian Press, was not itself covering the trial, except, according to James Poling, the managing news editor, to send someone to the court “when we figure there is going to be something of importance or unusual interest.” When The Ottawa Citizen wanted daily coverage, managing editor Scott Honeyman had to arrange with CP to relay, at extra cost, stories from

The Toronto Star, the only paper that ran daily staff stories. (Even in the Star, daily coverage was to a prescribed measure, on the barrens of page 2 until, for a mechanical reason, a change to page 4 became necessary, and under a scarcely attention-grabbing daily tag “The Zundel trial.” Maclean's carried two stories, one explaining the background, the other on the lack of interest shown by the media.

Neither the Star nor the Toronto Globe and Mail (which monitored the trial continuously but reported it only on an if-news basis), until the verdict, felt compelled to put the story on page 1, not even when the presiding judge delivered an unquestionably newsworthy decision, important to the trial, at the very beginning. In a late roundup of the trial, beginning with Zundel’s rant against the media, Mike Trickey, Toronto correspondent of Southam News, reported in the Citizen on April 30—the trial began on January 18— that: “The first big difference [between the two trials] came the day after the jury was selected, when district court Judge Ron Thomas . . . told the jury the mass extermination of Jews during

the war was historical fact and didn’t have to be proved by the Crown.”

Whether through inattention or not, I had not previously seen that in the several newspapers I take or heard it on any of the broadcast media I regularly listen to—and thought it was news I should have had. (Although the Globe carried it in its metropolitan edition, the story did not carry through to my national edition.) But obviously the terms had been radically altered between trials 1 and 2: because Zundel was charged with spreading false news, the declaration by the judge that the Holocaust was fact, not needing to be proved, relieved the Crown of a significant burden. The Crown would still need to prove that Zundel knew that the news he was spreading was false—proving knowledge is never easy—but it did not need to worry anymore about the news itself. The fact was established and, as a result, Zundel’s allegation of a hoax was false.

Several reasons are advanced for the dramatically different second approach of the media to the trial of this obscure publisher for publishing an obscure British writer’s pamphlet— Did Six Million Really Die?—about which 99 per cent of Canadians would never have heard but for the charge and first trial. One is that a second trial is a second trial—old ground. (However, essentially the same argument in different form—who is Ernst Zundel and who cares what he says?— also could have been used to justify restrained coverage of the first.) Another reason, offered by both Geoffrey Stevens, managing editor of the Globe, and CBC’s Owen is, essentially, repentance, or—Stevens’s words: “My feeling on the first trial, in retrospect, is that we probably overcovered it.”

What is curious, nevertheless, is the quickness and near-unanimity with which media managers insist that no representations to them, no feeling of pressure, affected their editorial decisions on how to play—or play down— the second Zundel trial. Curiously, only Ian Urquhart of the Star, the newspaper that (though “judiciously,” as he puts it) covered the second trial throughout, acknowledged that he received representations from the Jewish community about the publicizing of Zundel’s hateful views. The editors also dismissed questions of their having consulted among themselves about coverage. All of which is as may be.

The second trial got so little coverage that Zundel denounced the media for having acted with the utmost of cowardice’