Letters

March 2007

by
• 2,382 words

The Horse’s Mouth

Andrew Mitrovica (“Hear No Evil, Write No Lies,” January) has done a superb job of laying bare the discreditable role of certain reporters and news organizations (especially the CanWest conglomerate) in acting as willing tools of those elements within the rcmp who attempted to cover up their bad behaviour by smearing Maher Arar’s reputation.

Particularly odious are the self-congratulatory accolades much of the media has accorded Juliet O’Neill of the Ottawa Citizen as a martyred heroine of the “free press.” The heavy-handed rcmp raid on her house had the unintended effect of precipitating the O’Connor inquiry (the Paul Martin government knew that once the media is on the receiving end of state security actions, all political hell breaks loose). But Ms. O’Neill is no heroine, as Mitrovica rightly points out. She was a dupe, and she’s never shown any glimmer of recognition of the hurt her actions caused an innocent man. Instead, she has invoked her “duty” to protect her sources, winning unjustified praise for her “courage.”

From the standpoint of journalistic ethics, one might well ask if the honourable thing would not be for O’Neill to reveal her sources, who used her as a tool of disinformation. She chooses not to do so and has even won a court decision declaring the parts of the law used in the raid unconstitutional. The law may have been flawed and the raid ill-advised, to say the least, but the ethical issue remains unresolved.

The larger issue raised by Mitrovica’s article has to do with the quality of reporting on the “war on terror,” so crucially dependent on information jealously guarded by state security agencies. The lesson of the Arar affair is to beware Greeks bearing gifts. The promise of a scoop based on exclusive leaks from within the state may be very tempting indeed to reporters, but they should treat these with extreme skepticism lest they become pawns in games played by those who control the secrets.

The spectre haunting the press today is that of the US media rolling over for the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and especially its invasion of Iraq. Reporter Judith Miller went to prison for refusing to give up her source in a grand jury investigation into the leak that outed cia agent Valerie Plame. For a time, Miller gained a reputation as a martyr for the free press, but when she finally yielded the name and was released, the New York Times dumped her. Miller was the ultimate embedded reporter, and her “retirement” from the Times, along with the public apology the paper issued for its complicity in perpetuating official lies, should be an object lesson for the media in Canada. As should the Arar affair, which required an official inquiry to reveal a sorry truth that much of the media had done nothing to uncover and much to obfuscate.

Reg Whitaker
Policy review advisory panel member for the Arar inquiry
Victoria, BC

Facts were hard to come by in the Arar case. As a reporter who did some of the early spadework, I can speak first-hand of the difficulties involved. Maher Arar was in a Syrian jail, and the details of his case were in a secret file. Any reporter who has ever covered the police or political beat knows how you get access to that kind of material: by cultivating relationships with the officials who guard it. It’s a Faustian bargain. You get information tidbits that serve the interests of those officials in exchange for scoops that get you on the front page.

Arar was a victim of that ugly process, and I agree with Mitrovica that the case produced some journalistic travesties. But the real villains in the Arar saga are the officials in Ottawa and Washington who engineered Arar’s fate, not the reporters who chronicled it. The press hacks (including myself) covered Arar’s case with varying degrees of skill and skepticism. All of us wanted to get to the bottom of the Arar case. None of us did.

There is a self-correcting quality to a narrative like Arar’s, and the pendulum has swung: Arar is no longer a suspected terrorist. Instead, he has emerged as something of a Mandela figure. The head of the rcmp has gone down in flames. The findings of the Arar commission have been covered in relentless detail, and Arar has been handed the national press megaphone to have his say.

Like every other journalist in the country, Mitrovica was free to apply his talents to the Arar case after it broke in 2002. Given his billing as one of the country’s leading investigative reporters, surely he stood a better-than-average chance of uncovering the political and bureaucratic chicanery that cost Arar his freedom.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, Mitrovica waited until an official inquiry put the facts in the public domain, then appointed himself chief inquisitor of his fellow journalists. Where I come from, this is called coming down from the hills to shoot the wounded.

Peter Cheney
Toronto, Ontario

My former Globe and Mail colleague Andrew Mitrovica raises important questions about the relationship between sources and reporters. The Arar case has triggered a lot of overdue discussion in Ottawa news-media circles. Why do we so often allow sources to remain anonymous? We can’t retroactively “out” anonymous sources who led us astray through honest error on their part, but we need to be clearer with sources that their part of the contract is to be truthful with us. If we subsequently learn they have deliberately deceived us, the deal’s off. Our credibility is on the line.

Jeff Sallot
Ottawa, Ontario

Andrew Mitrovica responds:

Peter Cheney and Jeff Sallot offer limp rationales to absolve the media’s complicity in the smearing of an innocent Canadian. For his part, Cheney plucks the “Faustian bargain” canard from the ready and predictable bag of excuses. Stripped of its embroidery, his argument is: the devil made me do it.

Cheney betrays a misunderstanding of even the most rudimentary meaning of Faust’s pact. Faust’s odyssey is, in part, a tragedy about the disastrous consequences not of making a deal, but of acquiescing to the soul-draining terms of the bargain. It is also a story about deriving knowledge through experience.

It becomes evident that these lessons have eluded Cheney when he submits that the “real villains” of the Arar affair are the powerful government officials who tried to destroy a lone citizen and not their equally powerful media conduits. I suppose Cheney and other reporters who share his evasions find comfort in their blindness.

As for Cheney’s suggestion that I waited for the imprimatur of Justice O’Connor’s report before pointing an accusatory finger, he ought to have done his homework. In early 2004, I wrote a piece dissecting the smear campaign (up to that point) for Media magazine, a publication put out by the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Jeff Sallot offers a more nuanced response. Having shared many bylines with him, I know that he is a thoughtful journalist. This accounts for his struggle to fashion a less accommodating relationship with his sources. However, I’m unfamiliar with any code that prevents reporters from retroactively outing sources who, as Justice O’Connor concluded, labelled Arar a terrorist and liar to shield themselves from scrutiny and sanction. It’s unlikely that Sallot and I will bridge that divide soon. In the meantime, the fourth estate would be wise to heed Professor Whitaker’s admonition: beware Greeks bearing gifts.

Designer Shades

I am sympathetic to Bruce Mau’s essay in praise of optimism (“Imagining the Future,” January). There are problems in this world that need solving, and optimism—faith that solutions exist—is the requisite frame of mind for anyone seeking solutions. And Mau is right: the media pushes terrifying stories relentlessly, leaving hopeful stories as token interest pieces, flush with nostalgia and stripped of any seriousness. Ugly is honest, beauty is superficial.

However, I take issue with Mau’s use of a rhetorical device that permits casual dismissal of inconvenient criticism on the grounds that it is merely cynical, even if such criticism has emerged from a genuine desire to engage and debate. The result is less an honestly structured argument for optimism than an oddly didactic framework—you’re either with us in optimism or against us in cynicism.

More broadly, in emphasizing the positive and trumpeting the optimistic designer, Mau allows the uncritical to infer that we need only to stay a course of incremental improvement and things will work themselves out. We can design our way out of this mess! There is comfort in that proposition. It does not ask that we change the way we live. It does not ask that we reflect on the decisions we make. In its own way, for all its bluster of innovation, it advocates stasis: this world, only with floating cars that fold up into attaché cases.

I see the cynicism in young designers, most noticeable in those who came of age with an awareness of modernism’s failure to deliver on its promises. Mau ought not to confuse their cynicism with hopelessness or lack of ambition anymore than we should confuse his optimism with objectivity. Indeed, I suspect his practice could do with a little youthful cynicism. It might serve to temper his naïveté, and he might see that somewhere between his optimism and their cynicism is a real world and a host of problems that demand attention.

Ian Ross McDonald
Vancouver, BC

Economy of Truth

I was disappointed by Tim Murphy’s article on Paul Martin (“Noble Ambition,” January). What could have been a mea culpa for, or at least an explanation of, the spectacular failure of Martin and the Liberal Party is just more revisionist drivel about his former boss.

Never is this more apparent than when Murphy talks about the end of the Martin government last November. He blames the “pure opportunism” of the ndp and other opposition parties for bringing down the Liberal government, having already acknowledged that Martin promised to hold an early election one month after the February 1, 2006, release of the final report on the sponsorship scandal. Which was it? Did the ndp end the government “early” or was Paul Martin lying when he promised to hold an election?

Of course, the former account allows the Liberals to say that the ndp cost Canadians all the advancements they’d planned for the remaining weeks they hoped to govern—a cleaner environment, fairness for aboriginal peoples, and a national child-care plan. I, for one, am tired of hearing that the ndp cost us everything the Liberals failed to deliver in over a decade of government. In January 2006, Canadians threw the Liberals out because of such arrogance and inaction. Only months out of the Prime Minister’s Office, Murphy is now offering his political counsel to Stéphane Dion. For a party sorely in need of renewal, this is not an auspicious start.

Moya Crangle
Rankin Inlet, Nunavut

Game On!

Daniel Sanger (“5, 6, Pickup Sticks,” January) writes that playing open-air pickup hockey is “that most sublime of Canadian activities.” He emphasizes the significance of “playing,” which is undertaken with childlike enthusiasm and freedom, embracing spontaneity within a set of arbitrary but agreed-upon rules. Canadians love playing the game of hockey, as opposed to working at it. The American historian Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations: “Games quickly lose their charm when forced into service of education, character development, or social improvement.” Nothing is as sublime on a winter’s day as striding down a sheet of ice, puck on stick, seeking the next deft deke or perfect pass. In the absence of referees and scorekeepers, on creeks, rivers, and natural ice rinks, I played the game with much greater joy than when padded up under the roof of an arena.

After a long hiatus, I returned to the game in the late 1980s as a regular participant in the Friday-night pickup games at Toronto’s Rennie Park, one of those outdoor refrigerated rinks Sanger refers to. Crossing boundaries of age, skill, and even gender, we skated three aside in -15°C (icicles on moustaches), ploughed through snow-covered ice (where’s the puck?), and whirled about with twenty-five other skaters (keep your head up!). All of this is in sharp contrast to a game now conducted with “over-seriousness,” “sensationalism,” and a “blend of adolescence and barbarity” as described by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. This would not seem to be in the service of increasing the joy of playing but in the push toward patriotism, consumerism, and the mania for winning.

Paul Tortolo
Waterloo, Ontario

Swing Low

Ken Alexander (“Mood Swing,” January) remarks on the sombre mood in Montreal in early October 2006, not long after Kimveer Gill opened fire at Dawson College and Globe and Mail columnist Jan Wong suggested that his shooting spree reflected the city’s long-standing racial problems. Alexander writes that all this had hit a “nerve of insecurity.” Dude, it was pissing rain. It had been raining for two weeks, and we had another two weeks of rain to dread.

I don’t claim to speak for all Montrealers, nor for the Dawson College community, and certainly not for the families of the shooting victims, whose shock and grief will go far beyond what I can imagine. (Nor can their mourning be reduced to historical platitudes about language and culture.) I would suggest, however, that Montrealers are less concerned with the misplaced editorial rantings of a woman who once made her living insulting public figures over foie de something at Susur Lee’s such-and-such or with deconstructing the vestiges of the October Crisis and of the “Anglo exodus” or with Parizeau’s appetite for his own feet than they are with appropriate and compassionate acts of commemoration and constructive political and social action. There are many more solitudes than MacLennan’s two in Montreal, as the editorial goes on to point out, and we are rather solidaires, actually. And grumpy when wet.

Katia Grubisic
Montreal, Quebec

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Send us a letter, an email ([email protected]), or a tweet, or post on this website. Comments may be published in any medium and edited for length, clarity, and accuracy. Mail correspondence to: 411 Richmond St. E., Suite B15, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  M5A 3S5