Investigative journalism is here to stay: Rosner

Rosner, Cecil. Behind The Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada
Toronto, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2008
Hard Cover, $27.95
ISBN 978-0-19-542733-2

David Spencer

While working my way through this all too rare collection of Canadian journalism content from the Oxford University Press, my memory took me back a couple of decades to a conversation with an old friend and colleague who was earning his keep as a senior producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto.  He had just received a telephone call from a very important person in the higher ranks of a large commercial television network in the United States.  It was not the first time that these two had spoken.  But this time the conversation had nothing to do with story rivalry, as it usually did.  The American broadcaster had received an application from a Canadian producer and the call dealt with a request for a reference.  When my Canadian friend was advised of the nature of the position that was being considered, he immediately advised his New York colleague that he felt the applicant was not a suitable candidate for the type of investigative journalism that the U.S.-based network wanted to pursue.  So, you can image his surprise when a feature was aired south of the border as the work of the applicant whose qualifications had been under the examination microscope.  The Toronto colleague immediately called his American contact to ask, politely I might add, why the network had hired this person.  The answer was most revealing.  American television network discovered, much to its chagrin, that it did not have enough qualified personnel to work successfully in the age of inquiry that followed the Woodward and Bernstein age.  An inexperienced candidate with questionable qualifications would just have to do.

Cecil Rosner’s new work, which has delightfully seen the light of day, makes a solid claim for the apparent lasting power of investigative journalism in Canada within which our candidate noted above earned his stripes.  The work wanders far and wide through eighteen fairly compact chapters but does not deviate from the central theme, which could be debatable of course, that investigative journalism is part and parcel of the Canadian journalistic landscape and that it is here to stay.  Lest one be tempted to accuse Rosner of a type of naivety in this day and age when accountants and fund managers are the ones who really call the shots in our society, Rosner does spend a great deal of time outlining not only the successes that investigative journalism has achieved but the failures and trials and tribulations as well.   This is one of the considerable strengths in this book.  In spite of the fact that Oxford University Press seemed to be conscious of the amount of paper that it takes to make a book, it is ultimately readable in spite of the rather crammed look that characterizes each of the 220 pages of pure text.

Cecil Rosner - CoverRosner’s approach is to look at various incidents in Canadian society which have resulted in what for the lack of a better term we will call journalistic intervention.  Historically this covers a period from the time when William Lyon Mackenzie used his press at the Colonial Advocate to taunt John Strachan, John Beverly Robinson and the rest of the Family Compact down to the now infamous and regrettable numerous incidents involving miscarriages of justice.  And it was within this context that I wondered why certain choices were made.  In his chapter on righting wrongs, it will be no surprise to readers to see the names of Wilbert Coffin, Steven Truscott, David Milgaard and some others.  Their tales are told wrapped around a profile of Robert Reguly, one of the true players in this genre whose zeal eventually unraveled his career.  Missing is the tale of Guy Paul Morin, who along with David Milgaard brought the concept of wrong conviction to national attention.  As much as Rosner does justice to Milgaard, I felt he needed to give at least equal attention to Morin.  First acquitted and then convicted of murdering his next door neighbour’s daughter, Morin made judicial history by convincing Mr. Justice Marvin Catzman that a grave miscarriage of justice had taken place and that he, Morin, should be granted bail even though he was a convicted killer.  His successful plea laid the ground work for others who would follow, most recently Robert Baltovich also a convicted killer who was recently exonerated.  Morin was also able to attract the attention of two major investigative reporters, Kirk Makin of the Globe and Mail whose Redrum The Innocent cast a long shadow over the fairness of this case and Lynden MacIntyre of the Fifth Estate who took the story to television.   But then again, this is not my work, it is Rosner’s  and it is not the role of the reviewer to attempt to take an author to a place the author does not wish to be. I too will avoid that temptation.

I was impressed by Rosner’s sense of fairness especially in his examination of television.  This could have been the sermon from the mount regarding the righteousness and the infallibility of the CBC in investigative adventures.  However, he is careful to pick out the deficiencies in the corporation’s approach to some sensitive issues while carefully examining CTV’s approach to news and information which he sees as fair and complete for a private, commercially driven network.  His examination of the world of newspapers is, not unexpectedly, more complete because there is really much more to work with.  Newspapers are not saddled, in most cases with the print equivalent of game shows, entertainment features, to the same degree as television.  If there is one media which seems to have escaped serious attention, it is radio.  The CBC’s flagship current affairs program As It Happens gets but two short mentions, one in a profile of its creator Mark Starowicz.

In the final analysis, this is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of literature on journalism which is now appearing in this country.  It too is a welcome addition from the Oxford University Press which until this time published primarily text books for Canadian colleges and universities.  Let us hope that this is a trend which will expand and develop.  If Rosner’s work is any indication, there are plenty of good quality topics out there deserving of praise.  And one final note to the editors.  Mackenzie King was not Prime Minister in 1910.