Holding Power to Account – Investigative Journalism Conference in Winnipeg

We had the pleasure of attending the Investigative Journalism Conference in Winnipeg in June 2014. We always admire journalists who risk their lives to expose the truth. It was nice to see academics, journalists and students gather together learning and discussing investigative journalism.

Here is a short summary from some of the panel and talks from the conference:

Exposing Corruption in Quebec

The CBC Quebec’s counter part Radio-Canada discussed how they exposed the widespread corruption in Quebec. Enquete - the Quebec version of Fifth Estate related how the real-life drama unfolded. It started with restaurant receipts and a casual check with those restaurants that led to more clues and questions. Soon they had learned that they were dealing with a case involving organized crime. Despite the death threat, the team charged on focused on only one thing, finding the truth. When they went after the Hell’s Angels, they got sued. But their producers were unfazed and gave them their full confidence.

The trails led them to places they never imagined when they started out on their investigation. Soon, the major Quebec media were each doing their own investigations. Even commercial press saw that there was interest among the public and started working together with their competitors exchanging and sharing notes. They did what police were initially hesitant to do. Go after the big fish. The ongoing inquiry has become a hit reality T.V show in Quebec.

The question and answer portion that follows had the audience wondering if the corruption was more widespread than just in Quebec. The Enquete team concentrated on Quebec but they believe all the dots are there and just needed to be connected. Another audience wondered if SNC is only globally corrupt or also locally.

The journalist also talks about challenges of whistle-blowers backing out at the last minute, and the needs to be meticulous because a little mistake could be used to discredit them.

Cuts to CBC were discussed. And they acknowledged that the cuts would mean they would be able to pursue less original investigative journalism stories.

Watergate, Muzzling of journalist and Whistle-blowers

This being an investigative journalism conference, whistle-blowers were discussed a lot. Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters that exposed Nixon’s Watergate scandal gave a talk. Carl Bernstein expressed a wish that the U.S. had a public broadcaster like CBC who did investigative journalism.

Michael Hudson also attended and talked at the conference. He is internationally renowned for exposing the sub-prime mortgage fraud. He also wrote the book “The Monsters”, which reads like a more intense and real life version of the fictional movie Wolf of Wall Street. He is now wanted in one of the offshore tax haven fraud countries. They passed a law using child porn as a reason but meant to prosecute journalists like Hudson, while being more lenient on child pornographers.

Other less famous journalists talked about being muzzled. One speaker bemoaned the abrupt cancellation of funding for small local magazines without any reason being given by the government. Others talked about how the U.S. government is becoming the media. Where the corporate media fears the government. Chelsea Manning and Snowden were cited as examples of the U.S. media helping the government change and divert the news away from the main story (i.e. Manning’s video leak of indiscriminate killing in Iraq and Snowden’s revelations).

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement was also discussed. How the main stream media failed to report on it and how the “niche media” filled the gap. Orchestrated leaks by Wiki leaks became the news and risked shifting the focus away from reporting on the contents of the leaks.

One speaker gave the mostly Canadian audience a dose of reality by stating that Canada lags behind the western world, including the U.S. when it comes to whistle-blower protection. We are no better than the U.S. Lots of countries have national laws on the protection of whistle-blowers. Canada has none.

There were recognitions of the importance of whistle-blowers not only in public service but also in private companies like Walmart. Since whistle-blowers are often more loyal and caring towards an institution so ignoring them only makes matters worse. Muzzling of whistle-blowers was also discussed from workplace abuses and attempts at marginalizing them.

Some independent press and bigger name journalists gave a talk about being muzzled through suing. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the litigation takes a toll and the independent journalist struggles to raise funds to pay for the litigation. The convictions of these journalists are admirable in the face of life ruining threats.

CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault talked about her experience in Zimbabwe and threats to her life when she encountered Mugabe’s henchmen who joked about which open grave to put them in. She won an international award for her Zimbabwe reporting.

Michael De Souza also spoke in the conference. He was recently let go by Post-media (publisher of National Post). He is an environmental and energy investigative journalist. Someone wondered out loud if he was let go due to a sponsorship deal with influential energy companies that occurred around the same time.

Investigative Journalism Under Threat

One hot topic during the conference and in private conversations was CBC’s mandate of providing Canadians with investigative stories. A role public broadcasters are able to play so well. There is a sense of dread that government is attacking CBC with its constant cuts. The phrase dead by a thousand cuts was heard often.

There was pleading for help from academics and the public as there’s a sense that the journalists felt alone when they fought the government against forcing them to disclose their source through a proposed bill C-461. The bill was eventually withdrawn. But there is realization that academics who are mostly in contract could risk their job if they speak out. But they have weight and credibility in the public eye as opposed to journalists advocating for themselves.

It was also recognized by some that the CBC executives overseeing the cuts were government appointees and is not looking after the interests of CBC as a public broadcaster. There’s also frustration about access to information and the government’s attempt to block them. There were videos and audio recordings of government officials’ clumsy and almost comedic attempts to lie and cover up using lame excuses. Videos of government officials lying without hesitation and even suing journalists in order to muzzle them.

Citizen Journalism and the Main Stream Media

The conference featured some non-traditional press. One speaker warned about the risk of Canadian complacency in thinking that investigative journalism is already taken care of by our public broadcasters. For-profit media outlet expenses and purchases are also creating debts and cuts that put investigative journalism at risk.

Outside the conference, some citizen journalists criticized the conference citing some main stream media attacks on a citizen journalist who was criticized for their reporting.

There needs to be recognition that there will always be self proclaimed citizen journalists. Those that do not check their facts and easily fall into sensationalism and resort to being alarmists. But traditional media needs to recognize that citizen journalism is here to stay. They are not competitors. Citizen journalism has given rise to Glenn Greenwald and the late Michael Hastings. They are less likely to be compliant and more likely to challenge the status quo, a necessary ingredient for the making of a great investigative journalist.

For investigative journalism to thrive and to be able to hold power to account, a public broadcaster with no commercial interest is a crucial part of maintaining a free press in an increasingly profit-focus news environment, who questions the government less but fears those in power more. For democracy to work, a public broadcaster should be independent from political interference and the threat of cuts. They should be able to do their job and work unhindered with whistle-blowers, and citizen journalists when the opportunity arises.

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