08 May 2005

By the gallon or the shovel-full?

There's an old saying that editors always get the last word and they buy their ink by the gallon.

The editorial in this week's Independent proves the point to a tee.

"Chief concern" takes issue with Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Richard Deering's treatment of the Indy reporter who published a story recently on an external investigation the chief ordered. The Indy's sources were reputed to be within the ranks of the RNC itself.

As Ronalda Nakonechny related the story on CBC Radio, both she and Indy reporter Alisha Morrissey had requested interviews with Deering only to find themselves both in the same interview.

The Indy editorial disputes this version saying: "[t]he next week Chief Deering called the reporter to his office." Personally, and until there is some substantive evidence to back it up, I'll buy the CBC version since it doesn't come laden with the implication of the Indy's account.

After recounting a portion of the interview, in which Deering chastised the Indy report, there's this opinion from the Indy anonymous editorialist: "The chief's behaviour was nothing short of unprofessional."

In a word: nonsense.

The chief took the opportunity in an interview to make clear his concerns about the use of anonymous informants breaching their oath of confidentiality by leaking information - inaccurate information at that - to reporters. He didn't sugar-coat his words nor could anyone doubt his seriousness from the forcefulness of his tone. CBC Radio played the same sections of the interview the Indy subsequently printed.

His tone and his comments reflected the strength of his views but it is a long way from bullying.

Reporting is a tough business. When a reporter puts a story into print based on anonymous sources - at least anonymous to the public - then he or she can expect to hear a few strong comments from the people being talked about. Suck it up and move on.

Chief Deering was well within his rights to speak directly to the reporter who wrote the first story and he is perfectly within his right - and professional responsibility - to defend the integrity of the police service and emphasize the need for confidentiality.

The editorial repeats a quote from RNC Association president Tim Buckle saying that officers are concerned that if there was "another Mount Cashel" they'd have no one to turn to if the chief were "to quash the investigation". That's a powerful accusation by Buckle and if the Indy wants to take up his cudgels, they'd better present something much better than they have so far in the way of evidence.

The major problem in the Indy stories and in the editorial is that it misses the point:

There is no evidence that Chief Deering ordered the prostitution investigation to be quashed. An external investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not recommend laying charges, as the Indy editorial notes. Therefore, Buckle's comments are totally without foundation. There simply isn't any proof to back them up.


The major problem with the Indy series, as noted here last week, is that their source or sources turned out to be, in a word: wrong. Dead wrong actually, as confirmed by the Ontario Provincial Police who are conducting external investigations into two matters as requested by Chief Deering.

Now we have a second wrong in the Indy is launching an attack on Deering's professionalism rather than deal with the point he raised.

Newspapers who traffick in leaked confidential information from police sources - information that turns out to be wrong - undermine the administration of justice. The public must be assured that information in police hands will not become public without due process. Brown envelopes and meetings in doughnut shops or downtown parking lots just don't cut the standard of due process.

If anyone had presented evidence to the Indy that demonstrated Deering had quashed investigations, then the editorial would have a point and one that would need to be answered by the ministry of justice not the chief of police.

No evidence.

No point.

No story.

Reporters are often faced with an ethical question on the use of confidential information that may fall into their laps. Editors have to apply a high standard to the use of such information, often withholding material they'd like to print simply because it doesn't meet the extremely high standards needed to avoid the problem so evident in the Morrissey reporting.

If standards aren't high, then stories sometimes wind up being more innuendo than information. There is plenty of innuendo on page one of this week's Indy. Something about Ross Reid of the Premier's Office and Derick Butler of the fish processor's group having once worked together on Parliament Hill. That is followed by paragraphs of people denying things that never happened. Sheer crap, but it made page one based solely on its high "National Enquirer" score.

Then there were the stories on NAPE, published shortly after Ryan Cleary took over as managing editor of The Independent. The background information came literally from a brown envelope someone within NAPE figuratively tossed over the newspaper's transom. No one at the Indy ever questioned the motives and context of the leaker, even though NAPE was in a labour dispute at the time. The Indy interpretation of the material just coincidentally happened to match government's need to discredit the union.

But here's the big point: there was no proof on any wrong-doing, yet the stories were laced with veiled suggestions of nefarious deeds. One story in particular focused on a subsidiary of NAPE that the Indy story seemed to suggest might be a slush fund of some kind. In fact, the company was the mechanism by which NAPE owned the building in which they were housed and kept the liability for it separate from the union's main business. It's a simple practice. Ask Danny Williams or Brian Dobbin about it.

When anyone receives leaked confidential information one must look both at the information itself and the source. Leakers aren't always do-gooders protecting the public. They may have other agendas of their own. That's why most editors usually apply a fairly high standard - much higher than the usual high standards - before running a story from leaked information.

Until the Indy gets evidence in the prostitution/quashing story, all we have here is apparently a case of an editor proving once more that he buys his ink by the gallon and will try to get the last word.

Innuendo seems to be once again doled out by the shovel full, but that isn't proof either.

"Unprofessional" is a word people should throw around carefully. Sometimes it might plop into a vat of the dark printing liquid and splash onto the one who threw it in the first place.