Holding Power to Account
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As its name implies, the conference promised a lot.
Big concepts. Big ideas.
And it delivered.
I am thankful to have been part of it.
More than three hundred people from 15 countries attended the event this
past weekend, sponsored by the CBC and University of Winnipeg.
They heard Adrienne Arsenault, a foreign correspondent with CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) TV's
flagship newscast, The National, tell a terrifying tale about an
assignment she was on in an African nation.
She and her 3-member camera crew went to a cemetery
where she had arranged to interview someone, mistakenly believing it
would be relatively quiet and safe. Instead, they encountered a gang of
drunken thugs who were digging graves. They took the crew hostage at
gunpoint, then joked about whether they should bury them in the
newly-dug graves. Fortunately, a government official, attending a
funeral nearby, intervened and allowed Adrian and her crew to go safely
on their way.
The Chief Correspondent for CBC Television, Peter Mansbridge, told the
conference, CBC news teams were "bleeding" due to the latest round of
cuts by the government. But, he promised, no matter how tough things
get, "We're going to keep going." Mansbridge said the culture of secrecy
which has grown up in this country is not what the veterans of D-Day,
70 years ago, fought and died for. "Our purpose is to break that
culture. What we do matters to those guys. Courage is contagious."
Another featured speaker was Carl Bernstein, half of the famous
Washington Post team which exposed the Watergate scandal and brought
down a President 40 years ago. Bernstein choked with emotion when
telling the conference how his boss, Katharine Graham, insisted that she
be the one authorities deal with when they tried to confiscate his
notes. He says, by so doing, Graham put her newspaper empire on the line
in defense of the story.
A print journalist, Mike De Souza told a panel, while working for PostMedia news,
he exposed a shady deal between Talisman, an oil company and the
University of Calgary to cast doubt on the science of climate change. De
Souza lost his job with PostMedia when it decided it wanted a
more positive image of the oil industry, especially the Alberta's tar
sands. De Souza now freelances.
A national reporter for CBC Radio news, Curt Petrovich, revealed how he
broke a political scandal in Manitoba in the late '90s. He confirmed
that, in 1995, the Conservatives illegally created a political party in
order to split the vote and help the Tories win. Petrovich found a
"candidate" the Tories had paid to run for the bogus party, and
convinced him, with much difficulty, to tell him everything. His story
showed that earlier denials by Conservative officials of what was
happening, were untrue. Premier Gary Filmon, who lost the next election
in 1999, claimed to know nothing. Filmon went on to serve on the
committee overseeing the activities of CSIS, Canada's spy agency. He now
sits on the board of directors of the communications utility, MTS which
he privatized after promising not to do so.
Members of the EnquÃªte investigative team
from Radio-Canada, the French division of CBC Television, described how
they exposed corruption in the construction industry in Quebec. Their
reports led to formation of the Charbonneau Commission which has heard
dramatic testimony from crime figures and others about kickbacks,
bid-rigging and cosy relationships between a crime figure and a top
union leader. (Peter Mansbridge revealed EnquÃªte may lose 1/5 of its staff, due to budget cuts.)
This writer also served on a panel. It examined the role of public and
community radio in holding power to account. One small victory happened
to me when I worked for CBC Radio in Calgary in the 70s. I broke a story
about professional car thieves using loopholes in the laws governing
the registering of motor vehicles in Alberta. They were able to
"legitimise" stolen vehicles by easily having them registered in that
province. I was able to demonstrate how easy it was to "create" a
vehicle on paper and, for a small fee, walk away with registration and a
license plate. Car theft rings were reportedly doing it all the time.
Shortly afterword, Alberta moved to close the loopholes and stop the
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