Last winter, during one of the daily meetings with my staff at the Toronto Observer (the online newspaper produced by senior journalism students at Centennial College where I teach), one of my student reporters faced a dilemma. We had assigned her to attend the funeral of Sgt. Ryan Russell, the Toronto Police Service officer killed by a stolen pickup truck with a snow plow. It was too late for her to get a press pass to the funeral. So how, she wondered, would she get into the ceremony?
“Do I hide the fact I’m a reporter?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s a public funeral. You should be able to get in. But if they ask you not to take photographs, respect their wishes.”
The young woman managed to get into the Toronto Convention Centre with the throngs of citizens, police mourners and family members. She was asked not to take pictures inside the centre and complied. During the ceremony, however, she made notes; then outside the centre interviewed mourners and took some photos. She then wrote one of the best stories of her young career and illustrated this important story of public support for the Russell family and fellow officers in mourning. As with the other media present, our novice reporter contributed mightily to the public’s right to know.
I offer you this exhibit in what has become – in the past week – a public debate over the ethical or unethical behaviour of the media. On Sunday, the 168-year-old British tabloid – the News of the World – published its last newspaper. Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch actually travelled to the U.K. to preside over the final edition. He and its controversial editor Rebekah Brooks could no longer defend the paper against allegations of hacking the phones of murder victims, dead soldiers and royal family members. It’s alleged police are also investigating the World’s senior executives for lying to Parliament. As a consequence of the scandal, I’m afraid all journalists are being improperly tarred with the “unethical” brush.
“The media have too much power,” I’ve heard friends and politicians criticize. To which I generally respond with such thoughts as these:
If not for Toronto publisher George Brown, who created the Globe newspaper in 1844, Canada might not have acquired responsible government. If not for one of his reporters, Kathleen “Kit” Coleman, women may not have won equal rights in this country. The wit and tenacity of Calgary Eye Opener publisher/writer Bob Edwards almost certainly blazed the trail to public criticism of politicians (in the early 1900s, he won a suit against him by an Alberta premier).
Later, Stevie Cameron exposed the corruption and greed in the Brian Mulroney administration. And during the War on Terror in Afghanistan, journalists Rosie Dimanno, Murray Brewster and Christie Blatchford have gone beyond embedding with NATO troops in the Middle East to reveal the actual stories of Canadian troops at the front line.
Among many U.S. examples, it was Joseph Pulitzer who crusaded for the rights of immigrants, the poor and the working class; Ray Stannard Baker, who exposed the Jim Crow laws and black lynching; Nellie Bly (a.k.a. Elizabeth Cochrane) who revealed atrocious conditions of asylums; and it was the dogged journalism of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, that forced perhaps the most crooked and deceiving president in U.S. history – Richard M. Nixon – and his policies from office.
By the way, just as a postscript to citing examples of the value and importance of free and unencumbered journalism and media, may I also point out two rather interesting historical coincidences. Thursday, July 14, in addition to being Bastille Day, the day the French people rose up in revolution against an oppressive monarchy in 1789, also marks the day in 1933 when the Hitler abolished all political parties but the Nazi Party; he had also long since exterminated free speech and opposition journalism – something some 44,000 Canadians died to restore in the world.
And before anyone gloats “holier than thou” over the demise of the News of the World, might I suggest that perhaps the newspaper’s accusers could be just as guilty. If the public felt the World was so fictitious, salacious and unethical, why did it still command the largest readership in Britain (at its peak in 1951 more than 8 million copies a week).
To borrow from Shakespeare: “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
One day, I hope my young Centennial College journalism protégé, whose first assignment was getting into the Ryan Russell funeral so that the public could know, has a chance to wield as much power as a Rebekah Brooks or a Rupert Murdoch. I’m sure she’ll uphold the same standards of her predecessors and meet the expectations of you, her readers.