MEDIA WATCH

No talent for the obvious

The surest way of attracting maximum publicity to anything governmental is to leak it in a document purporting to be secret

GEORGE BAIN August 26 1991
MEDIA WATCH

No talent for the obvious

The surest way of attracting maximum publicity to anything governmental is to leak it in a document purporting to be secret

GEORGE BAIN August 26 1991

No talent for the obvious

MEDIA WATCH

The surest way of attracting maximum publicity to anything governmental is to leak it in a document purporting to be secret

GEORGE BAIN

It has been a fancy of mine for a long time that a government that wanted, for reasons of its own, to keep something quiet but also to be able to say later that it had not kept it secret could find an easy solution. It would brief its most soporific parliamentary secretary to make a speech, late in the day, in the dullest imaginable debate, when there would be 23 members of all parties present, reading newspapers and doing their correspondence. It would have him—I see it as a him— incorporate the matter in question far down in his text, well beyond the point at which even the most diligent (and insomniac) member of the opposition would have tuned out.

The material, whatever it was, would not need even to be strictly relevant to the subject of the debate; a speech containing no irrelevancy at all would be likely only to attract unwanted attention by being so different from the ordinary run. All that taken care of, there would be our private/public gem of information, safely implanted where there would be least risk of discovery—in the grey pages of Hansard. Certainly, no member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery would ever twig to it.

This fancy of mine is offered free, with my blessing, as a perhaps usable bit of business for anyone contemplating the yet-to-be-written great Canadian political novel. The author need only fill the obvious gap—why a government would want to hide something out of sight in plain sight. No great feat of imagination will be demanded for that. At a time when the surest way of attracting maximum publicity to anything governmental is to leak it in a document purporting to be secret—secret documents, however innocuous, having a news value that readily available documents, however consequential, have not—the simplest, most apparently open, blandest explanation will provide the best rationale. Leave it, then, that our fictional government said it took the course it did because they thought it was a good idea. Why complicate things?

You think this farfetched. OK. Think, then,

of the case of Glen Kealey, now regularly billed as an “anti-corruption crusader,” who paraded in front of the centre block of the Parliament Buildings, winter and summer, for three years, making loud verbal assaults on the Mulroney government and wearing a button saying “Impeach Mulroney.”

The Parliamentary Press Gallery has 360 members, give or take a few to allow for seasonal fluctuations. Not all of those are reporters. In a place that had no broadcast members of any kind until 1959, a round dozen television networks and stations now account for more members than all the newspapers in the country, and they have brought in some camera and sound people. There are also a few mid-level media executives who have some pretext for being there, presumably other than the access provided to the subsidized parliamentary restaurant. Still, most of those 360 continue to be news-gathering journalists, and some of them must leave their offices and television monitors at least occasionally to see the Parliament of Canada at work, firsthand. Accordingly, they will have passed Glen Kealey from time to time during his three-year watch. A question, then: How come it was such big news in mid-July when an Ottawa justice of the

peace decided that the courts should hear Kealey’s allegations of corruption against 13 Progressive Conservatives, including one cabinet minister and the Speaker of the Senate, and charges of conspiring to obstruct justice against three current and former senior officers of the RCMP?

What followed was not essentially the same one story everywhere, to update an already familiar subject, but a spate of them—enough to look like an admission of previous failure to expose fully the roots of Kealey’s daily demo. In just two days after the jp’s decision, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, the Toronto Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, the Calgary Herald and The Vancouver Sun, as a sample, carried among them 32 stories expressly on Kealey, with other related stories as well—on, for example, the Canadian dollar’s having suffered a jolt on foreign exchanges as a result of the (seemingly) just-disclosed scandal. “Investors bail out of dollar,” said the top line of a page 1 heading in The Globe and Mail’s “Report on Business.”

But in the three years, the same material that persuaded the JP that a prosecution was in order was available to any reporter who cared to ask. In fact, it wasn’t even necessary to ask. In addition to making himself easily identifiable and readily available on the sidewalk at the Parliament Buildings, Kealey also made it his policy to drop in at media places to leave printed material to keep the slavering newshounds up to date. Yet in the whole time, no coherent story was written about what he calls “the heart of the matter.” Reporter Stevie Cameron got to it a bit in The Globe and Mail, he said, but nobody tried to link the events in the saga in one piece. He is philosophical about it; clearly, he likes the media, regardless.

Still, the thing is that, with Kealey always ready to talk, and all those reporters, their noses permanently cocked for scandal, passing and repassing him on the Hill, anyone might have thought that within three years his allegations would have been found to be worthless, or they would have been found to be of sufficient substance to warrant a massive exposé. If the first was the conclusion, how then to explain the great rash of stories after the JP’s decision came out? And if the second was the conclusion, how come the great exposé never came?

This, remember, is the late Watergate Age, the age of investigative journalism when reporters, coat collars turned up, rush at the drop of a hint to meet Deep Throats in underground parking garages to lay bare the sins of the mighty. Hint? Here was a guy standing on the journalistically most intensely plowed ground in the country, yelling blue murder about graft and corruption, and, after three years, his story remains to be dissected well enough to say if it stands up or doesn’t. Yes, yes, getting proof is difficult, and there is always libel to be considered. However, it is also possible that what we have here is the Hansard syndrome—that what is available to everybody interests nobody. It’s not like receiving a brown envelope under the door containing material, however trivial, excitingly marked, “SECRET: Cabinet Eyes Only.”