Below are draft notes for a speech by CBC News’ Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge. The speech was delivered on Friday, June 13, 2104 at the Holding Power to Account: Investigative Journalism, Democracy, and Human Rights conference in Winnipeg.
Holding Power to Account: Investigative Journalism, Democracy, and Human Rights
Peter Mansbridge – Keynote Speech
Riddell Hall, University of Winnipeg
I want to thank Cec Rosner for the kind introduction and for organizing today. When Cec asked me to speak, I was extremely flattered. As many of you know, Cec literally wrote the book about investigative journalism in Canada. His commitment, as this conference shows, is really quite something.
Looking around this room I am humbled.
There are journalists here today from all over; journalists who have risked everything, who have been in the darkest corners of the world, who have pushed when no one else pushed.
I am in awe of the work you do.
And I’m especially in awe of Carl Bernstein. As we all know, Carl’s work 40 years ago helped bring down a president.
I remember it well. I was working the overnight shifts here in Winnipeg writing the morning copy for the radio newsreaders. And I would wait with anticipation for the wires to bang out what the Washington Post was going to break the next morning. To be specific, what Carl and Bob Woodward were going to break.
It was a very special time in journalism. Few moments have duplicated it.
It didn’t just impact our industry… It transformed it.
Carl and Bob (and yes, their Hollywood doubles when the movie came out) made a lot of young people want to be journalists.
I got into this business in 1968 so I should probably thank Carl for his timing more than anything.
Because if Watergate had been just a few years earlier there would have been 200 people lined up for the job I got, all of them fresh out of journalism school.
And I doubt they’d have taken a chance on a baggage handler from Churchill.
But in 1968, in northern Manitoba, I was the only one willing to do the job at the only radio station in town.
The theme of this conference is holding power to account.
As we all know, that is a major part of our job as journalists: holding those in power to account.
I believe that. I think we all believe that.
Holding power to account can be achieved in many different ways – through investigative work, through consistently working a beat, through smart analysis, through digging deeper than what’s being presented on the surface; and through persistent interviewing. Asking the tough questions, often again and again.
When it comes to interviews, I take the long view. It hasn’t always been the most popular, but my goal is to get my subject on the record. To have them make statements that they will then have to account for. For me, as important as the question is, the answer is always paramount.
Yet, no matter what approach you take, there are always more questions than answers. There always have been I guess. And it is the role of the journalist to ask those questions. All of them.
I was just in France. In Normandy.
In fact a week ago this morning I was on the beaches. You know the ones I’m talking about: Juno, Gold, Sword, Omaha, Utah.
It’s been 70 years since D-day. 70 years since the sacrifice of thousands in the name of freedom.
When you walk those beaches and through the cemeteries in Normandy, and I know many of you have, you can’t help but think of those who died.
Those who are still with us, are old now. They remember their friends who weren’t so lucky.
The brave who died for what now seems an overworked phrase: they died for our freedom.
They died so we could enjoy the world we live in today.
That phrase has been repeated so many times, it’s almost become a cliché.
Perhaps it doesn’t even register with some of us. Not anymore.
But, you know, it’s true. They died for freedom and for openness in society.
One of the pillars of freedom and openness is a free and open media.
A media that doesn’t accept, but that pushes.
Pushes for freedom. Pushes for openness.
Little over a month ago I read a headline in one of the largest newspapers in North America.
Now this headline wouldn’t shock you if it was about China. Or North Korea. Or Iran. Or Cuba.
But it wasn’t in any of those countries. It was in this country.
It was in the Toronto Star, on April 27 and it was an investigative piece, one of the many that paper does so well.
The headline was this: “What Canadians aren’t allowed to know”
And below it, the sub headline … “Public information is cloaked in secrecy.”
Public information is cloaked in secrecy?
What kind of information was the Star talking about? Federal drug safety reviews, railway safety regulations, lists of objects being seized at Canada’s borders, spending of taxpayer money in Afghanistan.
The paper went on to make the case that there is a culture of secrecy in Canada’s public institutions.
A culture of secrecy.
Not China. Not North Korea.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but that is not what those guys died for on those beaches.
As journalists we exist to tell our audiences the basic information about the day. What happened; what’s good; what’s bad; what’s bizarre.
But we are also here for that headline. To break that culture of secrecy. That is the purpose of investigative journalism – to inform, to reveal, to expose, to explain.
Whether its offshore tax havens, temporary foreign workers, or government surveillance.
Our attempt to hold government to account is a cornerstone of what we do.
There have been some exceptional examples of that in this past year – I just mentioned a couple but there’s more:
The ongoing and troubling Rob Ford story led day in and day out by the Toronto Star; the twists and turns of the robocalls investigation led by Postmedia; the CBC showed that homegrown terrorism is resulting in major and deadly incidents overseas; and of course, CTV’s tireless work on the Duffy-Wright affair – without a doubt the most serious scandal to have hit the Harper government.
Our commitment, as journalists, is as strong as ever. Access to Information requests were up 27% last year compared to the previous one. We are doing our job.
But, are we at a crossroads in investigative journalism with headlines like this one from the Globe and Mail in April:
“CBC trims budget of Quebec investigative program.”
Trims? Hardly. Enquête could lose one-fifth of its staff in these latest rounds of cuts.
This is the program that first busted open corruption in Quebec politics and construction contracts.
Even witnesses in the ongoing Charbonneau Commission have been speaking out against these cuts to the CBC.
Without this program its very likely that everyone involved in that scandal would just be carrying on as if nothing was wrong.
And my company, my corporation – the CBC – the public broadcaster who has a mandated interest in investigative journalism, who boasts that we have more investigative journalists than any other media organization – this is where we’re cutting back?
We should be investing more in these programs, not cutting them.
When Cec asked me to speak, he said something that really stuck with me when I was thinking of what I wanted to say. He said: “it’s a measure of the seriousness of any news organization that, even when economic times get tough, they continue to invest in investigative work.”
I want to believe that this is still the case. That our organizations still believe in the fundamental need for this kind of work. But we all know there are tough choices being made.
It’s a credit to the English news division of the CBC that they’ve been able to somewhat limit cuts to our investigative programs.
But when I see a headline like that, I can’t help but worry.
I’m not the only one. We are all worried.
The Fifth Estate’s Linden MacIntyre is so concerned with the cuts to our programs and staff that he’s stepping aside to try to ease some of the pain.
His departure makes investigative reporting one of the more visible victims.
These are difficult times filled with difficult choices and difficult decisions.
And let’s be clear. It’s not just the CBC. All of news: television, radio, print, online, we’re all facing cuts.
Consider this list pulled from the headlines of the past year:
March 2013: “Toronto Star announces big cuts: 21 jobs lost in newsroom”
July: “Sun Media eliminates 360 jobs”
August: “Layoffs hit Bell Media”
November: “Postmedia to cut 200 jobs” “Rogers lays off 94 in media division”
January: “National Post, Globe and Mail announce layoffs”
April: “CBC cuts 657 jobs”
It’s death by a thousand cuts.
And we are bleeding.
Cutting resources to a news service will eventually hurt every branch of the organization. It impacts the effectiveness of each of us to do our work. Our people, whether in daily news, investigative work or features, don’t exist in a vacuum.
At the same time, we’re also facing a new breed of journalism.
The pressure to be faster, the pressure to be first – those aren’t new – but add that someone with a smart phone and a twitter account thinks they have the scoop of the century and you get a dangerous combination.
Essentially: no verification, no context, very few facts, and stories appearing on Facebook for everyone to rush to judgment before any real journalism has been done.
That is not investigative journalism.
But in today’s world there is a real danger of confusion.
It makes our job both harder, while at the same time, more important.
To be able to cut through the noise in the social media age.
An age where communications officers and PR pros often outstrip the number of journalists. And often have bigger budgets, much bigger.
An age where spin has become an even more sophisticated art.
And where time and money are constantly shrinking.
Investigative journalism is not easy. But it’s never been easy.
It’s like an archeological dig, sifting through layers and layers.
Layers of dirt. Not knowing what you’ll find. If you find anything.
Like the archeologist, the investigative journalist doesn’t take things at face value, goes deeper, spends hours, days, months on the painstaking details.
It can be thankless, lonely, and frustrating.
It can lead to more questions than answers.
Sometimes it can lead to nothing.
But sometimes – the pay-off can be huge.
So in these frustrating times, what do we do?
How do we work from here? in this new reality where we’re expected to do more with less.
Well this weekend is a good start.
Take for example the rest of this morning. Immediately after this introduction, you’ll have a chance to hear from two very different perspectives.
In one room: the team from Enquête. They’re living through this unfortunate “new reality” right now. They’re going to share their experiences and the dangers they face in uncovering high-level crime and corruption.
Down the hall, you’ll hear one of the rawest examples of why what we do is so important. David Milgaard spent 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He has some thoughts on our role in covering the wrongly convicted. I suggest we listen very carefully.
Do you think for a moment that any of these folks are going to give-up pursuing truth? That they’re going to stop asking tough questions? That they’ll give up fighting for human rights?
Not to be over-dramatic, but there are lives at stake in what we do.
So no matter how tough things get, we know we’re going to keep going.
Lastly, please consider this:
We’re in a competitive business. We know it. We like it.
Competing programs, competing networks, competing newspapers. We all want to get that story.
But while we’re here in Winnipeg, let’s challenge ourselves to put our inherently competitive nature aside for just a moment.
We are at a critical point.
What you do, what you believe in, is being threatened.
Not by our subjects, we’ve battled and bested them time and again, but in too many cases by our own organizations.
By that pressure to keep up with a 24-hour news cycle.
By resources being pulled back.
By growing expectations to feed multiple platforms.
And by stories and assignments being dictated by clicks rather than substance.
Given everything we’re up against, it may be the fight of our lives to make sure that we continue to be able to do this work.
To make sure our viewers, our listeners, our readers do know what “they’re not allowed to know”.
This fight isn’t about making our jobs easier.
It’s about the fundamental rights that those guys were willing to die for 70 years ago.
That people all over the world are still willing to die for.
The idea that journalism is under threat is a much sadder event for our society than it is for you and me.
It hurts our viewers, listeners, and readers – it hurts them — much more than it hurts us.
This conference is a time for us to come together.
What’s clear in the challenges that we face is that we need to support one another in what we do.
Which is what makes this weekend pretty special.
Over the next three days you are going to hear from some of the best in the business from around the world.
You’ll hear stories that inspire you, stories that make you cringe, and yup, stories you wish you’d found.
You’ll hopefully find friendship in a field that can, at times, be quite isolating.
Take it all in.
Soak up as much information as you can.
Learn as many lessons as possible.
Make a connection with someone new.
And celebrate your achievements.
Because you should be proud of the work you do.
Investigative journalism has toppled governments, it’s infiltrated and exposed organized crime and exonerated the wrongly convicted. It has held institutions of power to account. It is a cornerstone of our society and it’s vital to the strength of our democracy.
But you all know that. That’s why you’re here. It’s why you do what you do.
Investigative journalism is an art. It takes skill, perseverance, smarts and courage.
What we do, what you do, matters. It matters to Canadians; it matters to our democracy; it mattered to those men and women 70 years ago.
They had the courage to fight for the ideals we live by.
For a free and open society.
We must have the courage to honour that.
We must have the courage to keep pushing.
And you know what?
I like to believe that courage is contagious.
Enjoy the weekend.