Scandal taints all journalists

During more than three decades working in journalism, I’ve never heard of a Canadian journalist hacking telephones or paying police for tips for news stories.

Certainly, sources within the police do sometimes reveal information to journalists that the powers-that-be intended to be kept from the public. The journalist-source relationship is a critical one and good journalists cultivate sources willing to provide information in the public interest.

We saw an example of that this week when CBC News reported that unnamed police sources told CBC that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford swore at 911 dispatchers and made derogatory comments to female operators, including calling them “bitches” when he called for emergency police assistance after a camera crew from the comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes ambushed him outside his Etobicoke home.

In a written statement released later, Ford admitted he used the “f-word” in frustration while speaking to the 911 dispatcher. But he denied making derogatory comments to the operator.

I am confident in stating you can be certain that no cash changed hands between police and journalists in bringing the disputed reports of the mayor’s behaviour to public light.

And while there’s a strong case to be made that 911 call tapes — deemed by police to be private and confidential — should be made public to resolve the discrepancy between the mayor’s statement and the CBC’s reports, I’m just as confident no journalist would resort to any sort of hacking to uncover this truth.

Such unethical practices just don’t happen here.

But given the recent revelations of the illegal, unethical shenanigans in British tabloid journalism that led to the closing in July of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, I’m not so confident all readers understand that.

According to a poll released last week, 40 per cent of Canadians believe that Canadian media use tactics such as phone-hacking and paying police for tips in pursuit of stories.

The Ipsos Reid poll, conducted for the Canadian Journalism Foundation, suggests that the credibility of Canadian journalism has taken a hit in the fallout of what’s now billed as Britain’s “Hacker-gate.”

“What happened in Britain has reinforced the view that journalism has gone too far,” John Honderich, chair of Torstar’s board of directors, said last week during a CJF public forum about post-News of the World calls for journalists to be held to greater account for mistakes and misdeeds.

Honderich, who has been a journalist somewhat longer than I have, started out as a reporter and has also been editor-in-chief and publisher of the Star. He told the forum that during his “entire career” he has never encountered evidence of Canadian journalists using tactics like hacking and paying sources for information.

Still, he said, “The public obviously believes it is happening.” And this should concern us all.

“To me, the underlying issue is there is a crisis of confidence in journalism,” Honderich said.

Certainly the professional standards of journalists seem to be of some concern for the public that journalism serves.

The CJF poll also found that 56 per cent of Canadians believe that Canadian journalists who work for a newspaper, television or radio outlet should be accredited by some form of industry-wide standards body.

A vigorous debate about accreditation of journalists is now playing out across Canada. It is rooted in Quebec, where a report before the province’s culture minister recommends a distinct professional status for journalists that would bind journalists to a code of ethics. The proposal has generally been slammed within English Canada as a threat to press freedom.

“We are not talking about licensing reporters. We are asking the state to give us self-regulation with more teeth,” Brian Myles, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, told the CJF forum. “Certification would be maintained by observing the code of ethics.”

I have no problem with the idea that journalists should be held to account for ethical standards through self-regulation. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea of journalists involving the state in any way.

Still, while the immoral “anything for a story” excesses of British journalism have never been the Canadian way, clearly Canadian journalists can’t ignore this growing global debate about professional standards and self-regulation.

As CJF chair Robert Lewis said last week, “the Murdoch excesses have unfairly tainted the whole business. Journalists need to redouble their commitment to accountability and transparency.”

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on Oct. 29, 2011.


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