MEDIA WATCH

A whiff of hypocrisy at the NDP convention

The Journal staff’s ethical decision had already been taken when the microphones were planted on certain delegates

GEORGE BAIN January 1 1990
MEDIA WATCH

A whiff of hypocrisy at the NDP convention

The Journal staff’s ethical decision had already been taken when the microphones were planted on certain delegates

GEORGE BAIN January 1 1990

I can’t go on living a lie. By not having acknowledged the discreditable truth in recent weeks, I have allowed people to think that, during the airing of the documentary about the New Democratic Party’s leadership convention on CBC’s The Journal on Dec. 4, my keen nose for news brought me bolt upright in my chair. The truth of it is that somewhere fairly far into the program, but before it was over, I arose, announced “There’s nothing new in this that I need to know” and went out into the cold and snow to take Jake, my Airedale, for a walk. There is worse. I am not even sure whether Jake and I left before, after, or even—oh, the shame of it—during the colloquy between leadership candidates Simon de Jong and David Barrett that so set the media community on its ear.

The next day, I received two requests from broadcast people to share my thoughts as a media commentator on the propriety of the CBC persuading some participants in the NDP leadership race to wear concealed microphones and to say whether I thought the end (telling all to the great Canadian people) justified the means (turning several among the assembled brothers and sisters into Trojan horses).

Naturally, columnists being what they are, I am never unwilling to share my stock of shimmering insights. It was quite possible, anyway, that I had been present at the crucial moment. I had left only when I became tired of trying to make head or tail of a lot of unintelligible gibble-gabble, some of it perhaps picked up from the undisclosed mikes. Most embarrassing of all is that, while I was still watching, I was twice flummoxed to see and hear— or think I saw and heard—words coming from a guy whose lips didn’t seem to be forming them. It never crossed my mind that I might be receiving a message from an off-camera third party through a miniaturized transmitter secreted in the ostensible speaker’s Fruit of the Loom.

But I digress. True to the highest tradition of journalism, I did not allow our early departure—Jake’s and mine—to prevent me from commenting. The comments were in two parts. One, there is something indecent about the CBC’s using other people to extend its reach into conversations that an unaware third party would have every reason to think were private. And, two, de Jong’s supposed assurances to Barrett of later support, which was not forthcoming, might have reflected rather a confused state of mind in the heat of a convention—he certainly had seemed to be in a flap—than perfidiousness.

Mark Starowicz, executive producer of The Journal, has responded to criticism by saying that the words “bugged” and “hidden microphones” are unwarranted, and that “The Journal’s presence was not surreptitious—we were represented by full two-man crews with one carrying a large recorder and the other a sizable camera.” No doubt. But The Journal's presence was surreptitious in those microphones carried by three candidates and Robert White, of the Canadian Auto Workers, who agreed to do so. The purpose of those mikes was to get where those visible evidences of The Journal’s ears, at least, could not.

That eavesdropping is precisely what The Journal was doing was implicit in Starowicz’s own statement: “No one was more surprised than we were... when our unit realized that we had picked up the whole meeting with Mr. Barrett.” In other words, we put out these devices undercover, and looky, looky, looky what we brought in. That is eavesdropping, which is surreptitious.

Also, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy in saying that, the day after, the decision had to be taken whether to run the tape and that “we could see no journalistic or ethical justification for what would have amounted to suppressing a tape.” But the ethical decision had already been taken when the microphones were planted on the delegates. Having set out to record, for broadcast, conversations that third parties had no reason to know were not private, ethical and journalistic considerations scarcely can have needed to delay anyone very long.

There is also a whiff of hypocrisy in protesting that the devices used were not “bugs” but items the size of a large marble. Again, no doubt. But given the fact that many people at political conventions nowadays traipse around in all sorts of electronic gear—for the legitimate purpose of communicating with one another on a turbulent floor, for example— anything short of a microphone of the sort Foster Hewitt used in 1929, as big as a soup plate, would be unlikely to get a second glance.

There is nothing wrong with taping people, even by telephone, without their having been told. If I call someone, give my name, say what I am doing and for what publication, that person knows I am asking questions for the purpose of getting and publishing answers. In that case, taping the interview is only an enhanced form of note-taking. If I enjoyed total recall or could take notes fast enough, the same result would be obtained without outside help. Nor am I making unauthorized use of the interviewee’s voice and the identity that goes with it.

Starowicz says, “We misled absolutely no one” and that the material in question was “honorably acquired.” It can also be argued that the material was journalistically relevant and that it was in the interests of the Canadian public to air it, both of which fall within the prerogative of The Journal to decide. But if it didn’t mislead anyone, how far did the program go to lead anyone to know that some of their number were wired? And how were the stalking horses chosen? Candidates Simon de Jong, Ian Waddell and Steven Langdon, because they were likely to have to throw their support to other candidates. Okay. But why White, the labor leader? As a friend of the program, or as one who wasn’t a prime backer of Audrey McLaughlin (who emerged in the end as the party’s new leader)?

Honorably acquired, as distinct from dishonorably acquired, isn’t the question. It’s whether the method wasn’t a little underhanded—and whether a television network, using its considerable wiles to get politicians to do favors for it—news favors—doesn’t conjure up gamy scenarios, based on the quid pro quo, You be nice to us and we’ll be nice to you.