Friday, July 10, 2015

Who Can I Trust?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an enthusiastic supporter of The Toronto Star. The paper's investigative reports, like no others, have had real impact, influencing decisions at the highest levels of power locally, provincially and federally; its dogged pursuit of the truth has always impressed me deeply. The Star has consistetly demonstrated and embodied the role good journalism plays in a healthy democracy.

And yet now there are disturbing allegations by journalist Paul Watson, allegations so serious that the veteran reporter has resigned from the paper. While many of the details are far from clear, The Star, which denies all of his assertions, certainly appears to have acted very oddly.

An extensive interview conducted by Jesse Brown at Canadaland reveals that Watson, who had been on the lead exploration ship, CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, last September and wrote a series of articles on the expedition that found the Franklin flagship the HMS Erebus, was stymied by his editors when he was investigating the exaggerated role accorded to the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and its CEO, John Geiger:
So there was a [media] blackout [after the discovery] of roughly two days, could’ve been three. Remember, I was on the lead vessel in this successful search last September, the Coast Guard icebreaker. I was living with and working beside the experts who were searching for these ships. And because of that blackout, a person who’s the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) - a former Globe and Mail Editorial Board Chief - a journalist - was able to step into that power vacuum and answer journalists' questions in a way that I immediately saw people [involved with the effort] react to in a way that made them deeply angry because they believed that he was distorting facts, stating untruths and ruining the historical record that they were working so hard to create. And that was just a moment way back in September.
A variety of distortion and untruths emerged, so much so that Jim Basillie attempted to intervene, as reported in The Globe:
In late April, philanthropist Jim Balsillie, whose Arctic Research Foundation was instrumental in the search, sent a letter to Leona Aglukkaq, the Minister of the Environment, saying he was “troubled that Canadian history is not being presented accurately” in a documentary that aired on CBC’s The Nature of Things that month. He was upset that the program “creates new and exaggerated narratives for the exclusive benefit of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.”

Mr. Balsillie said he was dispirited that the Prime Minister and public agencies seemed to take a back seat. “Government partners, in particular the Government of Nunavut, Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Canadian Coast Guard are shown as supporting players to RCGS and [the Russian vessel] Akademik Sergey Vavilov when the opposite is true.”
Apparently, for reasons that are not yet clear, the Harper government ignored the letter and made no effort to correct the historical record.

The trouble for Watson started when he attempted to question Geiger, who was awarded a Polar Medal for what Governor-General David Johnston’s office called his “essential role in the success of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition” and who, according to Watson,
has access to the Prime Minister’s office .... [has] been photographed in close situations around campfires in the Arctic with Stephen Harper ... [and] has political connections.
Within three hours of sending an email to Geiger, Watson was contacted late at night by a Star editor who wanted to know hat he was working on. Fearing Geiger might be tipped off as to the kinds of questions he wanted to ask him, Watson revealed little to the editor, a decision that ultimately led to a 'six-week reporting ban.'

There is much more to the story that is discussed in the Canadaland interview. But for me, what makes it so significant are its implications, implications so severe that Watson resigned his position. Here are his own words to explain what is at stake:
The people who’ve been looking for these ships, they’re really hardworking federal civil servants, archeologists and others who know the truth of how those ships were found and had every right to tell that truth themselves. But because of the country we live in, and because of the government we live under, that message could only come from Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself.

There is an open fear in our federal civil service and I’m sure it applies to other capitals across the country as this phenomenon grows and our democracy weakens. There is a fear among these civil servants that if they stand up and tell the truth, that they will lose their jobs because the politically connected have more power than the truth.

This is a symptom of a broader disease that is eating away at the core of our democracy. Experts on climate, on medicine, on things that are central to our society are being silenced by a government that does favours for the politically connected. And that is just very dangerous for our future.
That, more than anything else, should make this a story worth following.


  1. "The broader disease," Lorne. It's everywhere.

    1. All of Canada needs a powerful purgative, Owen.

    2. The plutocrats have gotten their tentacles into everything. They have captured major political parties and representatives, the corporate agglomerate news media, central banks and even the US Supreme Court.

      So if we are able to one day restore democracy to its post-war levels -- and prevent the destruction of civilization -- we must put in place regulations that protect the fourth estate which is vital to democracy.

      I think a good way is to create a democratic-government institution that audits all news media publications for violations of journalist integrity. This would also allow alternative forms of news media to gain credibility and viewership. Eventually the corporate news media would go extinct -- it wouldn't have the power to deceive voters or the ability to make money. Then the people would decide which blowhard pundits they want to hear from, not corporate boards and management.

  2. There is little doubt that " There is a fear among these civil servants that if they stand up and tell the truth, that they will lose their jobs" Lorne. Like yourself I had thought that the Starr was largely immune to from similar "information control", I do hope that they have not fallen prey to the "Harper disease"

    1. It is a perplexing and disturbing turn of events, Rural. I somehow don't think we have heard the last of this story.

  3. Is there anything Lorne that Harper and his trained seals take credit for that does'nt involve some type of cover up? I hope we do hear more about this story.

    1. They operate in the dark, behind the scenes, Pamela, because their nefarious activities ultimately cannot withstand the light of day.

  4. The Toronto Star has the same degree of journalistic integrity as the Toronto Sun: both corporations believe the role of the media is get involved in partisan politics and influence the outcomes of elections and referendums.

    Take the 2007 electoral reform referendum in Ontario. The Toronto Star is fiercely opposed to Proportional Representation and published many anti-factual rhetorical campaign pieces with the agenda of killing PR. The Star was successful. The reason Harper won absolute power on less than 40% of the vote is because of our corrupt and undemocratic First-Past-the-Post voting system that awards absolute power to MINORITY parties (the literal opposite of democracy.)

    During the 2014 election campaign in Ontario, the Star's op-ed rhetoric (in about 30 pieces during the 30-day campaign) was no different than the Liberal party's war room. The Star claimed the Liberal party was the true left-wing party ("most left-wing platform in 20 years" — of Liberal and PC governments); claimed the NDP leader was a "right-wing populist Margaret Thatcher"; claimed a vote for the NDP was a vote for the neo-con party; claimed the NDP was secretly supportive of a coalition with the neo-con party (without a shred of evidence; but the op-ed piece did manufacture buzz that helped the Liberal party.)

    (When the Liberals won the election, first thing they did was privatize the electricity system. A policy not in their campaign platform. But a favorite of Maggie Thatcher's)

    I even saw the Star run a piece attempting to kill Ontario disability benefits by portraying the typical person on disability as a drug addict who contracted AIDs. Rhetoric does not get more disgusting than this. Fox News-style journalism does not get more disgusting than this.

    Recently the Star claimed Mulcair was crassly courting the separatist vote in Quebec by supporting a simple-majority separation vote. Of course, every journalist knows this has been a part the NDP's platform ("Sherbrooke Declaration") for 10 years, which is longer than Mulcair has been a member of the federal NDP.

    So Bob Hepburn's description of Mulcair as being "crass" and "opportunistic" perfectly describes his rag's (and his own) agenda-driven journalism — an oxymoron that perfectly demonstrates what the Star publishes is, by that very fact, not journalism.

    1. Thanks for your analysis here, Ron. While I can't dispute what you are saying, despite its apparent faults, The Star still has done a lot of public good through its investigations. That it has an agenda is something it has not tried to hide, since the Atkinson Principles are their guiding mandate, something that they don't hide. I take your point that their political perspective may not be agreeable to a lot of people.

    2. The Atkinson Principles are not the Liberal party's principles. Over the past 25 years, neoclassical ideology has been the Liberal party's idea of principles. (Whether they come right out with it, like Trudeau's -- and therefore Rick Salutin's -- support of TFWs, or whether they campaign left to govern right.)

      Although the NDP has moved to the Keynesian center the Liberals abandoned 25 years ago, they are still the party that most closely represents the Atkinson Principles. Not that the Star should start campaigning for the NDP. Getting involved with partisan politics is the antithesis of journalism.

      The real reason, in my opinion, the Star's corporate/editorial board promotes FPTP voting and the Neo-Liberal party is because both promote a pro-business aristocracy. Both are neoliberal institutions with the conscience of a liberal. (Not that this conscience is preventing either from contributing to the tearing down of our Just Society built up by Liberals and New Democrats during the post-war era.)

      BTW, love Salutin's piece today: the NDP and the Liberals are really the same party. So might as well vote Liberal, right? I think a better idea is to read a real newspaper.

  5. Of the 20 largest newspapers in Canada, prior to the last federal election, The Star was the ONLY ONE that did not endorse Harper.

    1. That is a very good point, Ray, and surely says something positive about the paper.