An open letter about the CAJ

Former board member Deborah Campbell, one of many supporters of the Canadian Association of Journalists who abandoned it in 2004-2005, explains why she left —  and why she thinks the CAJ cannot move forward without addressing its past. “L’Affaire Cameron, or What’s Wrong With the CAJ,” is Campbell’s response to the “Open letter from the CAJ” posted recently on J-Source  …

L’Affaire Cameron, or What’s Wrong With the CAJ

The Canadian Association of Journalists, plagued by falling membership and financial turmoil, has issued a cri de couer in the form of an open letter. Having been a member of the CAJ board and chapter president for Vancouver/BC, since resigned, perhaps I can offer the organization some insight as they seek to understand why they have lost the support of the journalists for whom they purport to speak.

The most important reason why the tireless volunteers who were long the unheralded backbone of the organization have left has less to do with the current crisis in journalism than with a very specific fiasco that brought shame to the organization and to journalism generally. This event, which cost the CAJ enormous credibility and goodwill, centered on its fateful decision to publicly “denounce” (their word) one of the country’s foremost investigative journalists, Stevie Cameron, rather than defending her from politically-motivated attacks as they should have. While the event occurred six years ago—a time when neither myself nor the current president were on the board—it led to the exodus of key CAJ supporters and the permanent alienation of countless others. Cameron, whose courageous reporting had exposed how an ex-prime minister had taken bribes from a German arms dealer, made powerful enemies—but who would have thought they would include the very organization that was supposed to represent her?

Bill Doskoch, another CAJ member who left over the Cameron debacle, has concisely documented the issue here. As he writes:

“The CAJ board said in its March 10, 2004 news release it was denouncing Cameron — language never before used in the CAJ’s history in attacking an individual journalist.

And for what? Fabricating a story and putting out information that could potentially ruin people’s health or livelihoods? Plagiarism? Recklessly abusing her position as a journalist for personal gain? Violating the public trust?

None of those things. She was doing serious investigative reporting into high-level political corruption — something the CAJ is purportedly in favour of — and got overly entangled with the police.

The private response of many seasoned investigative reporters was “there but for the Grace of God go I.”

As another commenter he quotes argues, Cameron did what any responsible citizen ought to do when serious crimes have been committed: when the police asked her questions, she answered. She betrayed neither her sources nor her profession.

Having sat through (indeed, having instigated) stormy board meetings questioning the rationale for the spiteful and misguided attack on Cameron’s reputation and urging a repudiation, I came to the conclusion that the CAJ was neither ready to confront its mistakes nor capable of doing so. Thus my work there was to no avail. That position was validated when, soon after my resignation, they invited such an illustrious example of journalistic integrity as Judith Miller, best known for making the WMD-in-Iraq case for war in the New York Times based on anonymous one-source stories (a source later revealed as noted con artist Ahmed Chalabi) to give a keynote address at a national CAJ conference.

Not only is the CAJ largely irrelevant to me as a journalist (freelancers are still, oddly, considered inferior by the organization, despite the fact that many of us work internationally and that freelance is very nearly the only way we can do time-intensive long-form investigative journalism in the current climate) but based on the organization’s past positions frankly detrimental. I am much more comfortable bringing together groups of journalists on my own rather than being asked to defend such actions by those who came to the events I organized—or didn’t come, and let me know exactly why. (Attacking Stevie Cameron and honouring Judith Miller? Really?)

That’s not to say that the CAJ has not done good things. Its professional-development conferences, organized by unsung volunteers, are frequently excellent, and in my tenure on the board we joined a successful fight against an attempt by Canwest Global to seize all rights (including moral rights) from freelance contributors.

However a defining role of journalism, perhaps the defining role, is to hold the powerful to account. At the CAJ that value has been up-ended. Not only does the CAJ need to redefine what it means to serve journalists in a time of massive change, but to repudiate past decision-making that is offensive to core journalistic values. Until that happens, like L’Affaire Cameron, the troubles at the CAJ will not be resolved.

Deborah Campbell is the author of This Heated Place, a nonfiction journey inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an award-winning journalist who has written on international affairs for Harper’s, Foreign Policy, The Walrus, The Economist, New Scientist, and many other publications. She teaches literary nonfiction at the University of British Columbia.