APPEAL TO DAVID ASPER               [Back]


[This document should be self-explanatory. It was sent through legal counsel for Canwest Global to the presiding officer of the National Post, a member of the Asper family which owns the controlling interest in Canwest. It was submitted (accompanied by an earlier version of the "My Case" CD) at one of the times in my defamation lawsuit when I tried--always in vain--to get them to investigate what their newspaper had done and to correct it. As can be seen, the purpose of this particular missive was to appeal to them for reforms to prevent repetition of such wrongs.]


The suggestions below are not part of my settlement proposal. They could hardly be so, given their lack of direct application to me. Nevertheless, they are highly relevant to my case; had they been in place, the serious wrongdoing by Ms. Laframboise would never have been allowed. And, absent any reforms arising from that wrongdoing now, the same kind of thing could be done again to me as well as to others. (Just making sure, next time, not to leave a trail of tapes and e-mails like the one that so thoroughly convicts her.)  Hence, this brief letter is an ancillary appeal, one submitted because of the need for ethical reform in Canadian journalism which I see the Laframboise affair as demonstrating and see the Asper family as uniquely able to address. It outlines steps I think could make a huge difference in this regard. Like one of my current legal counsel,  I have taught ethics at the university level, and I fervently hope you will look seriously at these ideas.


By way of preface, I see "investigative journalism" as being the real journalism, the kind that makes the news media of great value to society. Ideally, in my view, there should be a good deal more investigative journalism in Canada's newspapers and broadcasts. At the same time, it faces a serious danger--the same peril that is faced by police in their investigative pursuits: All sorts of influences can corrupt the process, from personal and political biases to the tunnel vision that can develop when an initial hypothesis turns into an obsession. And like the police, journalists have the power to do great harm as well as great good. The public is wholly at the mercy of those who control what the public gets to learn about the facts.


 Journalists are certainly not less likely than other human beings to succumb to these human temptations toward dishonesty. And they have the same further temptations to cover up for their colleagues--to cover up not only for immediate friends and associates in their own workplace, but for those similarly situated who have done wrong. ("I could be caught too!") That the news pages are full of wrongdoings by other professionals on whom the public depends for its wellbeing, from politicians to police to scientists--but almost never tell of wrongdoings by journalists--is not, I submit, a sign of ethical superiority among the latter. It is instead troubling evidence that their misdeeds are in fact being suppressed on a regular basis.


So there is a conundrum here. How can the great value of investigative journalism to society be realized while the great potential for harm is held in check? "Let the courts sort it out" is, I submit, as worthless in preventing misbehavior by journalists as it would be, absent media coverage, in the case of politicians or police.  Unaccountable power corrupts--we all need checks and balances. Journalism, however, is the sole profession that has so much power to cover up its own wrongdoings. The best solution, I submit, lies in creating the equivalent of police commissions and freedom-of-information laws in the news community. You are in a unique position to make a great historical contribution, by instituting such measures as these. 


1.         My first suggestion is the appointment of permanent "special investigators" (though 'ombudsman' might be a more palatable title), perhaps one each--with appropriate support staff--for broadcast news and print news, appointed by CanWest Global. A person in that role could investigate complaints both from the public and from "whistleblowers" on staff who might otherwise be too fearful to come forward.


Being appointed and paid by your company, rather than by individual newspapers and broadcast stations, would free such officers from enticements and pressures inside the latter that otherwise often compromise impartiality. I suspect that in my own case, the failure of anyone in the Post newsroom to look closely at Ms. Laframboise's actions was partly because of the personal relationships that exist in such a setting. I also believe that certain past experiments in the appointment of media ombudsmen have failed to have a significant effect precisely because of those influences. At the same time, the existence of a professional office of this kind would relieve you and other CanWest officials from the suspicion that can attend your directly stepping in to correct misbehavior committed by individual publishers/editors, or on their watch.


I trust you will understand the special significance of the latter point. There has been a great deal of concern about the prospect of a very few individuals having direct control over the contents of Canada's news media. The concern is a valid one: competition among divergent views is essential to the proper working of the "marketplace of ideas". But many who have raised this point against you, I believe, have been disingenuous about the lack of diversity of ideas already existing in many newsrooms. Monolithic control is as dangerous to each local marketplace of ideas as it is to that of Canada as a whole. But the point here is that complete autonomy means complete unaccountability; I am urging that CanWest has not just the moral right but the moral duty to "interfere" in local news outlets, in the sense of creating systems that promote ethical accountability in them.


A special corollary of this suggestion is a rule requiring the strict keeping of audio-recordings and other records an investigator needs to determine what really happened. Keeping in mind, of course, that such records can exonerate innocent accused persons as well as indict guilty ones. In my own case, the timely perusing of Ms. Laframboise's audio-tapes would have caught many of her unethical actions in advance of publication. But even in ordinary after-the-offence cases, this use of such records would mean that justice would be done far more often, and done more quickly, than is possible under current conditions. 


2.             Because prevention of misbehavior in the first place is much better than catching it afterwards, I urge the institution of company training in journalistic ethics. Interactive training, because the vagaries and complexities of real life mean that feedback from front-line experience is also needed to inform those who teach "the rules". And comprehensive training, not just the distributing of a brief written code--what often passes for ethics education in news-media settings. As last year's Harper-Shapiro kerfuffle shows, what is to count as unethical and what not must be worked through and understood by all in advance of problems arising, not learned about or decided after the fact.


Of course, the complex details of a complete system of ethical training can't be explored here. But I believe that Ms. Laframboise's records provide a textbook case of the many different kinds of misbehavior that can be committed by journalists who have not genuinely been educated in ethics, nor even had its importance impressed upon them. I also believe the thoroughness with which I have now organized and documented her wrongdoings illustrates the sort of concrete case-study that might be fruitfully dissected in this type of company training. (Names would be changed for this special usage, of course.) As I see it, making people consciously aware of each of the dishonest tactics they may be using is a necessary part of the process of getting them to stop. I wish to stress that her case is unique only in the huge amount of documentation that survived to prove misbehavior, not in the number or seriousness of her offenses.   


3.             As they say, justice must also be seen to be done. The results of these special investigators' inquiries would have to be thoroughly reported, not buried internally with the "shoot, shovel and shut up" ethos that characterizes so many organizations. In the case of newspapers, this might best be handled with a regular column devoted to media ethics. In fact, a generalized version of that erstwhile Post feature labeled "CBC Watch" strikes me as desperately needed. It could cover all news and documentary production, inside CanWest Global and out. And in place of both the former cynical "See how bad those other guys are, nyah, nyah" and the more usual "I'll cover for you if you'll cover for me" among journalists, it could rise, for the first time in history, to the level of genuine professional ethics.


4.             The great majority of journalistic misdeeds, however, are not deliberate or highly serious. A very different type of remedy is needed for them--but is still very much needed because they are so common. For complaints in this category, a wonderful solution is available in these days of the Internet. The essence of the idea is this: A section of each media outlet's website would be set aside for posting discussions by individuals or organizations who think their side has not been fairly told in the paper or in a broadcast. A brief announcement of the presence of each such commentary would then be made at an appropriate location in the newspaper or in the broadcast schedule.


It should be obvious how this policy escapes the need to use precious space/time in the newspaper/broadcast itself.   In order to avoid certain obvious pitfalls, conditions of use for this tool would have to be carefully worked out. But limiting access to it to allow persons or organizations actually identified in print or broadcast to tell their own side, rather than opening it for the general airing of grievances, would be one way to keep it manageable. This sort of thing would also generate special reader/listener interest, perhaps even to the point of making it pay its own way. If this idea should ultimately be rejected, then at the very least, each newspaper and broadcaster should be required to announce the Web-addresses set up by individuals themselves to tell their side of news stories that involved them. 


Whatever may be said about the details of the proposals outlined above, I believe that such actions are strongly argued for by considerations of truth, fairness, and the powerlessness of ordinary people in the face of media might. It also seems to me that, if implemented with candor and transparency, these steps would go far to allay suspicions, continually found by public surveys, which a great many people feel toward journalists today. And even just from the perspective of your company's self-interest, there are good reasons to adopt this sort of thing. Such safeguards would ultimately, I suggest, lower the dangers from defamation suits--and with their chilling effect reduced, would raise capacities for engaging in the investigative journalism that makes the news media of greatest value to society.   


Ferrel Christensen, Professor Emeritus