Last January 3, a swarm of reporters scrambled up and down the ski slopes of Banff, Alberta, in pursuit of two Toronto newlyweds. Mr. Justice Samuel G.M. Grange had just delivered his long-awaited report on his inquiry into the 1980 and ’81 baby deaths at the Hospital for Sick Children, one of the most controversial public inquiries ever held in Canada. The media were frantic to know what nurse Susan Nelles, a key commission witness then on her honeymoon, had to say about it.
The media’s relentless preoccupation with Nelles began in late March, 1981, when Metropolitan Toronto Police charged her with murdering four of 36 babies who had died mysteriously on the hospital’s cardiac ward between July, 1980, and the following March. As Toronto Sun columnist Christie Blatchford wrote the day after Grange’s report was made public, “Within hours of her [Nelles’s] arrest, she had become the ‘accused babykiller,’ and the operative word there was not ‘accused,’ it was ‘babykiller.'”
When Nelles was discharged for lack of evidence after a 42-day preliminary hearing held in 1982, Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry called a public inquiry to investigate how the babies died and why Nelles was arrested. “The goal,” said McMurtry later, “was simply to provide the public with the fullest accounting of what happened.”
To that end, Grange permitted radio and TV reporters to film and tape the hearing from its beginning on June 21, 1983. On April 9, 1984, just as Nelles was beginning her second week of testimony, he took the unprecedented step of allowing continuous live television coverage, which continued until the inquiry concluded on September 27, 1984. The testimony of 64 witnesses would fill 44,000 transcript pages before the 1S-month hearing ended. A radical contrast to the frustrating secrecy of Nelles’s preliminary hearing, the Grange inquiry drew public criticism for being a trial by media. But for those reporters who covered all or part of the marathon, it was more a trial of than by the media.
Only two journalists attended the hearing on each of its 191 days: Ted Bissland, a court reporter for CBC’s The National, and Kevin Cox, a Globe and Mail general assignment reporter. Both admit that however fascinating the Grange assignment was, they were relieved when it finally ended. “It became my life,” says Bissland, 51, a 30-year television veteran who joined the CBC 22 years ago. “It was a helluva story, but thank God it’s over.” Bissland filed a Grange report almost daily, but on the rare occasions he didn’t because the hearing hadn’t produced a story, viewers called the CBC demanding to know why. “So then we got stuck with the situation that good, bad, indifferent or lousy, you’ve got to put something on every day so people know what transpired at the Grange. Even if it was next to nothing, you’ve got to tell them it was next to nothing. The story became so big you couldn’t get out of it if you wanted to.” He had previously covered two high-profile murder trials: the 1978 trial of four men charged in the slaying of 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques, a Toronto shoeshine boy, and the 1974 trial of Mississauga contractor Peter Demeter, now serving a life sentence for arranging the murder of his wife. Neither, he says, compares with the intellectual challenge posed by the Grange, with its technically complex, often contradictory, occasionally tedious testimony. The inquiry was also by far the most sensational story he’d ever covered.
That sensationalism was inherent to the subject and not a consequence of the way the media reported it, claims Cox, 31, who has nine years reporting experience, the last four with the Globe. “It was the most bizarre murder case I think we’ll ever see in this country. You can’t sensationalize this. You’ve got mass murders of innocent little babies, quite probably by somebody who was taking care of them, a case that’s impossible to crack and all these people come up here and you nail them with every possible accusation and they won’t] budge. You’ve got all this talk of conspiracy of silence among the nurses, you’ve got cops stumbling over each other trying to figure out how to deal with medical practice. If you put all that in a novel, nobody would believe it.”
(Writing in the evenings, Bissland did put it all in Death Shift, a nonfiction account he started in October, 1983. Released two weeks after the inquiry ended, it’s the only summary and analysis of the proceedings published to date.)
For Cox, the toughest challenge of the Grange was keeping his perspective and ensuring his reports were fair and balanced. He says he often spent weekends reviewing the previous week’s stories, checking for any imbalances to adjust in longer analysis pieces. “You couldn’t take sides. You couldn’t stay sane if you did-you just couldn’t write. It’s hard not to take sides because you feel very sympathetic toward everyone. But you have to basically put that to one side. And you deal with the mental and emotional confusion by yourself and you try to keep it out of your work.”
He says had he known at the beginning that the hearing would be so difficult to cope with on a personal level, he would have been “leery” about accepting it. He describes the “emotional turmoil” of deciding what to include, what to omit, calling it a “stomach churning thing. You stop thinking of the individuals involved as people, real flesh and blood. They’re names. And it’s only when they testify and when you talk to their families who happen to be in the hearing room that you realize the immense impact of what you’ve done. This is not just some cardboard character out there. This is a real person who has a real life to lead.”
Bissland, by comparison, says that in the course of the inquiry he became “de-nerved” to the prospect that what he was reporting might be tainting reputations. “You couldn’t let it bother you. I could not control what was transpiring. It was my job to report it and I was doing that as balanced and as honestly and as accurately as I possibly could, and that was my responsibility. You may not like the system but we weren’t controlling it.”
Cox justifies what he calls “a trial by commission” on the basis that every witness eventually had a chance to “turn the tables around,” to give his or her own account. Consequently, he refused to report anything that wasn’t said by the witnesses on the stand: “I wasn’t going to try the case outside the hearing room. I didn’t like the idea of contradicting evidence heard in the hearing room with stuff that I might get from an interview outside if that person didn’t have guts enough to come up before Grange and say it point blank.” Cox also had to justify to himself why he sat there day after day. For the first time in his career, he was forced to ask himself why he was writing a story. He says the answer was that 36 sets of parents had a right to know what happened to their children. “Grange tried in every way he possibly could to get to the bottom of what happened to those kids and he had to take people right through the emotional wringer, and he did.” He says more people were cleared than were branded in “a useful exercise” that was a sacrifice of a few for the greater public good.
How well did the media serve the public? Ken Cox, 37 (no relation to Kevin Cox), who covered most of the inquiry for AM radio station CFRB, believes the overall quality of reporting by all media throughout the inquiry was high. For Cox, with 11 years’ experience as a general assignment and legal reporter, the last seven with CFRB, his biggest challenge was to distill “reams of evidence into a very small package in a very short time.” On weekends, he had about four minutes to analyze the prior week at the Grange; on weekdays, he had 50 seconds. And he filed three daily reports from the station’s broadcast booth at city hall, a five-minute jog from the inquiry’s Dundas Street West hearing room. Cox claims that as a news medium for a long-running court story, radio is both a curse and a blessing. Deadline for his last, and what he wanted to be his best, report of the day was 4:50. But to leave the hearing before it adjourned at 4:30 was to risk missing “the 4:30 zinger.”
However, the media often pounced on these last-minute snippets of news, only to learn when the hearing resumed the next day that they were misleading, inaccurate or just plain conjecture. As a radio reporter, Cox was at least able to file corrections immediately, thereby minimizing the damage done by the previous day’s erroneous reports. Print reporters weren’t as successful.
Kevin Cox cites an example. During her cross-examination in February, 1984, nurse Meredith Frise testified that she believed there could have been a conspiracy of two nurses responsible for murdering infants. Virtually everyone ran with the story because it was the only significant testimony of the day. Back on the stand the next morning, Frise admitted she had no basis for that belief. “In 10 seconds, she blew out of the water that day’s headlines,” Cox remembers. Cox says there’s not much that could have been done to prevent “the incredible damage” caused to witnesses’ reputations in these instances because there was no guarantee the reader would even see the correction when it was finally published. Bissland believes the reporting of the inquiry was generally responsible and attributes this to most news outlets’ policy of assigning only one reporter to cover it. The Sun’s’ Heather Bird, for example, followed the story from the day Nelles was arrested, and covered most of the inquiry. Peter Goodspeed started the assignment for The Toronto Star, but was then sent to the Falkland Islands. John Munch took over, staying until the end of the first phase. Two other reporters filled the vacancy before the end of the inquiry. While the Star’s coverage was ”as consistent as you can be on such a long-running story, it would have been preferable to have one person,” says Lou Clancy, city editor. CFTO- TV, however, randomly assigned different reporters, what Bissland calls “drop-in journalists,” who attended the hearing only when there was something sensational to put in a 30-second clip.
“It’s difficult to assign just one reporter,” claims Derwyn Smith, CFTO news director. “The CBC did it and it helped a person write a book, I suppose, but we weren’t interested in that aspect. We had to be flexible-we always are.” He says he doesn’t think this approach was a problem for his reporters, who could brief themselves at the research desk. Further, he says it helps to have someone fresh, who hasn’t become “too close” to the story, to bring it a different perspective.
While CFTO’s Jim Junkin, who was periodically assigned to the Grange, admits it would have been easier to cover had it been a full-time assignment, he doesn’t think CFTO’s coverage suffered as a result. But CFRB’s Cox disagrees: “There’s no way you can have the depth, the understanding, if you’re flying people in and moving them off to another story almost daily. CFTO’s people almost had to be spoon-fed around the inquiry. I can’t fault the reporters-they’re told to go and they show up and they don’t know who anybody is. I often thought they depended on other reporters’ reactions to the story.”
CFRB’s Cox admits the Grange was, in some respects, a comfortable beat because he didn’t have to scrounge for news. But he says he never lost his perspective by getting too close to, or bored with, the story. If he’s glad to be back in different courtrooms, it’s because his coworkers at the station lost interest in his reports, and their apathy was deflating. “Toward the end, newscasters’ eyes would glaze over as soon as they heard the word Grange,” he says. Kevin Cox admits he was often bored with the routine of knowing where he’d be going every day, noting that in the first five months of the hearing, during doctors’ testimony and before murder had been established, “most reporters were almost somnolent.” But he made sure he wrote other stories to remind him that “there’s another world out there that doesn’t care about the Grange. You think everybody’s a [Grange] groupie because that’s all everybody’s talking about. 1 didn’t want people here to think that was the only thing 1 could do-there has to be life after this thing.” Citytv’s Lome Honickman agrees. With four years’ experience as a general assignment and legal reporter, Honickman, 31, covered the hearing sporadically for the first six months and then daily for the last year. “Luckily for me, the commission often did not sit on Fridays, and Fridays I was allowed to do a different story, which was very important for me because you lose perspective sometimes when you’re on one story.”
It wasn’t a loss of perspective that led to what Kevin Cox calls the “homogenized news” that often emerged from the Grange. He blames the omnipresent television camera and a videotaping room located beside the hearing room for making it too easy for some electronic media members to be lazy. “They could come in at the end of the day, pull a 30-second clip, have no idea what relevance it had or where it came from, and throw it on the air. It happened all the time.” He says the synthesized stories produced by reporters covering the hearing from in front of the television monitor made him aware for the first time of the danger of pack journalism, or what Honickman prefers to call cooperative journalism. Says Cox: “There seems to be a feeling at desks around this city, and probably it’s peculiar to this city, that stories have to be the same. This place [the Globe] doesn’t do it that way. I think it’s important, certainly in something like this, that everybody is entitled to their own interpretations, their own analysis and their own opinions.”
Bissland disagrees. The onus on the media is to be accurate, he says, and not to be too interpretive. And the camera, he believes, ultimately raised the caliber of reporting by providing a reference against which reporters could check the accuracy of their stories. Kevin Cox initially welcomed the camera; by the end of the hearing he had changed his mind. He now believes cameras are dangerous in court, especially at a trial, where witnesses are intimidated enough without having to worry about their media image. “People rarely make up their minds on the guilt of individuals based on what they read but they get perceptions of people on television because they see the face. A lot of people make up their minds based on what the accused looks like.”
Bissland maintains it was the camera that effectively expanded the hearing room’s seating capacity to millions, thereby catering to the public’s right or desire to know, but he admits the viewing audience became the “electronic jury. That’s not the way our system should work, but it did work that way.” Honickman defends the camera because it provided the inquiry with an element of realism by showing the public a cast of ordinary human beings. For him, televising the inquiry was a “15month experiment that worked. It’s the greatest proof of one of the reasons we should have cameras in courtrooms.”
Ken Cox says attendance at the hearing was poor for all but the most sensational testimony, with only a few “hard-core Grange addicts” attending every day. He speculates that most people preferred to watch the proceedings in the comfort of their own living rooms. Says Cox: ‘I think if our institutions are public then they have to be totally public. Anything that you’re allowed to see as a spectator in a courtroom, you should be allowed to see via the media.”
For Rogers Cable Television, providing the broadcast pool-feed to which all media had access was one thing; televising the hearing live was quite another. “We’re not in the business of providing entertainment, and this was entertainment in its purest sense,” says Matti Kopamees, who served as RCT’s executive producer of the Grange coverage. Agreeing to televise the heating live was a difficult decision for RCT, whose broadcast criterion, according to Kopamees, is simple: the event must affect the community in general. He says it was “an innate fascination people had with the process rather than with what was being said” that ultimately convinced RCT to air the hearing in order to help demystify the legal process. ‘1 don’t think we thought of the consequences. It was let’s do it because we can.”
What of the consequences? Kopamees says the public now knows everything there is to know about the baby deaths. As to any damage to reputations, he thinks the public had already made up its mind “long before Rogers got into the act.” Asked to evaluate the media’s role in the Grange drama, he says, “It was a very cooperative effort from all perspectives-a big media team effort-a positive experience. When it really comes down to it, all the media were the executive producer.”
In his report, Grange borrowed a quote from Austin Cooper, Nelles’s lawyer at her preliminary hearing, to sum up the inquiry: “You did your job. I did mine. The police did theirs. The judge did his. The system worked.” But did the media-the collective executive producer-do their job? The magnitude of the assignment precluded perfection. For those reporters who sat through all or most of the drama, the inquiry was a grueling beat. For those who dropped in and out, it was a formidable assignment. For all, it was a professional and personal challenge. “It interfered with my sleep,” says Honickman. “When you’re working, you’re an elastic band-it’s the nature of the job.” But off-camera, as the father of a 20-month-old boy, he thought of the parents and wondered, “What in the world would I do if it were me?” He says if the public lost perspective, it was that the parents were the most important people in the inquiry. “Perhaps the public had too high an expectation of what the hearing was going to give us.”
Bissland sympathizes with the grieving parents, who understandably wanted justice: “The Grange inquiry wasn’t designed to provide them with justice and that has to leave them frustrated.”
He says while the inquiry didn’t accomplish as much as the public expected it to, it went further than any trial would to answer the public’s questions.
Despite the highly publicized Court of Appeal decision prohibiting Grange from answering the ultimate question by naming names, the public seemed determined to have a trial. When the judicial system wouldn’t or couldn’t give it one, did it turn to the media as a court of last resort? To label the inquiry a trial by media seems not so much a criticism of the media’s coverage of it, but rather a confirmation of the public’s refusal to accept its limitations. Says Kopamees: “The point of the exercise is to prevent anything like this happening again.”