Vancouver Olympics one of most challenging ever for journalists

David EbyIntrepid reporters who are willing risk their pay cheques and their media accreditation to take on the IOC and VANOC are out of luck, writes David Eby.

Vancouver’s Games were doomed from any perspective that values journalistic independence before the ink was dry on first “Yes” vote in the city’s Olympic referendum.

Sponsorship dollars, concentrated media, short-term corporate decision making and anti-transparency initiatives by Olympic agencies have combined to make Vancouver’s Olympics one of the most challenging Olympic Games ever for journalists to navigate with ethics intact and story in hand.

Months before the February 22, 2003 vote on the Games in Vancouver, media giant Canwest, which owns both Vancouver local daily newspapers as well as one of the free weekly newspapers and one of the major television newscasters, donated $1 million in free advertising to the Yes side.

The media giant’s gift was the largest donation the Yes side received. The entire budget for the No side was $5,000.

Later on, after the Yes side won the vote, Canwest, through the Vancouver Sun, became one of the official sponsors of the 2010 Olympic Games. By the time the golden Olympic sponsorship dust had settled, two of the three mainstream daily newscasts (Global and CTV), and three of the four major daily newspapers (Sun, Province, The Globe and Mail) had direct corporate ties to the financial well-being of the 2010 Olympics.

To the surprise of many, more than just sponsorship investments tied news agencies to the Games. Reporters were served up for the IOC as mascots for the Olympics. CTV proudly announced that 27 of its “storytellers” would actually be carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way across Canada.

The Vancouver Sun decided that it wasn’t going to sacrifice its journalists on the Olympic podium, but would prefer to sacrifice its independence on one of the most important local issues around. For the Games, the Sun sponsored a B.C. Government “information” centre on homelessness meant to educate Games-time visitors about the wonderful work that the provincial government was doing to solve Vancouver’s homelessness crisis.

This was the same crisis that had led to two years in a row of homeless people burning themselves to death on local streets trying to stay warm. The same crisis that had been the major issue in Vancouver’s election just one year earlier.

For journalists trying to keep their heads above water, the struggle for air around Vancouver’s Games doesn’t end at the flood of poor decisions coming from head office. Reporters who cover the Games are even more challenged in swimming against the tide if they are weighed down by the millstone of official Olympic accreditation.

The International Olympic Committee’s Host City Contract with Vancouver includes the Olympic Technical Manual on Media, which requires media to be administered in a manner that “by its content, spreads and promotes the principles of Olympism,” and further outlines that the IOC may, at any time and for any reason, strip a journalist of his or her accreditation. If losing accreditation is bad news for a journalist, especially a freelancer, it is devastating for non-sponsor media outlets that have just one or two people on the inside.

For many events it may be perfectly acceptable for a promoter to decide who gets inside the tent and who doesn’t. For the Olympics, which require a massive infusion of public money, the ability to shut the fourth estate out of the tent on a whim takes on a more ominous set of implications around accountability and transparency.

For those intrepid journalists who are willing to take on the IOC and VANOC at risk of alienating those who sign their paycheques and issue their accreditation, they’ll find they’re out of luck. VANOC, the organizing committee for the 2010 Olympics, has been thoroughly insulated by government against meddling reporters in the event some break free of the Olympic sponsorship trap.

No freedom of information requests for VANOC. No financial transparency around conflicts of interest. No line item budget for security, now or ever. Even if a reporter could make an FOI request, he or she would find VANOC doesn’t keep minutes of meetings anyway, just like the Provincial Olympic Secretariat.

Meeting minutes are so 2003.

Check with the Provincial Auditor General? Forget it, no access to internal financial records. The Federal Auditor General? Same deal. Shut out.

As ugly as it is out there for a journalist who wants to write critical stories, what is less apparent is that the current environment in Vancouver is also bad news for those who want to write an honest to goodness positive story about the Games. Nobody will believe them.

It’s hard to blame the public for being skeptical about anything published by the corporate entities that control all of our local news but also have a major business stake in the Games. Even if, as it often is, the story published is of the highest quality either positive or negative, our journalists have been forced to become the story, and as a result, they have had to give up their cherished observer status.

More than anything, journalists should rue this loss.

Not the loss of the investigative resources that won’t ever be dedicated to digging into VANOC or the IOC’s sins, not the loss of access to government documents, not the loss of a fair process around accreditation, but the loss of the independent and trusted voice of the journalist. What surely stings most about this loss is not that it comes as a result of decisions made by any individual reporter, but that the loss of trust comes simply because the biggest circus in the world came to town and Canada’s news outlets made better advertising agencies than truth tellers in the short-term math of the boardroom.

Were newspapers and TV news made for this? The 2010 slogan surely cuts in a different way for reporters around the Games.

David Eby is a lawyer and adjunct professor of law at the University of British Columbia. He is currently the Executive Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and President of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.