It has been an enterprise with mixed results. As a journalist who can recognize an SOS no matter how well it is disguised, I have answered many calls for help over the years.
This may come as a surprise to those who — in these Trumpian days of lies and madness in high office — revile reporters and the entire news industry, but it’s true nonetheless: Journalists remain the Hail Mary option for a lot of ordinary people in trouble. After the doomed court case, the feckless appeal, the dubious letter to the MP, the scribbler is often the last resort of the hopeless.
Too-frequent failure has made me wary of promising too much when these calls come in. Where I used to say, “I will help you,” I now say, “I will do what I can.” In all too many cases, what I can do is nothing at all — unless you count the solace offered by one human being listening to another in distress.
But I have also seen proof that the truth, like a high tide, lifts all boats — enough proof to still believe in this business as passionately as I did when I began.
I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to write a book about Donald Marshall Jr. that helped the then 29-year-old Mi’kmaq get a measure of justice and compensation after spending 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. We know he was innocent because the real killer was tried and convicted.
I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to help the boys of Mount Cashel to a measure of justice and compensation after years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers, a lay order of the Roman Catholic Church entrusted with their care.
It would be easy to conclude that righting an egregious injustice like Mount Cashel — called the ‘story of the decade’ by the CBC — would have been a simple matter once the facts were known. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What made the Mount Cashel scandal a tragedy was not that public officials in Newfoundland were ignorant of it. It was a tragedy because they did know — had known for fifteen years — and did nothing, for the usual reasons: self-interest and a misbegotten belief that protecting foundational institutions was more important than standing up for a few unwanted children.
Since burying the story involved the active connivance of the Catholic Church, Newfoundland’s Justice Department and Department of Social Services, as well as the management of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, I had plenty of detractors when I began revealing what had happened.
I still remember the litany of abuse from a desperate establishment out to escape responsibility for abandoning the boys to their orphanage hell.
I was told I was an anti-Catholic bigot out to disgrace the Church, that I’d concocted the whole thing to sell newspapers, that I was against the government of the day and in league with the Opposition. Worst of all, I was told that the boys were professional victims and liars out to collect a big payday at the expense of their former teachers, against whom they allegedly held a grudge.
I found out back then that when a journalist begins telling painful truths about powerful people, it can be risky business. It is the dark side of the media moon few know about.
If you write a book, the author must indemnify the publisher one hundred per cent on the facts. Get it wrong and you are ruined. If you publish a newspaper article, the laws of slander and libel apply — especially if the allegations you are making are criminal. Stumble on the facts and you fall on your face. Publishing in Canada is a little like Russian roulette, with one key difference: There are fewer empty chambers in the revolver’s cylinder.
And if you do find yourself in court, there’s always a chance you will go to jail for protecting a source. The late John Sopinka, ex-of the Supreme Court of Canada, told me I would be in the Metro West detention centre by 5 p.m. on the day that I testified at the Parker Royal Commission — a commission he accused me of causing.
Sopinka wanted me to reveal who had told me about a $2.1 million, company-saving, interest-free loan to Sinclair Stevens that led to Stevens’ resignation from the Mulroney cabinet. I refused. Judge William Parker turned out to be a newspaper man. I got to sleep in my own bed that night after all.
So what does it take to work on stories that the powers-that-be aren’t thrilled about seeing in print? More than you might think.
It takes an invisible team coming together that the public never sees. It takes a reporter, or a team of reporters. It takes astute researchers. It takes relentless, meticulous editors. It takes lawyers poring over every word for legal pitfalls. And it takes publishers and editors-in-chief willing first to pay for it all, and then to risk the farm to publish it. Why? Because they believe in the motive, method and merit of what their teams produce in the public interest.
All of this is completely missing in the mindless judgments made against the the so-called “legacy” media by people who apparently lust after the certainty offered by dictators. A recent poll by Survey Monkey found that 89 per cent of Republicans believe Donald Trump’s version of “the truth” over the reporting done by The New York Times and The Washington Post, which they see as “fake”.
These dipstick Republicans without a clue of how the real world of media works — they’re the fraudsters. These are not people who simply believe Trump is truthful, or that The New York Times publishes all the lies that are fit to print. These are people who no longer know what truth is — or worse, don’t care to know.
Stricken with democracy fatigue — or just so dumbed-down that watching Jeopardy is a major challenge — they have given up the struggle to know. They think it is “unpatriotic” to ask questions of their mendacious president — as Trump’s Liar Barbie, Kellyanne Conway, recently argued.
They don’t care if presidential briefings are shut down or conducted in the dark. They don’t care if the cameras are shut down or the microphones turned off. They’re ready to confer the halo of truthfulness on any bigoted hogwash that confirms their own smug and hateful biases. At best, it’s lazy nihilism. At worst, it’s embryonic fascism.
And have you noticed? It’s infectious. There’s a rage-on in full swing on several social media platforms against the Canadian government giving any compensation to former child soldier Omar Khadr, let alone $10 million. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation already has collected 52,000 names on a petition to force the Trudeau government to withdraw its offer.
Only someone who has never read the Supreme Court of Canada decision on Khadr’s treatment by Canadian authorities could sign such a petition. Only someone who has never read Romeo Dallaire’s book about child soldiers — They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children — could post the kind of horrible vitriol being written about Khadr. It is so much worse than a mere failure of the imagination.
And then there are the Canadians who think its fine for guys in black shirts to protest a perfectly legal protest by Indigenous people in Nova Scotia. These military dudes were singing ‘God Save the Queen’. The name of the tune really ought to be ‘God Save Us All’, if this is what passes for tolerance and justice in Canada these days. Proud Boys? Really? Since when did channeling Mussolini pass for patriotism in the Canadian Forces?
Much has changed in the world of journalism and politics over my career. Politicians no longer try to win your vote with rational persuasion. Instead, they use a farrago of Facebook scrapings and metadata mining to find your hot button and then press it.
As for journalism, opinion and entertainment has ousted most of what used to pass for reporting. The part that remains is often reduced to click-bait. And yes, when I look in the mirror, I do see a quaint dinosaur gazing back.
And then I remember:
What got Donald Marshall Jr. out of jail, what got the boys of Mount Cashel belated justice after years of abuse, was not opinion or bias. It was cold, hard facts, meticulously gathered and published in large measure by the press after the justice system had suffered a series of catastrophic malfunctions.
So if you pine for the demise of the ‘fake news media’, be careful what you wish for. It was Richard Nixon who assured Americans he was not a crook. It took two reporters and a team at the Washington Post to prove that he was.
Author: Michael Harris