There was no time for Doug Small to contemplate what sort of impact his budget leak story would have. As the broadcast journalist raced across Ottawa with the proof-a small pamphlet detailing the highlights of last April’s budget-he never dreamed it would spark a national controversy.
Politically, the leak spelled yet another scandal for the Progressive Conservative government. Journalistically, it ignited a debate over how the story was handled. As the government circled its wagons around its beleaguered Finance Minister Michael Wilson, journalists across the land.
devoted ink and air time to weigh the ethical implications of how Global broke the story: did Small go too far when he reported not only the leak, but also the ‘country’s budget details?
A sideshow to the journalistic wrangling was the startling testimony last November in which an RCMP sergeant told an Ottawa courtroom that he suspected the nation’s police force had it in for journalists in general, and Doug Small in particular. During the political firestorm which blew through the House, Opposition attempts to grill the Conservatives about allegations of political interference had already been stymied by the government. With the matter before the courts they could say nothing. The public expressed themselves through letters to newspaper editors. They chastised Small for the way in which he scandalized the government.
Small-and several major newspaper columnists across the country-defended Global’s broadcast of the leaked ~ budget details. Small admitted to a fellow journalist, shortly after being charged,” that he was not surprised at the public’s outcry over what he had done. “It may have something to do with my own demeanor, the fact that I looked a little smart-alecky because I broke a big story. There is some sense among people that I’m paying for what I did.”
With the benefit of hindsight and the luxury of being able to sit back and analyze, journalists formed reasoned arguments vindicating the man who scooped them. But Small simply says he acted on instinct. “It never occurred to me, as a matter of fact it still doesn’t occur to me, that I did anything unethical. I would have felt unethical if I had kept the stuff to myself and tried to make a quick buck from it.”
That’s not all there is to it though. Small faced some tough criticism from his peers, including Ottawa’s CJOH which had passed up the chance to break the budget story by refusing to pay an anonymous caller for the document. The station argued that Small should have broadcast the leak without disclosing the details; it was difficult to see what public interest was served in broadcasting the budget highlights.
CJOH’s first chance to break the story came on the afternoon of April 26, 1989. An unknown caller offered CJOH the contents of the federal budget. Senior reporter Michael O’Byrne turned down the caller. He said the man wanted the station to pay him for the scoop. In retrospect O’Byrne mused that maybe he could have talked the man into handing the story over free of charge, but he says the station handled it the best it could under the circumstances: “It was just another phone call. I didn’t give it another thought until I received a telephone call at seven o’clock that night with ‘Guess what Global just came on the air with.’ Well you get an initial feeling of panic: My God, did I miss the biggest story of the year? Could I have done anything differently?”
Journalists at CJOH were faced with that question again and they decided not to air a leaked Auditor General’s report but simply report the leak. The station’s managing editor, Dave McGinn, said the decision not to air this report was made in consideration of the Global leak. “We determined-after a discussion I might add-that the story here was the fact that there was a breach in the Auditor General’s security, not in the fact that there was a leak in his report and content of the report itself. So we opted for just pointing out that, hey, somebody screwed up and left the tape in the machine, but it’s not the end of the world. We really didn’t think it was necessarily in the public interest to leak the information early.”
In the Kingston Whig-Standard, editor Neil Reynolds wrote, “Mr. Small served no public interest objective in broadcasting the contents of the budget book he had been given. He would have served a public interest objective had he instead broadcast only the fact that a pirated copy of the budget book was getting passed around on street corners. The government would still have been embarrassed; Mr. Wilson would still have been in trouble. But Global and Mr. Small would have emerged from it all as straight-shooters with the correct target in their scopes.”
Don McGillivray, longtime syndicated columnist for Southam, says there’s an uncomplicated division of labor in dealing with secrets in Ottawa: governments keep them, journalists expose them. Simple.
However, Andrew McFarlane, a journalism professor at the University of Western Ontario, says the argument that Small was obliged to divulge the contents of the budget is demeaning to journalism. “To attribute the decision to a force outside yourself is like saying, news happens and we report it, which isn’t true. Everything a journalist prints or broadcasts is the result of a conscious decision, or at least it should be. Everything is a decision-what you put in the story, what you don’t put in the story, whether you do the story or whether you don’t do the story.
“So, anybody who says, well, he had it therefore he had to publish it, is missing the point.”