I was a speaker facing student journalists attending the annual convention of the Canadian University Press in Montreal. "How many of you would say you are ‘muckrakers’ or ‘shit disturbers’ in your work as student journalists?" No hands went up. Not a single one. Hmm, I thought. Interesting. Disturbing.
Student journalists have historically been the thorn in the side of university administrations. From the ranks of student journalists through the decades have emerged some of our best reporters and documentary filmmakers. Apparently, less so now.
Investigative reporting has been called "the journalism of outrage." It is the uncovering of wrongdoing, laying bare secrets which are supposed to remain secret. It is traditionally the affliction of the powerful.
It is not all that popular these days. Fewer and fewer news organizations dig up original stories. Real digging costs money, gets you sued and annoys potential supporters and funders.
But in a sense, a free and vigilant press is at the core of our democracy. It has a bedrock place in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This week in The Chronicle Herald, journalism professor David Swick wrote about why it’s important: "You care about press freedom because you care about many things. Food, animals, education, crime, the Internet, water, war: Important decisions on all of these are being made by a government (or corporation, or NGO) near you. If that government can keep you in the dark, and do whatever it likes, it might. Solid information allows you to keep an eye on the powers that be. If you are armed with information, the powerful are much more likely to consider your wishes."
Keeping democratic institutions requires investigative journalism. Revelations from investigative reports like the ones being done by the Radio-Canada television program Enquête are the oxygen that keeps our system alive.
Never mind that some people will say, "What’s the point? The whole system is corrupt and these stories don’t tell us anything useful." Or as one high-ranking television manager told a colleague, "Why don’t you do positive investigations?"
News is what is new, not what is normal or frequent. News is what is exceptional and out of the ordinary.
Corruption and kickbacks are not the norm. They are the exception and that is why they are news. The fact that our system is being subverted to line some people’s and political parties’ pockets needs to be covered.
These kinds of stories keep us all honest. They remind us that temptation is all around. The point is to correct the problems that are laid out in the reports, not to turn away in disgust and do nothing. The point is to fix the political system.
Stories like the one broadcast last week on Radio-Canada about the engineering firm Roche and connections to the Quebec Liberal Party have to be done. It is to the credit of Radio-Canada’s managers that the story went to air, and that similar ones will be done. Enquête has become a hotbed of revelations as the brown envelopes pile up at the door. Marie-Maude Denis and Alain Gravel are folk heroes for their work in laying out the backstory of what goes on in the backrooms of the province.
(It has been suggested that Quebec is more corrupt than other jurisdictions. Not true. Transparency International says Quebec is less corrupt than the Atlantic provinces and that Canada ranks about 10th overall behind various Scandinavian countries and way ahead of the U.S. in terms of corruption.)
Far from doing taxpayers and voters a disservice, journalists are saving the system from its own tendency to cut corners and reward its friends.
Nowhere is this more true than in the robocall affair. It is old-fashioned investigative journalism at its best. Two reporters at the Ottawa Citizen have been digging in the dirt like happy groundhogs. We owe Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher a bouquet of thanks for their splendid digging.
And they are still at it. Even while NDP robocall critic Pat Martin was forced to apologize to a robocall company, the journalists were reporting this week that they are getting closer to Pierre Poutine. This is the derisive and offensive code word a conspirator took to cover his tracks. Who is it? Apparently the reporters have in their sights a Tory staffer who dipped into the Harper databank of non-Conservative voters too many times. The staffer then tried to erase his computer access. It is a possible smoking gun.
Potentially the robocall affair is the most dangerous event in the history of Canadian democracy. Elections Canada reports that hundreds of ridings were affected. It is quite possibly the difference between a majority and minority government.
The Tories claim they have a mandate to transform the country in their image. They claim they should be allowed to ram through radical changes to old age security, making Canadians wait until they are 67. They claim they have the mandate to ram through the F-35 fighter jets, even though they lied to Parliament and to the people about their true cost. They claim they have a mandate to throw Canadians in prison for the misdemeanour of growing weed. But what if they do not actually have the mandate to govern as if they had a majority?
The affair is not done, and with good reporting, we will find out. Enquiring minds want to know.