The Michener-Deacon Fellowship allowed me to undertake research into the history of investigative journalism in Canada. This involved library and archival research in Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Regina, along with numerous interviews with people across North America. I am currently in the process of writing a book on this topic, which I hope to have complete in the second half of 2006. Here is a brief synopsis of some themes the book will contain:
Muckraking has a long and distinguished history in Canada, dating back to the very beginning of newspapers. By the early 19th century, journalists were among the leading advocates for reform and responsible government. They raised their voices against the cliques and family compacts, often paying a heavy price. Bartemas Ferguson was slapped with a charge of seditious libel in 1819 for reprinting Robert Gourlay’s radical writings, and promptly sentenced to jail and the pillory. Many others found themselves in the same situation, including Anthony Holland, William Wilkie, Pierre Bedard and Francis Collins. The radical editors displayed courage and unbending resolve in their oppositional writings. One of their most important battles was the fight to speak freely.
“Remember that whenever the press is not free the people are poor, abject, degraded slaves,” intoned William Lyon Mackenzie in the Colonial Advocate.
And Joseph Howe, in his renowned address to the jury of his libel trial of 1835, was no less eloquent: “Will you permit the sacred fire of liberty, brought by your fathers from the venerable temples of Britain, to be quenched and trodden out? I conjure you to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children.”
But for all their bold opposition, most of the early journalistic firebrands only displayed one side of the modern investigative journalistic impulse. They held the powerful to account, and they editorialized incessantly about the need for reform. But not all of them paid attention to illustrating the reality of the situation, or of delving deeply into how institutions and structures worked. Many were content with denunciations and polemic.
What elevates muckraking to the plane of investigative journalism? There is no precise formula, but there are common characteristics of investigative journalists that help to illustrate the point. They display a sense of outrage and injustice. They question the status quo, and are skeptical of conventional explanations. They feel a need to hold powerful, vested interests to account. They have a devotion to seeking the truth, even when it means endangering their careers and personal well-being. They adopt scientific methods for truth-seeking, always remaining open-minded, independent and free of distorting allegiances.
William Lyon Mackenzie was one of the few early radical editors to display many of these characteristics. In his Colonial Advocate, started in 1824, we see the beginnings of modern investigative methodology. His analysis of the family compact, his investigations into the Canada Company, and his probing of political enemies all have a modern feel. As a member of the legislature, Mackenzie had special access to documents and materials. He made good use of this access to further his investigative journalism. His investigation into the Welland Canal Company, published in a special publication he founded for that exclusive purpose in 1835, reads like a modern investigative report.
The defeat of the 1837 rebellions dampened muckraking work. Partisan political writing took precedence over exposés. By mid-century a number of trends were pushing journalism into the modern era. The development of the telegraph, the laying of the Atlantic cable, the rise of literacy and the founding of the penny press all helped to launch journalism into a new phase. At the same time, modern tools of journalism, such as the interview, were being developed.
The trend of popular and penny journalism had come from the U.S. and Britain. The Toronto Telegram, for instance, tried for mass popular appeal by announcing that it would not be slow to expose and denounce. It began printing details of city contracts. Here we see some beginnings of modern enterprise and exposé reporting. In 1876 it forced water commission meetings to be opened to the public. It exposed conflicts of interest among aldermen, malpractice in the issuance of licenses, abuses in prisons, and corruption among railway builders.
Yet such journalism in the mass media was sporadic. Elements of it were confined to smaller publications. Muckraking and investigative work was evident in some of the radical publications of the late 19th century: the Montreal Echo, the Industrial Banner, the People’s Voice, the Palladium of Labour, the Labour Advocate. Such publications were closely associated with labour and working class causes. Some were openly socialist. Most were short-lived. And none rose to the heights of their American counterparts, such as Appeal to Reason, which at one time boasted circulation of 750,000.
While the golden age of muckraking flourished in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, there was no similar process in Canada. Sporadic strands are evident. Bob Edwards of the Calgary Eye-Opener exhibited some flair for exposé. Gustavus Myers brought his American muckraking talents north to expose the real history of Canadian wealth. But there was no sustained movement for investigative journalism.
It is really not until the 1950’s that significant stirrings are noted. In the U.S., there are some trend-setting developments. I.F. Stone’s independent journalism had an impact on public policy, challenging the U.S. version of events in the Korean War, and providing an alternative viewpoint to the subservient mainstream press. Other radical voices began to be heard. The Village Voice was founded in 1955, Liberation in 1956. In the mainstream, Edward R. Murrow was virtually alone in his challenge to Joseph McCarthy. His seminal See it Now exposé of McCarthy in 1954 breathed life into journalists who were eager to challenge the dominant ideas of the status quo.
And some of the foundations of the status quo throughout the world were beginning to crumble. An anti-colonial struggle raged through Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cuba waged a successful revolution. Chinese communism posed an ideological challenge both to the West and to the Soviet Union. Domestically, the unquestioning support for the U.S. administration began to weaken. Ideas were being challenged in many spheres. Ralph Nader’s automobile safety warnings began to emerge at the end of the 1950’s. Rachel Carson challenged the chemicals in the environment. Jessica Mitford exposed the death industry in America.
These stirrings came to Canada at a time when newspaper reporting was mired in a state of paralysis. Walter Stewart, who joined the Toronto Telegram in 1953, summed up the state of affairs by describing his early days there:
“What I learned about journalism there, was that it was a suspect craft, dominated by hypocrisy, exaggeration, and fakery. At the Tely, we toadied to advertisers, eschewed investigative reporting, slanted our stories gleefully to fit the party line (Conservative) and to appeal to the one man who counted – the publisher, John F. Bassett.”
It was the new medium of television and the journalists who were attracted to it which propelled Canada into the modern era of investigative journalism. Ross McLean, one of the pioneering CBC television producers, experimented with investigative reporting as part of his Close-Up series (1957-1963). The team he assembled included journalists who were pre-disposed to doing challenging, investigative work, including Douglas Leiterman and Patrick Watson. While their main pre-occupations were producing effective, dramatic and populist television, they delved into investigative work at a time when Canadian newspapers did it only sporadically, if at all.
By the time This Hour Has Seven Days went to air (1964-66), the investigative report was institutionalized as part of the package. The founding manifesto of the program promised: “we will probe dishonesty and hypocrisy. We will provide a kind of TV Ombudsman to draw attention to public wrongs and encourage remedial action.”
At the same time, Leiterman and Beryl Fox were producing documentaries that were groundbreaking investigative works in themselves, such as Mills of the Gods (an exposé of American tactics in the Vietnam war), One More River (about discrimination in the U.S. south), etc. The success of the CBC public affairs programming encouraged CTV to do the same, and its W-5 (which launched in 1966) began emulating the investigative reporting of the CBC.
Still, investigative journalism was never the central aim of McLean, Leiterman and Watson. They were pioneers in television production, and concerned with bringing vigorous public affairs television to the highest possible audiences. They knew that holding the powerful to account would be a significant means of achieving that goal. Their ideas and successes were studied by the American networks, and the Canadian influence was evident as CBS introduced its own 60 Minutes in 1968.
“It will be impossible now to retreat from the standards of inquisitive and skeptical journalism for which they stood as symbols,” said Ron Haggart in the Toronto Star, on the death of Seven Days.
Canadian newspapers had their own versions of investigative work in this era, but many were really just forms of bigger and better scoops. Robert Reguly of the Toronto Star was variously cited as Canada’s leading investigative reporter of the 1960’s. He tracked down union strongman Hal Banks when authorities couldn’t, and he scored a world-wide exclusive with the first interview with Gerda Munsinger, the East German spy who had slept with leading Canadian political figures. Reguly did what his colleagues of previous decades didn’t. He spent time tracking public records and chasing down sources, not content with official versions of events. He played a role in the development of the modern journalistic method, but more significant developments were to come.
The radical ideas of the 1960’s had a profound effect on journalism. As in the late 19th century, it was the alternative and radical newspapers that led the way in introducing muckraking and investigative work. Opposition to the war in Vietnam played a key role in spurring much of this development, which began in the U.S. and spread to Canada. By the mid-1960’s underground and alternative newspapers began sprouting in the U.S. Some of the more successful ones, such as Ramparts (1966), had a significant impact on public discourse. This influence gradually spread to Canada.
Mainstream media were often slow to adapt to the new conditions, and sometimes missed golden opportunities. Nothing illustrates this better than Seymour Hersh’s inability to find a newspaper or magazine willing to publish his 1969 exposé of the My Lai massacre. Eventually he was forced to publish with a tiny, alternative news agency. It had a major influence on shaking American confidence in the war. This was furthered by the release of the Pentagon Papers and their subsequent publication in the New York Times.
In Canada, some alternative publications began delving into investigative journalism. The Last Post in Montreal ridiculed the triviality of modern Canadian magazine journalism and published exposés of government and corporations. The staff consisted of some disillusioned journalists, including some who continued to work in the mainstream while contributing anonymously. An exposé of the Eaton’s company reads like Gustavus Myers, while an analysis of Canadian complicity in chemical and biological warfare was an intensive examination of a subject the dailies hadn’t tackled. In Halifax, The 4th Estate combined investigative work with activism to produce a unique journalistic blend.
These strands inspired some individual journalists to greater heights in Canada. Gerald McAuliffe built an impressive career in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s by exposing local police corruption. John Zaritsky did the same. By the early 1970’s, mainstream Canadian newspapers began to realize there was a market in promoting investigative work.
The floodgates lifted with the Watergate break-in. Suddenly it was clear to everyone that journalism had changed. Investigative work sprouted everywhere. Newspapers set up teams, journalism schools exploded. Time Magazine declared 1974 the Year of the Muckraker.
“Scarcely a reporter in the country is now immune to fantasies of heroic achievement and epic remuneration,” said Newsweek Magazine. ‘Woodstein envy is rampant, even among newsmen with enviable reputations of their own.”
In Canada, it was public broadcasting that again played a significant role. Peter Herrndorf of the CBC commissioned two huge investigative projects from Bill Macadam of Norfolk Communications. One involved an investigation of espionage and security in Canada (broadcast in 1974), and the other a massive investigation into organized crime in Canada (Connections series, 1977 and 1979). Connections became the most methodologically advanced investigation of the modern era, employing scholarly research, sophisticated cross-indexing of data, voluminous interviewing and surreptitious fact-gathering techniques. It also employed controversial and ethically-debatable methods. Herrndorf also created the Fifth Estate in 1975, which devoted a considerable portion of its attention to investigative work.
The hidden camera and microphone became a regular tool for investigative journalists. Used responsibly, they provide a unique means to uncover the truth of a situation. Used irresponsibly, they discredit journalists and provide ammunition to their opponents.
By the mid-1970s, meanwhile, there were worries that investigative journalism would begin to endanger national security. An RCMP security service secret memo of Aug. 11, 1975 was blunt:
“As in the case of the U.S., there is a growing trend in Canada towards investigative reporting. No doubt, this trend in Canada has been given impetus by exposure in the U.S. press of the so-called Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal, etc.”
It went on to warn of the danger of having security techniques exposed in the media. Philip Agee’s defection from the CIA was weighing on the minds of the RCMP. Ironically, about the same time this memo was being circulated, John Sawatsky of the Vancouver Sun was beginning to look into RCMP activities in Canada. He applied a rigorous method to understanding the organization, and succeeded in breaking some sensational stories. One involved the illegal break-in by RCMP into the offices of the Agence Press Libre du Quebec. This led to a spiral of stories and publicity that ultimately triggered both the Quebec Keable commission and the McDonald Inquiry into RCMP Wrongdoing. Sawatsky followed this up with two groundbreaking books on the RCMP Security Service, Men in the Shadows and For Services Rendered. He had taken investigative journalism in Canada to an entirely new plane.
Eventually, Sawatsky refined his journalistic method into a sophisticated interviewing methodology which revolutionized investigative reporting. Its most impressive application is in Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition.
By the 1980’s, investigative journalism had become institutionalized in the Canadian media, though never entirely entrenched. It is subject to the ebbs and flows of corporate budgets, fashion and increasing timidity in some quarters due to libel suits and pressure from advertisers and government.
Throughout its history, muckraking and investigative journalism have been subjected to attacks by those whose interests lie in upholding the status quo. Libel suits are a favourite weapon, as are laws that offer no additional protection to journalists who seek to guard confidential sources. All the while, the distortions of investigative journalism only serve to discredit the process as a whole. These come in the form of exposés of trivial matters that merely use the format of an investigative report and ignore any important content, and irresponsible exposés that place ambition or ideology ahead of the disinterested, independent and rigorous search for the truth.
At its best, investigative journalism in Canada has exposed odious and corrupt practices, and held powerful interests to account, in the service of the interests of the general population. All manner of economic, political and social pressures serve to constrict its use from time to time. Whether it survives in the long run is an open question.