Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A candid exchange between journalists

Today, an open and frank look at how journalists express themselves when one of their own is under the gun.

The following exchange is copied directly from the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) ListServ, an online bulletin board operated by the CAJ. Its purpose “is to provide a forum for Canadian journalists on issues pertaining to all facets of journalism, including: trade craft, standards, ethics, media and related issues.”

In these posts from late February, journalist Peter Evans in the UK opens a thread of discussion about criminal harassment charges against CBC reporter Paul Piggot in Labrador. Piggot is a friend of Evans, who is clearly upset with the RCMP’s prosecution of the case and CBC’s reporting of it.

Evans’ post is followed by a reply from Canadian journalist James Bell, who brings a voice of reason to the discussion.

I think Peter Evans is perhaps a little distraught at the prosecution of his friend, and is speaking in anger. I do not think the RCMP had a vendetta in their prosecution. If the RCMP went after every reporter who broke a bad story about the force, we would have seen a pattern by now. And there have been worse stories broken about the RCMP than the one referenced here. Either way, Evans’ comments are tempered nicely by Bell’s reply.

I thought twice about posting this, due to the personal nature and tone of Evans’ post. However, I think it provides a revealing, starkly honest reflection of the kind of debate that goes on among journalists (I remember having similar heated discussions with my colleagues at The Sunday Express, especially while debating coverage of the Mount Cashel scandal). Furthermore, the ListServ rules make it clear that all posts are considered part of the public record. “Keep in mind that 600 - 800 of your colleagues, publishers, students and editors - and assorted others - are reading,” the rules state. “The CAJ-L is open, public and all on the record.”

We begin with the post that started the thread:

Peter Evans wrote:
“On Friday, CBC St. John's radio and TV (Here & Now) carried stories based on releases served up by RCMP Goose Bay, announcing that a Goose Bay CBC radio reporter had been charged with criminal harassment. The reporter is a close friend of mine, as is his wife. In fact, I was in their wedding party. I'm deeply saddened by the demise of their relationship, but these things happen to us all. However, I'm furious at the actions of the Mounties and CBC staffers, actions which, in lazy concert with one another, may have ruined this reporter's career, forever damaged his family and social networks, and destroyed his personal reputation in the community. This all might have been avoided if CBC staffers had removed their heads from their navels.

“Link to CBC radio story:

“This story was featured prominently for several days on the CBC website, and included in their automatic email digests. It featured near the top of Here & Now's broadcast on the same day (not archived), accompanied by one of the two headshots which have recently featured on CBC's website alongside the reporter's work; naturally, they chose the haggard one that best illustrates the charges. All of these reports were essentially rewrites of RCMP PR pap, lacking craft, art, or meaning.

“(CBC's local competitor VOCM did not run the story. I'm told that the Evening Telly ran it, but it was not posted to their website.)

“What the CBC reports failed to mention is that the reporter is a notorious thorn in the side of the local constabulary. The reporter has humiliated Goose Bay RCMP several times in the last few months, most recently with typically aggressive reporting on the treatment of a female Inuit prisoner who was held naked in a cell for two days. (The reporter was later thrown into an adjoining cell – an irony that could not have been lost on the Mounties, if they have the capacity for such things.)


“This work resulted in the extraordinary measure that one of the small group of officers had to fly to Nain to apologize to the woman. Just one of a number of incidents involving the RCMP and this reporter's excellent, ballsy journalism.

“So how did CBC staffers at St. John's decide that this press release, concerning an award-winning employee with nearly ten years of service to Labrador and the Corp. was an issue of public interest? Was it fear that their competitors would run the press release, making the CBC look bad by omission? If so, why is the reputation of the Corporation more important than the reputation of a flesh-and-blood human being – not just any human being, but a loyal and hard-working employee?

“Have journalists fallen so deeply in love with PR hacks in yellow-striped trousers that the possibility that the RCMP might be paying particular attention to this reporter did not even cross their minds? Might it not have warranted even a passing mention to the public? Did the reporters even contact the RCMP before running it, beyond the switchboard, did they ask any questions of the RCMP's handling of this case – especially its promotion as a public matter – at all? Why did CBC not attempt to contact the reporter for an interview?

“He most certainly would have given one – and he might have alerted them to this obvious possibility.

“Did the RCMP follow its normal policy and procedures in handling this case from the beginning, or did they rise too quickly to the possibility of getting a reporter they might hold some ill-will toward? Do they send out press releases on all similar charges (nearly a full week after the charge was laid)? If they do, they must have very sore fingers.

“It is amazing that, after all we have learned in the last few years about the many ways in which the RCMP-Press relationship is animated by little acts of vengeance, exploitation, co-dependence, and sloth, that these things are still happening.

“I urge the CAJ and the Canadian Media Guild to keep an eye on this event as it develops and works itself out.

“Peter Evans, Cambridge, UK”

James Bell wrote:
“This is very sad news, Peter. I've known Paul Piggot for a long time. He's a great person and an outstanding journalist, a beacon of competence and dedication within an organization that's stuffed with mediocrities and time-servers.

“I believe, however, that you may be jumping to conclusions that are not supported by evidence. You're suggesting that CBC St. John's conspired with the RCMP to blacken the reputation of a reporter whose recent work created embarrassment for the RCMP. That's a very serious allegation.

“Criminal charges like this are usually laid because someone goes to the police to make a complaint. Once they take the complainant's statement, the police, perhaps after seeking advice from the Crown, usually have no choice but to lay a charge. In most jurisdictions it's now standard protocol for a charge to be laid automatically if the complainant is a woman seeking protection from a spousal partner. So I think it's likely that Paul's work with CBC was irrelevant to the RCMP's decision. It's likely they would have processed this charge against just about anybody, regardless of their position.

“The real question is whether the story is newsworthy.

“That's a tough call. A reporter is not a public figure in the same sense that an elected official is a public figure. But a reporter is usually well-known to the public, performs vital public functions and is supposed to conduct himself in a manner that inspires trust.

“On balance, I think CBC made the right decision. You suggest, Peter, that CBC St. John's committed a breach of ethics by reporting the charge in collusion with the RCMP. I think, though, that if they had not covered it they would have been guilty of an even greater ethical breach. And they would have created the impression that they were doing so to protect one of their own.

“I also don't think there are any relevant inferences to be drawn from the fact that VOCM did not cover the story.

“The news story is sloppy. It didn't mention Paul's employment status. Will he be suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case? Will he stay at work? The news story doesn't say. And it doesn't appear as if anyone bothered to go to the court house to dig up the information sheet for the charge, which would have listed when and where the incidents are alleged to have occurred, and other reportable information.

“So I agree with you that the news story on their web site is badly written. But bad writing is standard at CBC now, especially on their web sites. Many CBC staffers may be illiterate -- but that doesn't make them unethical.

“Remember, Peter, if Paul is not guilty, he will get a chance to defend himself against the allegations in court. If you have any concrete evidence that might suggest the RCMP are subjecting Paul to a vindictive prosecution, then I would suggest that you get in touch with Paul's lawyer ASAP...

“And if there's a trial, that's where CBC will face its biggest journalistic test...”

- end of post –

As a postscript, I emailed the regional director for CBC Newfoundland more than a week ago, trying to open a discussion on how the Piggot case was handled, but received no reply. (This topic is of genuine interest as I am sure there is intense internal debate over how such stories are handled.)

As well, the comment about writing quality at CBC web sites is unfair. I am reasonably certain that the web site content is transcribed directly from the radio news stories, which are well written. Furthermore, I know two reporters who work on the CBC site and you won’t find more literate journalists anywhere.

If anyone would like to add to this discussion, or takes exception to any of the remarks above, please post a comment.


Brian said...

I would like to comment on the above.

Firstly, I have a blog but am not a journalist [nor are many passing themselves off as such in the MSM].

Secondly, I have know both Paul and Peter [or is it Peter and Paul] from their work as journalists, mainly in Labrador.

Thirdly, we are all not close personally and I know next to nothing on Paul’s personal situation. I will add that the information highway on this issue has clamed up.

Not being in the business of journalism I will leave it to others to comment in that area.

As a consumer of journalist’s work I have to say that Labrador has missed Paul’s courage’s investigative journalism in the past couple of months. Paul was one of the very few who took on the hard and difficult stories, as well as many pertaining to the aboriginal community and other issues on the North Coast of Labrador.

I can only hope Paul settles the issues in front of him amicably and successfully, and If at all possible he decides to stay around and carry on with his past good work. Man oh man his elk is surly need.

Peter also has done some courage’s writing in years past on Labrador issues, stories that would never have seen the light of day without his skills as a researcher and writer. Added to his skills was the full support by his employer.

Paul said...

It's been a long time since I've thought about any of this; time enough perhaps to warrant a few comments on my lifetime Internet sentence as a person who possibly harassed his former spouse. On the criminal allegation itself I can certainly admit that I was in the midst of a separation that escalated into unpleasant behaviour from many quarters. After a ridiculous accusation of abandoning my daughter told to a social worker, I made ONE phone call to the person stirring the pot. I said not nice things in an angry tone of voice. I have paid dearly for that call and so I should have. I appreciate the kind words from my friend and my journalist colleagues. But Mr. Bell is absolutely correct in commending the police for their choice to lay a charge. We can not as a society begin to doubt for one second a single allegation made by any woman, not a least until the violence meted out by fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, police and jailers is totally and utterly repudiated and abandoned. In my case the justice system worked with slow perfection. It took six months to find a Crown prosecutor in the province who did not know me. S/he considered the allegation contained in the information (which to my knowledge no journalist has ever reported on, even though it remains a public document), s/he spoke to the complainant and decided s/he had no case. The charge was dropped. My employer and the Telegram reported that. As for the journalism itself I do have a few opinions I'm willing to share. First of all the CBC followed a story picked up from an RCMP press release by a Telegram reporter in St. John's. Was it a story? I'd feel shitty about it but in their shoes I might have run the same on a slow day. I sure would have liked to read the court information before I printed the RCMP press release's characterization of the alleged offence as a 'charge often related to stalking'. To my mind the RCMP press release is the only inflammatory aspect of this whole sordid affair. Having reported the courts in Labrador for ten plus years I can say with some confidence that a charge of criminal harassment had never before been the subject of the RCMP Labrador's PR department. They used my name, they suggested I was a stalker and they fired it out to several dozen fax machines around the province. Rapists and fraudsters garner less attention on a daily basis. I cannot speculate on their motivation. That is the subject of an access to information request that I may one day be able to talk about. Frankly, I doubt that will happen though. As for my employer, the CBC, I've spoken at length with the editor solely responsible for the decision to run something and s/he made the only choice possible. With the story already out in the Tele how could CBC possibly not run their own version? Not to do so could only be seen as protecting one of their own, something that goes against everything we stand for. It hurt like hell but the decision was a no brainer. I'm not so sure about the horrible picture CBC TV found of me but now I'm just nitpicking. So I'm left with the whiff of a past on the net. Big deal. I guess it's possible there may be some who believe where there's smoke there's fire. How much do I care about a person who believes something on the Internet without taking the time themselves to find out the rights of it? Obviously I'm writing to those very people right now, so it does still rankle. But really the shame I carry is a puff of air when compared to the pain women suffer from those who can not still their filthy tongues, as I should have done, and brutally from the clenched fists of men in all corners of our 'safe and secure' Canada. If my arrest and humiliation does even a mite of good towards lessening that outrage then the world in which my nine year old will grow up to be a woman is a better place indeed.