When the fourth estate fumbles

by Andrew Mitrovica

“Hear No Evil, Write No Lies” might be the most provocative piece I have written. Why? While Canada is a big country, the nation’s media landscape is decidedly parochial. Too often, an omerta-like silence seizes usually loquacious members of the fourth estate when it comes to exposing egregious conduct among their brethren. Pointing an accusatory finger at our fraternity can invite retribution. Indeed, various epithets were hurled my way by allies of the prominent reporters I named in the piece as having committed sins against the principles of journalism by participating – wittingly or unwittingly – in a sinister campaign engineered by still anonymous state officials to destroy a lone Canadian citizen.

I have been stamped a “smearer,” “grandstander” and even a threat to Canada. Rather than recoiling from this unflattering response, I welcomed it. In fact, the more names I was called, the louder the whispers that “I would never work in this town again,” the more I knew that the piece had accomplished what investigative journalism should do: prick the sensibilities of the mighty. And, in my view, there is no more powerful institution that requires an occasional jab than the fourth estate.

The idea for the piece began percolating in my mind soon after Maher Arar’s illegal detention and deportation in late 2002, when I began to believe that Mr. Arar was the latest victim of the unholy alliance between spies and cops and some reporters who trade the truth for ephemeral scoops.

As a result, in spring 2004, I wrote a piece for Media, a publication of the Canadian Association of Journalists, where I examined the smear campaign up to that point. The tone and scope of The Walrus piece differed markedly from my report in Media magazine. This was the product of Walrus editor Ken Alexander’s wise hand. Ken was insistent that the piece reflect a sober and comprehensive review of the media’s coverage of the Arar affair. Ken understood that the story needed to be stripped of the moral outrage that ran through my earlier piece, in part, to blunt criticism that my account was little more than a polemic, rather than a bit of clinical reportage. He was right. Throughout the research and writing, I also relied heavily on the counsel of Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronksill – a colleague I respect and admire – to ensure that the story was straight and fair.

The Walrus piece provoked the reaction I had hoped for. It reverberated through the media, and readers from across the country praised the magazine for finally and emphatically piercing the silence and hypocrisy that surrounded the media’s complicity in tarring Arar’s name. Not surprisingly, few of the reporters I singled out have heeded my admonition to apologize to Arar and out their discredited sources. That is shameful. I do take satisfaction, however, in knowing that “Hear No Evil, Write No Lies” is now part of the historical record about the unpardonable role some reporters and editors played in regurgitating state-sanctioned lies about an innocent man.

Read “Hear No Evil, Write No Lies