MEDIA WATCH

The subtleties of inside information

A public aware that the budget was to be presented the next day proved less awestruck than the media themselves

GEORGE BAIN May 22 1989
MEDIA WATCH

The subtleties of inside information

A public aware that the budget was to be presented the next day proved less awestruck than the media themselves

GEORGE BAIN May 22 1989

The subtleties of inside information

MEDIA WATCH

A public aware that the budget was to be presented the next day proved less awestruck than the media themselves

GEORGE BAIN

What is the significant moral difference between someone using for private gain business information not generally available—it’s called insider trading; people go to jail for it— and any media organization receiving information it knows is guarded, knows why, and knows could not have been innocently obtained, and using it for gain? If the moral difference is not great, the coverage is.

William Bennett, British Columbia’s recent premier, was charged—and since acquitted— with his brother and a third man, with insider trading. As many as 11 television cameras and 40 miscellaneous journalists have waited outside a Vancouver courthouse to see those principals in a scandal (which is the key word here) come and go. But, when Doug Small, Ottawa bureau chief for Global Television news, broadcast bits from a budget précis given him by a person he chose not to know, that became a journalistic triumph. Ottawa Citizen columnist Marjorie Nichols wrote, “Small will go down in the annals of journalistic fame.” Linda Diebel in a Toronto Star news story called him “the reporter who blew the lid off Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s budget.” A page-width heading over reporter Susan Delacourt’s Toronto Globe and Mail story read, “How an anonymous telephone call led to crisis on Parliament Hill.”

It didn’t, really, partly because a public aware that the budget had been scheduled for weeks to be presented in the ordinary way the next day, anyway, proved less awestruck at the lid being blown off than media people themselves. Why Small should go down in the annals of journalistic fame on that basis remains elusive, seemingly even to him. He characterized his recent fame as having the shelf life of a banana. Against that background, the wealth of publicity accorded network and reporter by their brethren has been remarkable, especially as it was for doing something not dissimilar from what the same brethren would roll scandalized eyes at in other than journalistic cir-

cumstances. Budgets are secret until read so that no one may trade on insider knowledge. But the media organization that is slipped a budget document and publishes the contents trades on the same thing. (We are agreed, I trust, that the media are in the business of selling information and, particularly in the case of television, excitement.)

With all that, it is necessary to add that the instinct of most members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, present and past, including this one, probably would have been to do the same as Small—to grab the document and run. News is what is new. A major budget leak is not just new, it is Big New. It is the responsibility of a government to keep its secrets secret, not the media. The public interest is best served by making known everything that is knowable, with nothing held back. As a result, if information comes to a reporter without his having stolen it, or bribed or conspired with someone to commit a breach of trust to get it, then it’s fair game, blah, blah, blah.

Whether the instinct is sound in all circumstances is another matter. In many instances, the public interest makes excellent justification for the publication of, say, suppressed documents which reveal wrongdoing. The public

interest served by premature disclosure of information kept secret expressly in the public interest is less clear. Only a few sharpies who just might make a buck out of chaos in currency and equities markets the next morning would be better off for having it.

“I feel, as a reporter,” Small told me in an interview, “that the public interest is served if there has been a budget leak and there is information in the public domain, to get that in full public view as quickly as possible so the government can do something about it.”

True, Global’s disclosure caused the minister—with a view to putting speculation to rest—to deliver a budget speech of sorts to a news conference. (The Liberals and New Democrats had refused his request to return to the Commons that night to hear it.) But the same result could have been achieved by reporting—absolutely convincingly on televison by showing the document, prominently dated— that a leak had occurred.

The talk with Small about conflicting public/ media interests revolved around his protectiveness of his source. He will not reveal the location of the service station where the transaction occurred “in case the guy could be somehow implicated.” He has said that he did not look closely at the man because he preferred not to be able to identify him. He has been reported as saying that he gave back the covering envelope because it might carry fingerprints. He told me that he did not remember saying that, and could not say now why he had handed it back, but he did not deny it.

Small’s explanations are, first, that the source provided the material of a good story and, second, that he, Small, might “know better than the individual what kind of trouble he

could get into____” Those answers imply shaky

propositions—that a reporter incurs an obligation to someone who volunteers a good story, and that the obligation extends to assisting a felon escape justice, which comes perilously close to the definition of accessory after the fact, which carries a jail term.

That leads to the other side of the story: the government’s responsibility. The budget précis scarcely can not have been stolen; it wasn’t given away. However, the government’s initial outrage has wondrously abated, partly no doubt because the crisis dissipated nicely when the public failed to become excited, but perhaps also because it suspects negligence. For example, it is known, but has not been much publicized, that the escaped copy of the Budget in Brief was imperfect—the cover was upside down and back-to-front—so that the English side opened on the last page of the French text. That suggests a reject.

It is permissible to assume that, among tens of thousands printed, it was not the only one. If so, it is possible that whoever filched the one from some ill-guarded wastebin took, and distributed, a handful. Producing a well-researched account of what actually happened— before the government quietly lets the investigation die—would make a more considerable journalistic achievement, and do more for the public interest, than selected readings from a gift copy.