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A pharmacologist injects a phial of concentrated Herceptin in London June 9, 2006. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)
A pharmacologist injects a phial of concentrated Herceptin in London June 9, 2006. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Ground-breaking journalism needs confidential sources Add to ...

Most original, ground-breaking journalism done in this country depends on confidential sources. While we focus on new media platforms, better presentation, video and more, the heart of the most memorable content comes from sources.

It starts with a strong beat reporter, someone who knows the key newsmakers, the politicians, the business leaders, medical professionals, police, lawyers and others. A good beat reporter demonstrates to those people behind the news that they can be trusted and that they are interested in telling accurate and complete stories.

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From that trust, the source will either direct a reporter to a good idea, to important documents or to other newsmakers. At times it involves anonymous quotes or confidential documents leaked by a whistleblower. But more often it is just passing on some information that is not secret, just not publicly known yet and in the public interest.

Without confidential sources, we wouldn’t have known about the sponsorship scandal, Watergate, the tainted blood scandal. Those are the high profile cases, but every day journalism depends on those relationships of trust.

It is interesting to look at the finalists for the 2011 Michener Awards for Public Service Journalism. I would hazard a guess that every single one of these meritorious examples is based on confidential sources and certainly on the best beat reporting. Below are the examples quoted from the Michener website:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

CBC Vancouver exposed a toxic and long-standing environment of systemic sexual harassment of women within one of the country’s most treasured institutions. By securing the trust of female RCMP officers, CBC produced a compelling series that achieved swift and meaningful results: an investigation by the Chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, a pledge by the federal Public Safety Minister to conduct his own sweeping investigation, and a promise by the new Commissioner of the RCMP to make harassment issues his first priority.

The Globe and Mail:

The Globe and Mail achieved clear results with its investigation into Ontario government policies for funding cancer drugs for patients. The newspaper’s dogged and exemplary reporting exposed flaws and confusion within existing policies concerning the funding of Herceptin, an expensive drug to treat breast cancer. As a result, the province changed its funding policy for the drug, created a new evidence-building program designed to improve decision-making about when to pay for certain cancer treatments, and directed Cancer Care Ontario to review its guidelines for approving new drugs.

La Presse:

It was only when investigative reporters at La Presse revealed the findings of two secret engineering reports that readers discovered that the Champlain Bridge in Montreal, the most heavily travelled span in Canada, was falling apart and in desperate need of replacement. La Presse shed light on an urgent public safety problem that had not previously been revealed to the public. The coverage had a resounding impact: it sparked an intense public debate and became an important issue in the federal election campaign and in October the federal government promised to build a new bridge by 2021.

Times Colonist:

The Times Colonist in Victoria used its resources and expertise to expose a stealth policy by the B.C. government that forced people with developmental disabilities to move from group homes to cheaper accommodation. The newspaper’s sustained campaign – featuring many personal stories of developmentally disabled individuals and their families struggling with government cutbacks – spoke for the powerless and the voiceless. The coverage forced the province to change course and commit $40-million to improve services, demote the minister of social development and announce policy changes. As well, the CEO of Community Living BC resigned and an internal audit of its operations were ordered.

The Toronto Star:

The Toronto Star took readers into the heart of an unaccountable and arrogant non-profit agency that runs Ontario’s air ambulance service, known as ORNGE. Stories revealed a stunning lack of government oversight at a critical public service where senior managers benefitted over those people the air ambulance service was supposed to help. The Star’s tenacious reporting led to the removal of ORNGE’s management and board. Air response for patients has been improved and a new accountability structure put in place. The provincial auditor general expanded his probe into activities at ORNGE and a criminal investigation is underway.

The Windsor Star:

The Windsor Star showed courage and determination in exposing a web of brutality and deceit within the Windsor Police Service. The shocking beating of a local doctor by a Windsor detective led the newspaper to court documents and to uncover more incidents that validated a disturbing pattern of violence against innocent civilians, unethical behaviour, and cover-ups within the police service over a number of years. The stories led to the resignation of the police chief, an investigation by the Ontario Office of the Independent Police Review Director, and an overhaul of the Windsor Police Service’s integrity and ethics policies.

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Congratulations to Lisa Priest, our investigative health reporter, and Karen Howlett, our Queen’s Park legislative reporter, for their nomination on Herceptin. And congratulations to the other journalists across the country for their well-deserved nominations.

This brings me to why The Globe and Mail fought hard against an effort to make Sinclair Stewart (then our banking reporter and now national editor) reveal his sources on the BCE takeover bid.

As reporter Tu Thanh Ha explains:

“In 2008, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and a U.S.-based equity firm were behind a $35-billion takeover bid of BCE.

“On June 30, a week after the Supreme Court of Canada cleared legal hurdles for the bid, The Globe reported that talks between the buyers and lenders had become fractious and that the deal might not close by Christmas.”

An investor wanted to unmask our sources to help a possible class action alleging the information caused losses for investor.

We were pleased that the court disagreed and that both the Superior Court in this cases and the Supreme Court of Canada in two recent rulings have made it clear that there is value protecting confidential sources.

Mr. Justice Edward Belobaba said in a decision on Friday: “Unless the media can offer anonymity in situations where sources would otherwise dry up, freedom of expression in debate on matters of public interest would be badly compromised. Important stories will be left untold.”

Judge Belobaba wrote that BCE stock had been volatile even before the Globe story and that the Ontario Securities Commission declined to the investor’s allegation. The judge found that there was no compelling evidence that the sources had manipulated the stock prices when they spoke to The Globe in June, 2008.

“There may well be cases where the information provided by the confidential financial sources is in contravention of securities law and a claimed journalist-source privilege will be trumped by a greater public interest. … This is not that case,” Judge Belobaba wrote.

David Walmsley, The Globe’s managing editor, observed some of the arguments in court: “Throughout the hearing I heard repeated references as to how much the Globe is a respected institution, how its journalism is central to this country’s understanding of itself and the national debate and why journalists need to be allowed to work sources in order to reveal to the wider public, important information that is in the public interest.

“In these frenetic days of information overload, the basics can be forgotten. I was proud to hear our counsel defend what it is we do, to remind the court that the journalism the Globe is known for is often not easy and sometimes not popular, but above all it is an organization that will defend its journalists again and again and again when the very essence of our business – the collection and dissemination of important information manifestly in the public interest – is under attack.”

Mr. Walmsley also noted the importance of this story and many others of beat reporting. “Too few reporters in our industry are specialists. The Globe prides itself in supporting staff whose job it is to deliver reported insight to our discerning readers. In the parlance of our industry, they ‘own’ their beats. And such quality reporting often can only be done when relationships are sedulously fostered.”

Two years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a case in which a Montreal media company hoped to force Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc to reveal the identity of a key source in the sponsorship scandal, also known as Adscam. Mr. Leblanc was the reporter who helped bring the scandal to the public eye, a scandal which was a factor in the 2006 election campaign.

The Supreme Court ruled that journalists should be forced to reveal their sources only when there is no other alternative to get the information and when disclosing identifies is vital to the administration of justice.

We think these court rulings are very important to how we do the job. If you wish to comment on this or any other issue, please email me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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