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Lies and other stories: journalism and the right to know

By Guest blogger Karen Wirsig

Everybody lies.

Let’s call that Curt Petrovich’s motto. The CBC radio reporter gave a presentation about the muzzling of journalists at the Holding Power to Account conference, held last month in Winnipeg.

Petrovich’s meticulous reporting had uncovered a conspiracy cooked up by the ruling Manitoba Conservative Party to thwart the rival NDP in the 1995 provincial election by secretly convincing straw independent candidates to enter the race and split the vote. The Filmon Conservatives won the election.

Then-Premier Gary Filmon and his chief of staff both directly denied the allegations, which first surfaced just before the election, until Petrovich produced one of the straw candidates three years later. The reports led to an inquiry in which the presiding judge said, “in all my years on the Bench I have never encountered as many liars in one proceeding as I did during this inquiry.” Filmon went on to lose the following election.

If everyone lies, the journalist’s job is to figure out which lies the public has an interest in uncovering and what combination of the various versions of the story comes closest to the truth. Unravelling the lies of the powerful requires – in no particular order – curiosity, time, resources, persistence, patience, analytic skill, drudgery, supportive colleagues and nerves of steel.

L to R; Mary Agnes Welch, David Beers and Lise Lareau
L to R; Mary Agnes Welch, David Beers and Lise Lareau

And doing this job is what Edwy Plenel, co-founder of the six-year-old French investigative reporting site Mediapart, calls the journalist’s social responsibility in his 2013 essay “The right to know” [Le droit de savoir]. For citizens to be truly free and autonomous, Plenel argues, they need complete and accurate information about what is being done in their name.

But among the notable journalists who spoke at the Winnipeg conference – including Carl Bernstein, Linden McIntyre, Adrienne Arsenault, Alain Gravel, and Peter Mansbridge – there was anxiety about how this kind of work will continue as media organizations drop their commitment to it. Budget cuts at CBC/Radio-Canada are squeezing newsgathering: 130 jobs are being cut outside Quebec alone and the flagship French-language investigative program Enquête is expected to lose one-fifth of its staff. Newspaper reporter was on the most recent CareerCast list of the 10 most endangered jobs in the US as newspapers everywhere respond to declining print advertising and subscriptions. At the same time, governments in most of the world, including Canada, embrace a culture of secrecy that requires serious and sustained effort to undo.

News sites like Mediapart in France and The Tyee in Canada, largely funded by subscribers or readers and committed to public interest journalism, are signs of hope for the future. But as founding Tyee editor David Beers pointed out at the conference, these new media organizations can’t hold power to account by themselves. They are part of what he calls a journalistic ecosystem that must include mainstream and public news organizations that reach a mass audience.

But who stands up for the news organizations and journalism under strain? Too few of us. As CMG vice president Lise Lareau pointed out during a panel about the need for advocacy for journalism, “we’ve been finding out over the past couple of decades while journalism has been under an enormous transformation that no one is out there with a lifeline or even a modest defence of the industry as a whole.”

Lareau and Mary Agnes Welch, former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, made a plea to journalists, news organizations and journalism academics to speak up in defense of the craft, to focus more independent research on the media and to help the public better understand how journalists work and what their value is to democracy and peoples’ lives.“If land surveyors can have an ad on TV explaining the value of what they do, why can’t we,” Welch asked.

 Karen Wirsig is the organizer for the Canadian Media Guild

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