It was a twist of parliamentary irony that Canada’s Governor General was honouring a journalistic enterprise that had prompted a motion of censure in the House of Commons a few months earlier. The event that prompted it was the lawful bugging of the NDP caucus meeting in the main block of the Parliament Buildings.
Producer McGaw assigned the job to reporter Tim Ralfe, known in Canada as the man who asked Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1970 how far he would go to stop the FLQ and was told “Just watch me.” In 1973, the law permitted non-consensual bugging in some circumstances, so McGaw and Ralfe decided to challenge it. It was typical of McGaw’s style of activist, advocacy journalism in which events are devised and filmed to make an editorial statement.
Ralfe’s skillful duct-tape placement of the bug under the NDP caucus table an hour before leader David Lewis and his MP’s were to meet, and the events that followed, formed a dramatic centrepiece for the one hour CTV Inquiry “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” investigating invasions of privacy in Canada. As the meeting began, a sound recordist sitting in a nondescript van just outside the main floor caucus room rolled tape and listened, but only to make certain the transmission was satisfactory. He was sworn to secrecy. However, suddenly, in the middle of a caucus discussion the transmission stopped and the film team panicked.
What happened? There were only two possibilities: either there was a technical problem or, worse, the bug had been discovered, the RCMP had been summoned and they were on the hunt for the buggers. CTV President Murray Chercover hadn’t been advised of this scheme, nor had he been asked for his approval, so McGaw confessed all, and the response was predictable. Careers were at stake.
In Ottawa, an RCMP officer approached the van and stood looking at it. The panic turned to terror. Then, as nonchalantly as he’d come, the officer pulled out his book, wrote a parking ticket and placed it on the windshield of the van. The crisis passed.
Suddenly, the sound recordist reported that the bug was working again and it appeared from the conversation that no one was aware of its existence. In fact, they were. The MP sitting beside Mr. Lewis had been picking at something under the table, thinking it was a stick of gum when the bug came unstuck in his hand. He looked at it and wondered with his leader whether it might be a listening device but thought no more about it and placed it on the table. That’s when the transmission stopped. But later, he picked it up again, examined it carefully and placed it back on the table. That’s when the transmission resumed.
McGaw and Ralfe discussed strategy and decided to confess to Mr. Lewis a soon as the meeting ended, hand him the tape recording and assure him the recordist was the sole listener and was sworn to secrecy. Later that day, the NDP leader introduced the motion of censure in the House but generously consented to an interview with Ralfe in which he condemned the action but applauded its editorial objective. Both statements were included in the final edit.
A number of other invasions into the privacy of Canadians were explored in the program, but none conveyed the message as powerfully as the surreptitious bugging. Several months later, whether prompted by the program or not, the law was changed to permit only consensual bugging which permits recording devices to be used only if the user is present during the recording or transmission. That law stands today.