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Stories Undone

Bilbo Poynter

I suppose I should first set-up the idea behind what will be a reoccurring column for This on stories that should be covered in the media but for a host of reasons aren’t. Sometimes I’ll offer why it is I think a given story hasn’t been taken up, while other times I’ll simply identify a story I think should be done. Not all of them will be investigative in nature, but many of them will be. The inspiration for Stories Undone lies somewhere in-between the worthwhile Project Censored and the more recent column by Steven Brill for Reuters.

The more obvious question (you’d be right to ask) is: Why I don’t do them? I co-founded the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting in 2009 in order to produce the types of stories that will be highlighted here. The sad fact is there have been many more stories worthy of examination cross my desk than I and the CCIR have been able to do because the resources to do them simply haven’t been there. Sometimes, to paraphrase a Sweet Honey on the Rock song, ‘our stories are not our stories . . . they come through us but they are not from us’. And so, sometimes the CCIR has painfully sought to place good stories in the hands of other news organizations elsewhere – with mixed results.

What I’ve learned during my time as a journalist is that it is not simply a case of a monolithic media keeping information we all need about the powerful at bay. Most, if not all, journalists I’ve met would jump at the chance to expose, for instance, widespread civil rights abuses by the police of demonstrators if they felt the information was there. Why good stories don’t always get picked up is more complicated, and we’ll explore why this is too.

I should be clear though, about two points before going much further: 1. I don’t think the role of the Canadian journalist is to be in the service of, “peace, good order and government,” and 2, the views expressed throughout this column are mine alone, and not those of the CCIR.

So without further ado . . .

I don’t need to tell you that the internet is a great resource for news and information about the world we live in (you are after all reading this online), but with the proliferation of insta-news through social networks and near universal technology it’s also a frequent receptacle for misinformation and opinion dressed up as fact.

A case-in-point is the photo of German riot cops minus their helmets flanking the occupy demo in Frankfurt that went viral last week. It was presented as evidence of police solidarity with the demands of the protestors . . . but I had my doubts. Twenty years ago German riot police routinely fired water cannons from atop armoured vehicles at anti-nuclear and anti-capitalist demonstrators in pitched battles on the streets of Berlin, Bonn, and elsewhere in Germany, reminiscent of what we see today in Montreal.

German attendees to the recent demo have since done their level-best to clarify in message threads that the photo is not as advertised and in fact there were mass arrests and blocked routes by police later that day.

It’s not that this is impossible to contemplate. Historians have pointed to the necessity of the police and military standing down, or standing with the populace in moments of great social upheaval in order for wholesale change to be possible.

So this got me to thinking about a story I haven’t seen yet about the mass protests in Montreal: Have there been any Montreal police/SQ refuse orders to crack down on demonstrators?

As with the German photo, Montreal police refusing orders in the months since the protests began  have become the stuff of rumour, supposedly existing somewhere out there in the French-language twitter sphere. This would be difficult but not impossible for a journalist to verify.

If there are refusals there’ll be disciplinary hearings. A chain-of-events that becomes possible to track—though the Montreal police have been notoriously difficult to pry information from.

Something else that has been noticeably absent from the slow-to-burn national (that is to say, English) press coverage of the tuition hike fight is how Canada, as a signatory to the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, committed to higher education being made, “equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;” (See s. 13(2)(c))

So what ever became of this commitment?

With national media pundits and editorial pages quick to point out that the students in Montreal are “spoiled and entitled” because they have reportedly the lowest tuition rates in the country, this would invite, you would think, a national discussion about the rights and obligations to a post-secondary education in this country—there have been stories recently in the U.S. press about the likelihood of a school loan debt bubble burst to rival the mortgage loan crash—which got me thinking about  what approach, if any, the Harper government is taking on the issues and events in Montreal? Has there been government-to-government discussion about the widening protest? Are there contingencies in place as this fight spills over into other parts of the country?

Obviously, what’s going on in Montreal is bigger than tuition, and this is certainly no longer a case of the media looking away; this is the biggest story in the country—but what’s the story? It’s this kind of fog that we need to pierce in search of the truth.

Bilbo Poynter is the co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting. His reports have been seen and heard on CBC National Radio News, CBC.ca, As It Happens, the Montreal Gazette, the Global Post, J-Source, and MaximumRockNRoll. Stories Undone will appear on This every second Monday.

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