The conduct of public inquiries

Whether its about G20, Air India or Mulroney-Schreiber, good, bad or
indifferent public inquiries make news and reporters are sent to cover
Peter Rehak writes. Yet,
relatively little has been written that would help a journalist deal
with such an assignment. Until now.

Hardly a day goes by that someone somewhere in Canada does not call for a public inquiry. The protest-ridden G20 weekend in Toronto produced a call for an inquiry into police conduct. Earlier in the year, the Oliphant Inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair and the massive Air India Inquiry made headlines across the country. Hundreds of inquiries have been held over the years and dozens in the past decade alone.

Some, like the Gomery Commission investigating the sponsorship scandal, have altered the face of politics. Others, like the Walkerton Inquiry into the death of seven people from contaminated water, had a significant impact on legislation and public policy. Still others, like the Cornwall Inquiry into alleged pedophilia in the Cornwall area, have gobbled up large amounts of tax money without any significant result.

Good, bad or indifferent public inquiries make news and reporters are sent to cover them. Yet, relatively little has been written that would help a journalist deal with such an assignment. Late last year, University of Ottawa law professor Ed Ratushny filled that void with a very readable book, “The Conduct of Public Inquiries, published by Irwin Law.”

“The Conduct of Public Inquiries” (Ed Ratushny, Irwin Law, 2009) was
published by a legal publishing house. But the very readable and
thoughtful book has found resonance beyond the legal community. The
“Hill Times,” recognizing it broader appeal, put it in ninth place in a
list of over 100 best books of 2009. It makes an excellent handbooks for
journalists assigned to cover public inquiries or Royal commissions.

Ratushny does an excellent job of establishing the historical context, describing the reasons for holding inquiries, their various types and outlining the roles of commissioners and their staffs.

Most reporters have experience in covering courts and the criminal justice system. It is hard for them — as it is for the general public — to grasp that an inquiry is not a trial. I have spent the past decade doing media relations for inquiries in Ontario and a recurring question from journalists is “who is going to go to jail at the end of this?” Sometimes people who are the subjects of an inquiry do go to jail, such as the water managers in Walkerton but it is the result of an independent police investigation and not directly of a public inquiry.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Ratushny quotes a description of my role by Commissioner Stephen T. Goudge, who headed the inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario that examined the work of pathologist Dr. Charles Smith. Ratushny did not interview me or consult with me about the book.)

Media coverage is an important element of a public inquiry and Ratushny recognizes this.
“It is important that adequate assistance is provided by a commission to media representatives in carrying out their functions,” he writes, adding while web pages have become standard, “traditional media is still an important information avenue to the public for commissions of inquiry.” Since the book is also a handbook for fledgling commissioners, he lists audio and video feeds, photo opportunities, media advisories and contacts as well as parking spaces among the features to be provided for reporters.

But he cautions commissioners against giving media interviews.

Ratushny makes his case by describing the difficulties faced by sponsorship scandal commissioner John Gomery who gave colorful interviews during the hearings that resulted in accusations of bias. His findings are being challenged and parts have already been overturned in a review.

He suggests that commission lawyers become the spokespersons to media. This is wise advice that I have also given to inquiries in which I have been involved. Commissioners should confine their public remarks to the hearing room.

Ratushny notes that establishing an inquiry is inherently a political decision. In case of a high-profile problem, a government can fend off opposition attacks by establishing an inquiry. But he also points out that it is a double-edged sword. Commissions are independent and once the public hearings start, the evidence may continue to embarrass the government. He notes that the Liberal government ended the Somalia Inquiry because it felt it was undermining public confidence in the government just before an election – even though the events being examined took place during the previous Conservative government. Similarly, the Ipperwash Inquiry was established by a newly elected Liberal government in Ontario to address an event that took place under the previous Conservative government.

Ratushny deals with the diversity of inquiries by grouping them by subject matter: Investigative inquiries, policy and advisory commissions, wrongful conviction inquiries, inquiries investigating crimes and ongoing inquiry bodies such as the Canadian Judicial Council and the RCMP Public Complaints Commission.

“The Conduct of Public Inquiries” is a valuable and readable resource book for anyone assigned to cover a public inquiry or Royal commission.

Peter Rehak is an independent media consultant who has been the media relations officer for a number of public inquiries in Ontario. He is also a veteran journalist who has worked in print and television for more than four decades and taught television journalism at the University of Western Ontario.