Breaking the Law to Break a Story

Housing activists (mainly members of VanAct) stage illegal occupation of vacant store in Olympic Village, Feb. 26, 2011

Last week I finally got the chance to see Page One: A year inside the New York Times. It’s a wonderful fly-on-the-wall documentary which chronicles about a year at the paper during which the print industry struggles with new online news platforms and aggregators. The film also gives us a glimpse at how the New York Times grappled with the emergence of Wikileaks. We get a behind-the-scenes look at how Wikileaks was understood by the paper and how the rocky Times-Wikileaks relationship benefited both parties.

There’s a scene in the film wherein media reporter Brian Stelter is interviewing Julian Assange over the phone. He’s trying to figure out if Assange is posturing as a journalist or an activist. What we get is a bit of a muddled response of “both.” Stelter presses on, asking Assange is he accepts the basic journalistic ethic that you don’t break any laws to get your story. Assange retreats to the comfort of activism in the face of this supposed tenet. While Stelter may not have got the clarity he could have hoped for, he was able to distance Assange from himself and his colleagues at the New York Times.

To some, the issue of breaking the law to get a story is black and white. Two weeks ago,  before the international news cycle moved on to the Oslo massacre/bombing, we all sat fixated on the News of the World case as Rupert Murdoch and company gave testimony before a parliamentary committee. The public airing of News of the World’s dirty laundry made it abundantly clear that the world generally won’t tolerate something as egregious as hacking into the private voice mail accounts of relatives of dead British soldiers, murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, or victims of the 7/7 London bombings. Nor will the public tolerate police corruption and bribery.

What the News of the World scandal also shows us, however, is that simply hacking into the voice mail accounts of celebrities, royalty and politicians doesn’t exactly raise our hackles. This practice was uncovered and publicized five years ago during a police investigation. There was a scandal to be sure, but the paper continued to thrive and the practice of breaking into private voice mail continued unabated. The scandal also shows us that at least at the News of the World, breaking the law to get a story wasn’t an ethical qualm in the least. One mustn’t confuse tabloids like News of the World with more serious and respectable broadsheets, but I’d be surprised if the writers at News of the World didn’t fancy themselves journalists.

One of the more tragic elements to the News of the World story was the death of Sean Hoare, who was among the first to go public and describe how endemic the practice of phone hacking and general law-breaking was at News of the World. Hoare’s July 18th death was described as “unexplained, but not suspicious.” To some it didn’t seem to be a huge surprise. Hoare’s lifestyle was reportedly laced with cocaine and other rock star tendencies.

In the wake of Hoare’s death, the Guardian’s Nick Davies wrote a candid pseudo-obituary. Davies describes the career of the tabloid showbusiness reporter as drug-riddled mess. Davies writes that, “Looking back, [Hoare] could see it had done him enormous damage. But at the time, as he recalled, most of his colleagues were doing it, too.” It seems that getting the scoop just meant you had to cast any legal (and in this case, health) considerations aside. If you were to make a hot scoop omelette, you were going to have to break some journalistic eggs.

In Canada, the threshold for ethical journalism isn’t much clearer. This 2006 CTV news story about a squalid foster home in Saanich, BC serves as an interesting case in point. The news crew was given access to the house by the landlord (likely in violation of BC’s Residential Tenancy Act), and while filming the abhorrent conditions of the home, the resident/foster parent returns. CTV’s crew is told, in no uncertain terms, to leave immediately. As the crew backs toward the door they attempt to interview the resident about the filth the foster children are subjected to. The resident makes a move to go upstairs and the camera operator pauses and continues to press for answers. The camera clearly doesn’t push back into the house at all, but the crew is told repeatedly to leave the property, and they certainly take their time doing so.

When asked about the story, Ethan Faber, Managing Editor of CTV British Columbia agrees that questions of ethics in journalism aren’t always black and white, but he asserts that the crew worked within the bounds of the law. In an emailed statement Faber writes, “On the issue of trespass, we make sure all of our crews are well versed in the law, and that means when we are asked to leave private property, we immediately do so.” He goes on to add, “But we also make sure our reporters and camera operators know they are perfectly within their legal rights to continue rolling and asking questions while in the act of departing.”

This specific story is interesting, not only because the potential legal transgressions were aired on the evening news, but also because the story raked in the accolades, as Faber points out. The story won the 2007 Jack Webster Award for Best (TV) News Reporting of the Year as well as the RTNDA Award for Best 2006 In-depth/Investigative TV Story. Perhaps more to the point, Faber writes, “We’re very proud of our 2006 investigation into the Saanich foster home, an investigation that resulted in two children being removed from an unsafe situation and a full review by the provincial government of foster home placement and supervision procedures.” The emphasis is on public interest.

This is consistent with the Canadian institutions responsible for mandating ethics in journalism. The RTNDA Code of Ethics doesn’t mention legal considerations at all, while the CBSC Code of Ethics only refers to ensuring the legality of advertising and employment standards. It seems any legal issue will be matter of recourse by the authorities, or a plaintiff in a civil suit, as the case may be. In the case of the aforementioned CTV story, there was no legal fallout for the station.

While Brian Stelter may take comfort in the lack of ambiguity his question displays, the reality of news reporting isn’t nearly so clear. In most cases, the responsibility to follow the rule of law falls on the reporter, with the consequences being his or hers to bear. As the News of the World case shows us, the public won’t react well if breaking the law (routinely in that case) doesn’t seem to be a matter of critical public interest. There’s a question of degree at play (how many camera operators and photographers have jaywalked to get a better angle?), furthermore, one can be sure that there’s an element of professional shame associated with getting caught. News directors may make decisions based on whether or not they think they’ll be prosecuted. But at least in Canada breaking the law to get a story doesn’t mean you can’t be categorized as a journalist. Rest easy, Julian Assange, if you’re not to be considered a journalist, it isn’t because you allegedly break the law to get your scoops.

In the Distance, Robots Kill People

Photo courtesy of US Air Force (via Wikipedia)

When we look back on the US war in Vietnam, regrettable events abound, but uppermost among them is the excessive aerial bombing that took place outside Vietnam’s borders, namely in Cambodia. What began as covert reconnaissance flights under President Johnson eventually became heavy carpet bombing under Dick Nixon. In 1969-70, with Henry Kissinger’s steady hand at the controls, the US killed more than 700,000 Cambodians and displaced millions more.

This activity was entirely covert. A B-52 bomber would be set up with munitions and fuel for a mission within Vietnam and select crew members (all sworn to secrecy) were given a second set of coordinates. Any documents regarding the second set of coordinates were destroyed upon return to base. Supplies were replenished based on the fake set of records that was kept.

Naive young people like myself, who weren’t around during the Vietnam war, shake our heads and say, “How did this escape the attention of the media, congress, peace activists, etc.?” Well it didn’t for long, but by the time light was shed on this sordid affair, the damage had already been done.

This brings us to our actual topic of the day, the spillover of the US war in Afghanistan into Pakistan (my new “news writing” instructor at BCIT, CTV’s Julia Foy, would crush me for burying the lead on this one). Of course there isn’t much new about this, we’ve been aware of US drone attacks in Pakistan for some time. But it seems as though attacks are becoming more frequent and the breadth of CIA/US Military actions inside Pakistan is expanding. With news like today’s attack on NATO supply trucks inside Pakistan and last Friday’s lethal manned intrusion, it’s apparent that the war is no longer contained by the borders of Afghanistan.

One of my favourite journalists who has steadfastly covered the war for a while, Graeme Smith, wrote an in-depth piece about the effects of the drones for this weekend’s Globe & Mail. If you missed it, check out a couple of these excerpts:

Muhammad Amad, executive director of Idea, an aid group that works in the tribal areas, was telling a visitor that the drones are counterproductive because they stir up local anger, when he was interrupted by one of his local staffers from Waziristan, interjecting in broken English: “Mental torture,” said the bearded man, with sun-weathered skin. He repeated himself, struggling to enunciate: “Mental torture.”

“Yes, it’s mental torture,” Mr. Amad said. “When we lie down under the noise of the drones, nobody sleeps.”

Several people from the tribal areas said the same thing. Sleeping pills and anti-depressants have become a regular part of the diet, they said, even in poor villages where few people can afford meat.


It’s not known how the CIA decides to hit targets, but a retired Pakistani military officer said the agency sometimes watches a person for months before pressing the button, often waiting until the subject is a safe distance from civilians. This is not a purely humanitarian gesture; it’s widely assumed that each drone attack has a cost-benefit calculation, with the cost measured in the amount of outrage generated – and thus, the number of fresh recruits for the extremists.

All told, Smith’s article comes out balanced and indecisive on whether or not the drone attacks are causing more harm than good in Pakistan. The scope of his article is basically limited to the psychological effects of the prevalent drone activity on civilians in Pakistan and the question of whether extremism is helped or hindered by the drones.

I’d like to take the issue beyond Smith’s scope by asking, where’s the US congress on this one? Does this generation really need a “secret,” extralegal war of its own? Obama campaigned on peace (admittedly just for Iraq), but has escalated Bush’s war in Afghanistan considerably. He’s taken the relatively rare sorties into Pakistan to an insane new level where hundreds of civilians are being killed every few months.

I don’t know, Obama…It seems like high time to either make this war official and call a spade a spade, or operate within the bounds of the already horrendous war that you’ve got going on. For some sort of Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning liberal, you’re sure acting like a real jerk about this.

Documentary: History on the Run

Peter Raymont’s History on the Run: The Media and the ’79 Election takes a look behind the scenes at the process of reporting the Canadian federal election of 1979. It takes a page out of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by focusing on the journalists rather than the candidates. However, Thompson’s profanity-laced and heavily embellished renderings are replaced by sober and factual documentation; the likes of which one would expect from the National Film Board of Canada.

Both Thompson’s book and the above film characterize so-called pack journalism, wherein a group of journalists depend on information, scoops, and tips from each other, while the entire group essentially relies on a single source for its info feed. The risk under such conditions is a single version of events that is reported consistently across the spectrum of media outlets.

Do you recall my post about the documentary, Action: the October Crisis of 1970? In it I brought up Tim Ralfe, the CBC reporter behind the famous “Well, just watch me…” Trudeau interview. As an interesting tidbit (to me at least), he shows up around 35 minutes into this film as the director of communications for Progressive Conservative Joe Clark‘s campaign.

Spoiler alert: Pierre Trudeau loses to Clark.

On a personal, albeit remotely related note, I just had my first day back at school! I feel like a kid again. I’m starting a two-year Broadcast Journalism program at BCIT. So far, so good. The content looks like it’ll be interesting, and a little bit fun. It should be quite a bit different than the liberal arts education that UBC straightened me out with.

Afghanistan: A View From the Other Side

Clearly the whole embedded journalist thing can only work if other journalists are out there on their own, or in this case, embedded with the opposing side of the conflict. I got the tip about this video from Creekside.

All too often on the CBC, or even in the Globe & Mail, only one side of this huge conflict is shown. Our patriotism is expected to overcome our curiosity or eagerness to know the complete story. The military is taught to kill “bad guys” and as members of the public we’re often just served the Canadian military’s version of events. The result is obvious: We often misunderstand our assumed adversary and we don’t comprehend the impact of our actions.

For the first couple of years of this war in Afghanistan, the federal government maintained that we were fighting al-Qaeda because of 9/11. Of course, you’ll recall, the sovereign nation of Afghanistan, with the Taliban as the ruling power, was accused of harbouring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. The leaders of Afghanistan agreed to cooperate with the US and help produce bin Laden, but they demanded that the US simply provide them with the evidence that bin Laden was in Afghansitan. The US declined to provide evidence, and just invaded the country instead.

Although the media and our government routinely conflated the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it was pretty clear that al-Qaeda’s numbers in Afghanistan were minuscule and that the people we were trying to kill were among a disparate group of Afghan fighters. Naturally these fighters didn’t want a foreign occupation of their land, and thus put up a front. Most of these militants loosely fall under Taliban banners, but some are also completely independent of the Taliban, fighting only for their village, warlord, tribe, or militia.

It takes a brave journalist to go near a war zone, especially one where kidnappings are routine. Paul Refsdal, the journalist responsible for the video above (as you’ll see if you watch the clip) was kidnapped for a short time until he agreed to convert to Islam. Even reporting as a journalist embedded with our military can be pretty dangerous, but escaping the military bubble certainly increases the risk level.

Given the reality of the risks, it’s understandable that few venture out there, and that the majority of the reporting we see from Afghanistan is from inside the bubble that Westerners have created. However, it should still be a priority of our media outlets to get both sides of the story — therein lies the essence of balanced and impartial journalism in war time. The mere facts that we collectively fund the Canadian military and that they sport our national emblem doesn’t excuse journalists, media outlets (even our national broadcaster, CBC), and all Canadians from doing everything they can to understand both sides of the conflict and treat humans as essentially equal and of equal value, regardless of religion, nationality, or ethnicity.

The examples I’ve seen of reportage like that above are extremely rare. PBS Frontline did an episode that was in the same vein. You can check it out here, although it’s saying that I can’t watch it in my region now, even though I’ve already viewed it from Vancouver. Perhaps try this torrent if you’re finding the same restrictions apply to your region.

Documentary: Action – The October Crisis of 1970

Robin Spry’s Action: The October Crisis of 1970 (1973) is an ideal primer for anybody who, like me, didn’t live through the October Crisis. It details a strange time in Canada and Quebec’s history. It is a time when violent, destructive, and coercive tactics to bring about political change became, among many, popularly accepted.

The Quebec Liberation Front’s (FLQ) tactics mirrored those being used all over the world by various radical political movements, such as the IRA and the Weather Underground. These organizations practised tactics known as ‘propaganda by the deed’ wherein an act is carried out not merely for the sake of the act itself, but also as a means of circulating a political message and (in theory) agitating and inspiring the population (or simply the workers) to join their various uprisings. Common actions include bank robberies (or expropriations, in revolutionary verbiage), bombings of specific government or capitalist properties (sometimes killing people therein), and as in the case of the October Crisis, kidnappings.

The October Crisis refers to the kidnappings of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte as well as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s reaction. Laporte was summarily murdered by his captors. He was strangled to death and his body was found in the trunk of a car after an FLQ communique detailed the location of his body. Cross was eventually freed after his captors successfully negotiated for their safe passage to Cuba.

Trudeau’s implementation of the War Measures Act marked its only use during peacetime. By those who feared total insurrection in Quebec, the hard line reaction was welcomed. To those who feared government excess and the military occupation of their streets, the use of the War Measures Act was a precipitously bold move toward curtailing civil liberties across the country. Of the 497 people arrested and held under the War Measures Act,  435, or 88%, were released without charge. Regardless of which side one took, the move by Trudeau became one of the defining moments of his tenures as Prime Minister.

Robin Spry’s film is largely comprised of news footage from the time of the crisis. The film offers a broad slate of political perspectives and seems, at least to me, to be very well-rounded and fair. Among the footage used is the famous interview of Trudeau by CBC reporter Tim Ralfe. It is during this interview that Trudeau uttered the infamous line, “Well, just watch me,” in response to Ralfe questioning him as to how far he will go in his use of the military to maintain order.

Although it is due to the “just watch me” line that this interview continues to be discussed, what attracts me to it is the general candour that is exchanged. I can’t think of any recent examples of politicians and mainstream journalists engaging in this type of honest dialogue. Trudeau is drawn into the conversation with Ralfe without a clear messaging goal. He stops (on the steps of parliament) and listens carefully to Ralfe’s questions. He is calm and assertive in his responses. Ralfe is in turn questioned by Trudeau, he addresses the questions, responding with his personal opinion when asked to. Although the “interview” has been derided as confrontational, in fact the conversation maintains a respectful tone. I would describe it as adversarial, but in a good way.

Ralfe was severely reprimanded by the CBC for the interview. Certain questions (I’m not sure which) were edited out, as they were considered by the CBC to be “too aggressive during a time of national crisis.” Peter Trueman, the executive producer of the national television news at the time, wrote in an open letter to Ralfe that the interview “violated every journalistic standard that [he] was aware of.” Although I can see his point (journalists aren’t supposed to make their opinions known), the persistence, respect, and intelligent debate displayed by Ralfe has gained my admiration. Although there are some great journalists out there these days, nary do we find one willing to put himself or herself on the line, as Ralfe did.

Here is the interview in question, just in case you’re not planning to watch the whole documentary above:

Although militant tactics, like those by the FLQ, have never reached the same level of acceptance in Quebec or the rest of Canada, the Quebec sovereignty movement has continued to gain support and political power.

If you weren’t alive during the ’70s, or if you feel you could just use a refresher on the topic of the FLQ and the October Crisis, I suggest you take the time to watch this great documentary film.