Last November, when The Halifax Chronicle-Herald breathlessly reported on its front page that “lawyers and legal experts involved in the $3.million. plus Donald Marshall Jr. royal commission were wined and dined at taxpayers’ expense at the posh Halifax Sheraton Hotel,” it was the first time in seven years of coverage of the controversial Marshall affair that the paper could even remotely claim to have scored a journalistic scoop.
Never mind that the newspaper, in its eagerness to expose the goings-on in the hotel dining room, got some of its facts wrong. Or that it failed to report a single word about the far more important story-behind-the-story of why the dinner was being held in the first place. The newspaper’s intrepid “investigative” reporter lovingly detailed what ~ he described as a “gala affair” with g “free, all-you-can-drink bar” and a “three-course dinner of fresh market ~ salad, poached Nova Scotia salmon, ~ buttered potatoes and carrots and 1 herbed zucchini.” Leaving no journalistic stone unturned in its relentless pursuit of truth, the Herald then tracked down the province’s attorney general, Terry Donahoe, to get his reaction to what the newspaper described as a publicly-financed “three-hour soiree.” Donahoe] said he did not wish to comment,” the paper reported “because he might say something too provocative. All I can say is that I have no : reaction which is printable.”
Not printing provocative comments -or the real story-is a tradition at the Chronicle.Herald, once described in a Financial Post Magazine headline as “the paper Nova Scotians love to hate.” One of the last remaining family owned major daily newspapers in the country, the Dennis newspapers -the Herald and its afternoon sister paper, the Mail-Star-have a long and unenviable reputation as two of the worst newspapers in the country.
Unchallenged by rival dailies for most of the years since World War II, the newspapers found it easy-and profitable-to avoid negative news and to assume a comfortable role as defend. ers of the status quo. In 1970, Keith Davey’s Senate Committee on the Mass Media in Canada concluded that the Chronicle-Herald was guilty of “lazy, uncaring journalism.” Although the launch of a more aggressive tabloid competitor in the early eighties has done much to improve the Herald, the Davey Committee’s observations still ring true, especially when it comes to sensitive stories such as the Marshall case.
What the Herald’s front-page expose boiled down to was a modest little welcoming dinner for 15 guests-the total tab was $37.17 per person, including drinks. Moreover, the Herald neglected to mention in this sensational story of royal commission waste and extravagance that the dinner was a prelude to anything more than “consultation ser. vices” for the commission’s report.
In fact, the purpose of this intense, three-day “consultation”-which included among its more than 80 participants everyone from former British Columbia Justice Tom Berger and prominent Toronto defence lawyer Morris Manning to Mohawk Grand Chief Joseph Norton and the executive coordinator of The Ontario Race Relations Directorate, Dan McIntyre-was to help the three commissioners come to terms with the seminal but seemingly insoluble and endlessly complex question of what role racism played in Marshall’s treatment at the hands of the Nova Scotia criminal justice system.
All too typically, of course, none of this made it into the story the Chronicle Herald ran that day.
By now, most Canadians have heard about Donald Marshall Jr., the Micmac Indian who spent 11 years in jail for a murder in 1971 he didn’t commit. It was only after the government finally -reluctantly-appointed a three judge royal commission to look into the affair in 1986 that the reality and magnitude of the injustice done to Marshall finally became clear. The commission’s year-long round of public hearings (its final report is expected this summer) has put the province’s justice system under a microscope and shown it to be seriously flawed. But the inquiry process has also, almost inadvertently, turned the spotlight on the province’s news media-and shown it to be at least as flawed.
For a metropolitan area of fewer than 300,000 people, Halifax should be incredibly well served by its media. The city boasts three local daily newspapers, four separate television stations, nine English-language radio stations, Frank, a twice-monthly political gossip sheet, and Cities, the monthly local lifestyles magazine I edit.
Despite the number of news outlets and more than 300 journalists, the simple truth is that the Halifax media can’t claim to have made a single, significant contribution to the development of the Marshall story. Why? My own opinion is that the Herald, as the largest and most influential of the media outlets, still sets the tone for most news coverage in Nova Scotia. There is still a feeling among readers, newsmakers-and, to a certain extent, other journalists that it isn’t news if it isn’t in the Herald. Whatever the reasons, the reality is that while Canadians from coast to coast were reading seemingly endless stories about testimony at the Marshall inquiry, the story often wasn’t even front-page news in Nova Scotia.
Consider just a few examples of how-and from whom-Nova Scotians have learned about important parts of the ongoing Marshall affair.
Nova Scotians first learned that young witnesses at Marshall’s original trial had signed false statements implicating Marshall from the pages of The Globe and Mail in 1982. Michael Harris, then the paper’s Atlantic bureau chief, and freelancer Alan Story got their material simply by being good reporters. They tracked down those witnesses more than a decade after the court case and asked them to go on record with what really happened.
None of the local media bothered to do the same.
Last year, the royal commission made public its decision to compare Marshall’s treatment with that of such high-profile figures as Nova Scotia’s deputy premier Roland Thornhill. Alan Story, by then a Halifax-based reporter for The Toronto Star, decided to go back and look into the details of the original Thornhill case.
A former stockbroker who became deputy premier when the Conservatives came to power in 1978, Thornhill got into personal financial difficulties shortly after that election. Four major chartered banks then made a deal with him to write off more than $100,000 worth of debts at 25 cents on the dollar. Both the RCMP officers who investigated the deal and the Crown prosecutor in charge of the file wanted to lay charges of accepting an illegal benefit against Thornhill, but they were overruled by higher officials. Story’s report in the Star, which appeared months before the commission got around to hearing witnesstes in the case, was so damning that Thornhill was forced to resign his cabinet position.
The local media? They continued to look the other way. When Thornhill’s deal with the banks was first investigated by the RCMP in 1980, the story was the main topic at local cocktail parties for months before the Herald finally reported that a cabinet minister it didn’t name was being investigated in connection with some allegations it didn’t explain.
If powerful figures such as Thornhill benefit from the provincial media’s benign neglect of important stories, the less powerful-Donald Marshall, blacks, natives, the poor-all suffer for it.
Consider another recent criminal case that was the subject of some discussion at the Marshall inquiry’s consultation on racism. It involved a black man who’d been killed by a white man in southwestern Nova Scotia. In spite of the fact that the black man bled to death while the white man-by his own admission-failed to call the police or an ambulance because he would have had to walk over his freshly painted floor to get to a telephone, an all-white jury freed the white man.
The only newspaper reporter to respond to the black community’s outrage over the verdict by investigating the case himself was again Alan Story from The Toronto Star. Story’s interview with the judge-during which the judge dismissed the black community’s criticisms by telling Story: “You know what happens when those black guys start drinking”-created another national furor. But it failed to arouse much passion in Nova Scotia, where it got little coverage in the Herald, and was therefore easily dismissed as yet another case of snooty Upper Canadian journalists trying to embarrass Nova Scotia in the eyes of the nation.
Newspaper readers in the province may have been outraged by Story’s revelations, but they didn’t show their feelings at the ballot box: Roland Thornhill, along with John Buchanan’s scandal-plagued government, was reelected in last fall’s provincial election and reappointed to the cabinet.
Are Nova Scotians apathetic and cynical because Nova Scotia journalism is so bad? Or is Nova Scotia journalism so bad because Nova Scotians are apathetic and cynical?
Interesting questions. But don’t expect to see them discussed in the pages of The Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Its reporters are too busy skulking around hotel kitchens trying to find out what’s for dinner.
Stephen Kimber, a widely-published freelance journalist, is also the editor of Cities magazine, a monthly serving the Halifax Dartmouth area.