The playwright Arthur Miller once said that a good newspaper is ”œa nation talking to itself.” Certainly, one of the functions of the media is to bring shared experience and shared understanding to a civic grouping ”” the raw ingredients of a cohesive, pluralistic society. This national conversation is the transmission line through which democratic discourse takes place. Some might call this Manufacturing Consent. That would be the press on its bad days. Generally, it should be called Manufacturing Debate.
But while obviously tied into the society in which it operates, the press stands apart from the formal instruments of the state ”” Parliament, political parties, the bureaucracy, courts, police, etc. This independence allows it to fulfill its second important function ”” that of a watchdog over these various agents of state power.
Generally, states are held together by some combination of consensus and coercion ”” the willingness of free individu- als to raise a barn together and the power that resides in their institutions to imprison the malcontent who burns it down.
Arguably the highest calling of journalism is to serve as a check on the state’s monopoly over coercion. In other words, we want to ensure that the government of the day, with its rented authority over the levers of coercion, is called upon to explain and justify any usages thereof ”” whether conscripting soldiers, eavesdropping on private conversations, disrupting alleged terrorist cells, or shipping citizens off to Syrian jails.
Times of war pose special challenges to this relationship between the press and the state because the very existence of the nation and the security of its citizens may lie in peril. Opinions obviously differ as to whether we are in a time of war today ”” whether the war on terror constitutes a real war ”” or whether our mission in Afghanistan has anything to do with Canadian national security. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that they do.
A generally accepted principle exists in democratic states that, in times of war, the media should not put the integrity of the nation at risk. The simplest manifestation of this is the obvious fact that one does not publish troop movements or battle plans in advance, thus giving assis- tance to the enemy and endangering one’s own troops. You don’t write that D-Day is scheduled for next Tuesday or that our Enigma Machine has broken German codes, or that our defences are weak if you come up the back side of the Plains of Abraham.
Beyond that, the onus for journal- ists should always be on requiring a truly compelling reason not to publish something.
In a captivating 1970s book called The First Casualty ”” drawn from the oft-credited quote: in war, truth is the first casualty ”” author Phillip Knightley traces modern war reporting to the Crimean War of the 1850s.
There, a correspondent for the Times of London named William Howard Russell wrote up his eyewit- ness accounts without fear or favour. With the assistance of carrier pigeons, he delivered his dispatches to London on the ineptitude of the English battle- field commanders and the shortage of medicines and equipment.
For his efforts, Russell was removed from the rudimentary shelter the army had provided (call it early embedding) and was subjected to a declaration from the Deputy-Judge Advocate that his sto- ries constituted serious breaches of security and afforded assistance to the enemy. (I might remind you that it took 20 days for a carrier pigeon to make it to London, so the enemy was pretty well informed by then!)
The military, feeling the pressure of public opinion at home, quickly expanded its news management repertoire. It hired its own in-house journal- ist, a photographer, to take selectively sanitized pictures of a war going well. Military censorship followed, and it was not always exercised in a way that could be said, as the ”œexception” clause of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, to be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
Russell’s singular achievement was that he took the practice of war, previ- ously the exclusive realm of sover- eigns, statesmen and commanders, and made the public and public opin- ion part of the equation.
The relationship between press and government, even in wartime, has been up and down ever since, but never the same. Oftentimes, the press has been compliant or, at the very least, positioned itself within the prevailing public consensus, as was the case with the First and Second World Wars. Other times, as in the Vietnam War ”” a war never legally declared and therefore devoid of military censorship ”” the media behaved more independently, although it should be recalled that even in Vietnam, Chomsky’s Manufacturing of Consent far outweighed Spiro Agnew’s nattering nabobs of negativism until the consensus in favour of the war among elected representatives shattered after the 1968 Tet offensive.
So how does this apply to the role of the press in the shadowlands of a war on terror? And what are we to make of our job vis-aÌ€-vis Canada’s combat operations in Afghanistan?
Let me revisit explicitly the two principles I have articulated.
First, it is not within our job description to put the lives of Canadians in jeopardy. Second, the fundamental freedoms that underlie Canadian society and are set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms do not melt away in the face of an external threat. To sacrifice democratic princi- ples in the struggle to spread demo- cratic principles would be absurd.
So how should an editor balance off these principles? I believe the appropriate test can be found with the US Supreme Court judgment in the landmark 1971 Pentagon Papers case. As many of you will recall, the New York Times obtained a secret history of US involvement in Vietnam that had been commissioned in the Johnson administration by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The Nixon administration imme- diately sought and was granted a tem- porary injunction, arguing that publication would cause ”œgrave and irreparable danger” to American inter- ests, a determination it maintained was the sole preserve of the executive to render. The constitutional issues at stake included whether the press free- doms of the First Amendment were absolute (something we know is not so in Canada); whether the threat to national security outweighed free press guarantees; and whether publication of the Pentagon Papers even posed a national security threat.
The Supreme Court decided by 6-3 in favour of the Times, putting forth a variety of reasons why such prior restraint was unacceptable. The reason- ing I find most useful for our purposes was that of Justice Potter Stewart. He found that the government failed to establish that the dangers of publica- tion ”œwill surely result in direct, immedi- ate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people” (italics added).
Consider those words: ”œsurely result in direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people.” Not a theoretical threat some time in the future nor an embarrass- ment at present nor a revelation poten- tially harmful to public opinion. The bar was set much higher than that.
This formulation seems to me to provide an extremely helpful test for editors confronted with the issue of how to handle sensitive stories in times of national security stress.
Some journalists might challenge such a notion on principle, invok- ing instead the ”œpublish and be damned” rule. They would argue that weighing harm represents a slippery slope into self-censorship. Perhaps. But absolutism seems to me no substi- tute for the exercise of editorial judg- ment, whether it involves the publication of obscenity or violent images or state secrets. Editors exist for no greater reason than precisely the exercise of editorial judgment.
Something along the lines of the principle I have crafted from the Pentagon Papers case guided La Presse reporter Jean Pelletier when he discovered in early 1980 that Canada was hiding a group of Americans in diplo- matic residences in Tehran ”” what came to be known as the Canadian caper. Pelletier chose to sit on his story until the endangered Americans and their Canadian protectors could be safely spirited out of Iran.
Not everyone agreed with his judgment. But Pelletier argued that ”œyou can’t just sim- ply apply your principle of pub- lish-and-be-damned to each and every situation, regardless of circumstance.”
Pelletier obviously felt that the damage of immediate publi- cation could have been direct, immediate and possibly irrepara- ble to the people involved. He exercised discretion in holding back his story. As it turned out, his scoop held.
Likewise, after the kidnapping of Canadian aid workers in Iraq, a num- ber of media outlets chose not to report that one of the victims, James Loney, was a homosexual. While his family members in Sault Ste. Marie were pro- filed in the media, no attempt was made to report on his anguished lover. In other words, the media held back from readers knowledge that it pos- sessed. Was that right? Again, I would say that the danger to Loney far out- weighed the public’s interest in that particular morsel of information. Just because something may be of interest to the public does not place it within the public interest.
In contrast, a clear public interest existed in the disgraceful treatment accorded Maher Arar, citizen of Canada.
Here was an example of state actors, in a time of terror, losing their head. The Globe, for one, took up the cause early, vigorously and with persistence
The official line held that Arar and a group of other Syrian-Canadians constituted a terrorist cell. The Globe said: ”œWe don’t care.” He may have been a terrorist. But that was not our primary issue. The foundation for our coverage was the indisputable fact that he had been denied due process. And that falls outside Canadian norms.
Arar is the poster boy for what can go wrong in time of political stress. As Junius admonishes us every morning at the top of the editorial page of the Globe and Mail: ”œThe subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.”
Indeed, to me, there was a whiff of Alfred Dreyfus to Maher Arar ”” reflecting officialdom ruled by fear rather than intelligence and pushed along by a hint of racism.
Andrew Mitrovica wrote a provocative article about the press and Arar in the January edition of the Walrus magazine. He decries what he calls ”œthe sometimes inconsistent rela- tionship between anonymous sources and Parliamentary reporters.” Although he does not entirely spare the Globe the rod, he speaks of a great divide between the coverage of the Arar story as published by Canada’s two national newspapers ”” the Globe with its persistent questions and the National Post either stu- diously ducking the obvious questions or seemingly anxious to believe the worst of Arar. I think what Mitrovica observes in the case of the Globe speaks to a form of journalism that is rooted in values but seeks out truth versus a form of journal- ism that is rooted in ideology and seeks out corroboration.
The trick here is to never forget that newspapers are about inquiry, not advocacy. What we did at the Globe was basic to journalism ”” in times normal or abnormal. We picked away at an uncon- vincing official version of events. And we kept the story alive when it might otherwise have died.
Where Mitrovica finds some fault with the Globe, I see an appropriate level of journalistic agnosticism.
There is little argument that in addition to being the victim of torture, Arar was also the victim of a concerted smear campaign. When the anony- mous leaks began, we were among the recipients. We treated these pronounce- ments of government officials with skepticism ”” but at one point we did report allegations by Canadian and American sources that Arar had been a long-time target of a joint security investigation and that’s why he had been placed on an anti-terror watch list.
We felt little compunction in relaying on what senior government officials were saying in part because it estab- lished a higher level of Canadian com- plicity than previously demonstrated.
The most famous ”” or what Justice O’Connor in his query report called notorious ”” leak appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on November 8, 2003. Reporter Juliet O’Neill wrote about an Arar nation- al security dossier furnished by unnamed security sources. It contained detailed information, among other things, on his recruitment efforts for the jihad while studying at McGill University, his train- ing in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and the belief of officials that a public inquiry would ”œopen a can of worms” that could jeopardize ongoing terror investigations. Some of these allegations were known to us earlier, but we were wary of them because (a) nobody would go on the record; (b) we felt they may have been extracted under torture; and (c) Arar was in jail at the time and could not defend himself. As for O’Neill, she couched her story in qualifying words such as ”œalleged” and ”œsupposed,” but the weight of her article left the impres- sion that Maher Arar was a suspicious character. (Would I have published that story? Probably, but we would have been more skeptical.)
Then on January 21, 2004, all hell broke loose as the ever clumsy RCMP raided Juliet O’Neill’s house under the Security Information Act, claiming the leak threatened the very security of this delicate nation of ours.
The Mounties put the Truth Verification Section of the Behavioural Services branch on the job. Somewhere, George Orwell chuckled. Both the fact of the raid and the manner in which it was carried out, breaking all the accept- ed protocols of press-police interac- tions, backfired as a highly embarrassed government and agitated Prime Minister decided to proceed with a public inquiry. Although the actions against O’Neill were extremely distress- ing, one can’t help concluding that the torture of a Canadian citizen in a Syrian jail falls a notch below the invasion of a reporter’s underwear drawer in the pecking order of official affronts.
I don’t say this to be glib. I agree with Citizen editor Scott Anderson that the raid represented a black day for freedom in Canada. But so did Canada’s role in the rendition of Citizen Arar to Syria.
Ultimately, the RCMP was publicly castigated for its raid by Madam Justice Lynn Ratushny in a judgment that struck down three sections of the secrets law and affirmed the media’s right to seek, obtain and possess some government secrets. In other words, the judge found no clear and present danger that would come even close to demonstrably justify- ing in a free and democratic society the RCMP’s actions in trying to turn O’Neill into an investigative arm of the state.
But one cannot leave this incident behind without discussing the implications of Juliet O’Neill’s use of anonymous sources to float into the public consciousness an officially pre- ferred version of the Arar story. Indeed, a quiet but important debate has bro- ken out in journalistic circles about both the reliance journalists place on such sources and the proper response if these sources turn out to have peddled false or misleading information.
In his Walrus article, Andrew Mitrovica quotes Carleton University’s Allan Thompson arguing that Arar has the right to know who orchestrated the smear campaign against him and that reporters should identify these unnamed sources.
Mitrovica returns to this theme in summing up his article, stating that jour- nalists might want to revisit journalistic convention regarding promises of anonymity. ”œIn Arar’s case,” he writes, ”œif anonymous sources kept an innocent man imprisoned, separated from his wife and newborn child, and tortured, and then pre- vented the truth from emerg- ing, all under false pretenses, then they must be outed.”
While acknowledging the reasonableness of contrary views, Tony Burman, editor-in-chief of CBC News, has thrown his weight behind the burning of miscreant sources. Last January, he posted a commentary on his CBC blog explaining the impor- tance of confidential sources, but argu- ing that they should be exposed ”œif we discover they have deliberately lied.”
I agree with Burman that this is fertile ground for debate. But in my view, such a course would be wrong- headed. We all have used and will in future use confidential sources to ferret out information of interest to the pub- lic from secretive organizations. Think Watergate. Think Deep Throat. Think Daniel Leblanc’s work on the sponsor- ship scandal.
In granting anonymity ”” some- thing I admit we do with far too much ease ”” we need to make strenuous efforts to verify the information. We are not vending machines, but jour- nalists. But I can tell you, having worked in Ottawa for many years, that it would be impossible to serve the public interest without resort to anonymous sources. The critical equa- tion is not whether they are using you (that is always the case to some extent, including, we now know, with Deep Throat) but that your readers are get- ting the best out of the bargain.
It is quite conceivable that O’Neill’s sources were scoundrels, as Mitrovica suggests. It is also possible they gen- uinely believed their information to be true and were misled themselves. In other words, to use Burman’s prescrip- tion, do we know beyond a doubt that their inaccuracies were deliberate? It is even within the realm of possibility ”” although highly unlikely ”” that they were right in at least some of their information. After all, one of the things you learn in journalism school is how hard it is to prove a negative.
I believe that the unauthorized disclosure of confidential sources is a true slippery slope. It could well inhib- it future whistleblowers (always a jit- tery lot). In my view, it should only be considered in the most extreme and egregious of circumstances that involve an overriding need to root out serious wrongdoing.
The better although less satisfacto- ry approach is to confront your source, demand an explanation (you may actually learn something) and, if unsatisfied, drop them from your Rolodex. Unlike Mitrovica, I cannot be persuaded that the greater good is served by exposing these sources, or, indeed, that no matter how con- temptible their subsequent actions, that the media leaks had any direct connection to the original matter of Arar’s rendition and torture.
Let’s quickly move from Arar to some of the national security debates raging in the United Sates, which is far more deeply engaged in waging war and anti-terror operations and where a highly ideological adminis- tration and its partisans do not hesi- tate to enter into battle with the so-called mainstream press.
Winston Churchill, speaking dur- ing the Second World War, declared that: ”œIn wartime, truth is so precious that she should be attended by a body- guard of lies.” This same perspective is pervasive among conservative com- mentators in the United States, who blame that country’s failure in Vietnam not on misplaced objectives or failed strategy but rather on the press having turned against America. Listen to one-time Nixon speechwriter, presidential candidate and media com- mentator Patrick Buchanan: ”œIn Vietnam, thousands of Americans died, sacrificial victims to a suicidal construction of the First Amendment.” I suspect this view is representative of many in the Bush administration.
In the past couple of years, we have seen a concerted attack aimed particu- larly at the New York Times, the most influential media outlet in the country. The Times, like many other media com- panies, has been weakened both by internal scandal (the Jayson Blair fiasco) and its perceived credulity in swallow- ing the administration’s line on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
But more recently, it has taken an aggressive approach in covering Bush administration actions in the war on ter- ror. Two recent Times stories stand out in particular ”” one that disclosed the co- operation of the financial clearing house SWIFT in tracking possible terrorist transactions and another that revealed a widespread campaign of wiretapping without resort to judicial warrants.
The wiretapping story, in particular, unleashed a torrent of criticism and even threats that the Times could or should be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
Think of the position of Times exec- utive editor Bill Keller, as reported in New York magazine. At one point, he was called to the White House along with his publisher and his Washington bureau chief. President George W. Bush and his top security advisers received the group in the Oval Office. The President warned Keller that if the Times disclosed the existence of the clandestine eavesdropping program, the next time there was a terrorist attack on American soil the paper would have blood on its hands.
Now all Bush really had to do was agree to follow the procedures, as set out in a 1978 law, for obtaining warrants from such spying activity. The essence of the Times story was that the adminis- tration was circumventing a special court set up for the purpose and pro- ceeding without the necessary warrants.
I don’t want to get bogged down in details. The back story here is fascinat- ing and arguments exist that the admin- istration did not require court approval because the eavesdropping was occur- ring offshore. It is also interesting that the Times sat on the story for a year and did not run it until after the 2004 presi- dential election or, perhaps more to the point, just prior to the publication of a book by one of its reporters that would have scooped the paper for which he had undertaken his investigation.
The salient point for us, though, is the kind of decision an editor is forced to make. It is not easy when the President of the United States tells you intelligence gathering will be compro- mised and lives put at stake. But I believe Bill Keller ultimately did the right thing. His bias must be on the side of publication; any arguments against would have to be powerful and persuasive. The Bush administration’s sorry record in truth telling was such that the onus upon it to produce con- vincing arguments and evidence was probably all that much greater.
Still, Keller went to great lengths to listen to the argument against publish- ing, agreeing as editors, as opposed to reporters, often must, to participate in off-the-record discussions with officials so they could make their case without fear it would be splashed across the front page. Indeed, in a joint op-ed piece with the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Keller revealed that he has with- held information that might have jeop- ardized efforts to protect vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear material as well as articles about ongoing counter-terror- ism operations. We also know that the L.A. Times held back details of American espionage activities in Afghanistan discovered on a computer drive purchased by reporters in an Afghan bazaar and that the Washington Post, in revealing the existence of CIA prisons in Europe, acceded to adminis- tration requests not to name the specif- ic countries involved.
In each of these cases, the editors in question applied some version of the test we discussed earlier ”” whether disclo- sure would surely result in direct, imme- diate and irreparable damage to the nation or its people. They rendered their tough judg- ments and proceeded accordingly, in most cases reporting on the existence of controversial practices while omitting operational details.
Critics on the left don’t like such collusion. Critics on the right demand to know who Bill Keller thinks he is to make these judgments. What security qualifications does he or any other edi- tor possess to substitute their judgments of harm for those of the executive branch charged with that responsibility?
My answer would be, If not Bill Keller, then who? What’s the better alternative? Despite living in danger- ous times, we certainly don’t want to live in a society where elected officials are granted the final say over the dis- semination of information.
A democracy depends in the final analysis on the ability and willingness of the citizenry to exercise their rights ”” be it the right to dissent, the right to dis- seminate, the right to throw the rascals out or the right to be informed. In the Pentagon Papers case, General Maxwell Taylor, who had been US ambassador in Vietnam, stated that a citizen’s right to know is limited ”œto those things he needs to know to be a good citizen and discharge his functions, but not to … secrets that damage his government and indirectly the citizen himself.”
But in the Pentagon Papers case, Justice Potter, while acknowledging the importance to national security of both confidentiality and secrecy, ulti- mately placed a higher premium on open debate and the free flow of infor- mation. ”œThe only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and inter- national affairs,” he said, ”œmay lie in an enlightened citizenry.”
It is therefore incumbent upon those of us who work in the media to take ourselves as seriously as I think the public takes us in this function of creating the conditions for an enlight- ened citizenry to fulfill its responsibili- ties as the ultimate sovereign power in a democratic society. We must provide our newsrooms with ample resources and expertise to practise good journal- ism and ensure that enough of these resources are devoted to matters of public importance. A joint Canadian Newspaper Association and Canadian Broadcasters Association poll taken a couple of years ago reported this about our audiences: 91 percent thought the role of the media was to keep Canadians informed; 86 percent thought it was to hold governments accountable; 74 percent to provide a Canadian perspective on world events. Against that, only 50 percent thought we are in the business of keeping Canadians entertained.
Now I’ve got nothing against Britney or Posh or even, I suppose, Paris. But they are not the main reason why we in the media, and newspapers in particular, exist. We exist to pursue truth and promote debate ”” and that means challenging the holders of power, particularly powers of coercion.
These are great times to be a journal- ist. The stakes are high. The issues are complex. The public is more engaged. Think back to the 2000 presidential elec- tion in the United States. The hanging chads. Bush or Gore. It didn’t really make a difference. The market ruled anyway. It was all a big joke. Since then, we’ve had 9/11, of course, but also Enron and other scandals that wiped out the life savings of millions of people. Would anyone again treat the outcome of a presidential elec- tion with the same cavalier attitude?
It is undeniable that times of war or domestic peril render the relation- ship between the state and the press all the more difficult. The fact that in this country, effective legislative oversight of the executive has largely broken down places an even greater onus on the fourth estate to hold executive power to account. Decisions about national security are probably the most important ones governments can make ”” injecting the nation into foreign entanglements, placing young lives at risk, tiptoeing on the line between civil liberties and public safety.
Periods of uncertainty, like these, are clearly not the time for the press to sus- pend its watchdog function, but rather to step up and vigorously embrace its constitutionally recognized role.
This is not the moment to be look- ing to write new scripts in the long and difficult relationship between press and state, but rather to rededicate ourselves to the principles that underline our role in society. New circumstances, yes; but as far as the press should be con- cerned, it remains the same old story.
Adapted from the Bell Lecture at Carleton University, January 31, and the James M. Minifie Lecture at the University of Regina, March 2007.