MEDIA WATCH

Responsibility and the press

GEORGE BAIN December 21 1992
MEDIA WATCH

Responsibility and the press

GEORGE BAIN December 21 1992

Responsibility and the press

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

On Nov.23, the Toronto Globe and Mail carried a story that began dramatically with Brian McKenna, no further introduction needed, remembering well the day he sat in a fat armchair in the office of his boss at the CBC, basking in his praise. The praise was for a documentary McKenna had done on the 1914-1918 war called The Killing Ground, and in particular for some of the techniques used in it. “Then and there,” according to the Globe’s reporter, Kirk Makin, McKenna “decided to pursue a similar project on the Second World War”— also, by now, well-known.

Makin’s story started on page 1 and turned to page 8 where it continued. It was only after the turn that the meaning of this inspirational encounter unfolded in all its rich poignancy. The boss was William Morgan, director of news and current affairs. It was the same William Morgan, now the CBC ombudsman, who found McKenna’s The Valour and the Horror substandard, for which CBC President Gérard Veilleux then apologized. Makin reported McKenna as saying that he believed all this was “a political operation.” The CBC badly needed $50 million. The corporation’s board of directors feared the government could not be persuaded to cough up the funds unless the storm of complaints about the series was stilled, and “they made a hard political decision to cut us adrift.”

An interesting scenario, but...

On Dec.7, the Globe and Mail ran a letter from William Morgan, in which he said that the meeting and the praise he was alleged to have given The Killing Ground didn’t happen. Morgan spoke of outrageous misrepresentations and falsifications and, although he did not attribute them, he did say that Makin wrote “no doubt in good faith on the basis of what he has been told.” He also said that at the time that The Killing Ground was being made, he was absorbed in getting a licence application for Newsworld approved and under way. The Killing Ground had been given the nod in the first instance by the vice-president of CBC English-

There is no real freedom of speech if the media do not provide an outlet for other viewpoints

language television at the time, Denis Harvey, who acknowledges that to have been the case. It was supervised subsequently by the head of the current affairs department, Darce Fardy, who similarly acknowledges his part. Both men are now retired. Morgan added that not only had he not seen the documentary at the time he was said to have praised it to McKenna, but that he still hasn’t seen it.

All this raises several questions about journalism practice. First, what is the reader to believe, having read, one day, a story that says one thing and, two weeks later, a letter from the person most affected by the story saying that no such thing occurred? Second, having carried such a story, containing what are alleged to be misrepresentations and falsifications, is a newspaper’s responsibility—to its readers, the disputants and itself—adequately discharged by the publication of a simple letter? Does not the contradicting letter deserve to be reported as news, with amplifying interviews on both sides of the argument and with others with some likely knowledge of the facts, in an effort to determine where the truth lies? Third, is the newspaper’s responsibility to do so not even greater when it itself has taken a strong editorial stand on the underlying issue, as the

Globe—and most newspapers—have done in the long controversy over The Valour and the Horror?

Kirk Makin’s view as a reporter is that he took the information gathered from an interview and then did what every reporter is supposed to do when it is evident that there is another side to be heard from—he went looking for the other side. He tried through Robert Pattillo, the CBC vice-president for communications, to arrange a talk with Morgan. Makin heard nothing. He takes the position that a reporter can only try, and that someone from whom rebuttal to an item of news is solicited at the time and not given, has small ground for complaint in a letter two weeks later. Morgan says the reporter might have tried harder. Not to denigrate Makin’s attempt, I found to my surprise—because it does not happen in many corporations—that Morgan answered his own phone.

The Valour and the Horror controversy ceased long ago to be an argument about history and became an argument about freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The question anyone not of the press might ask, looking at the performance of the media on this issue, is, “Where does your freedom of the press end and my freedom of speech begin?” On any large issue, there is no real freedom of speech if the media do not provide an outlet for other viewpoints more nearly equal the outlet they reserve for their own— and, on this issue, the media were virtually as one.

In the second of two raging editorials at the time that the CBC published the ombudsman’s report and issued an apology for the war series not having come up to standard, the Globe said, “Certainly the merits of The Valour and the Horror have been debated at length in the newspapers.” That was to say letters to the editor had been published. Of attempts to find if there was, perhaps, some substance in the complaints that were raised, there were none. The Globe in one of those editorials described the Senate subcommittee’s inquiry as an attempt to array the machinery of the state against a free press. It suggested that the CBC bowed to that sort of blackmail in accepting the ombudsman’s report and apologizing for the shortcomings itemized there.

It complemented that innuendo with the assertion that the CBC, a short time before the denouement, had sent an emissary crawling to the Senate subcommittee to ask what the CBC might do. What the CBC not only might do, but would do, had already been spelled out even before the subcommittee sat or the CBC ombudsman began his study. On May 11, the CBC chairman, Patrick Watson, wrote Barnett Danson, a former Liberal defence minister and one of thousands of veterans who found the series seriously faulty: “The CBC has undertaken to examine every allegation of historical inaccuracy, as well as the process by which such programs are monitored in the development phase. Should substantial historical inaccuracies be revealed we have undertaken to take substantial corrective measures.” Anyone in the media for inaccuracy?