A “Responsible Communication” About Reckless Canadian Journalism

January 6, 2010

When I first joined The Detroit News after working for several years as a business reporter at major Canadian newspapers, I was completely taken aback by the comparably low level of editorial concern and legal oversight given to any of my highly critical stories about private individuals. As it was considerably easier to sue for libel in Canada, I had grown rather accustomed to my hard-hitting stories about business executives being subjected to Talmudic scrutiny by a bevy of seasoned editors and legal counselors. At The News, however, my investigative reports pretty much sailed through the copy desk as I had written them.

I suspect the unusually high number of ex-pat Canadians at major U.S. print and broadcast outlets probably has as much to do with the strong caliber of Canadian journalists’ rigorous training as it does with simple geography. Fear of being sued is a tremendous motivator to practice responsible and diligent journalism, and the extra miles Canadian reporters must often go to get their stories published undoubtedly helps ensure that media debacles such as the reckless maligning of innocent individuals like Richard Jewell and Dr. Steven Hatfill happen with a lot less frequency north of the border. Indeed, in Canada even former prime ministers can successfully sue for libel.

But that’s about to change – and not for the better. Sadly, the Supreme Court of Canada recently decided to dismantle some of the safeguards built into libel laws by allowing journalists to cite “responsible communication” as a defense in libel suits. The Court ruled that Canadian journalists can avoid liability if they were “diligent” when trying to verify the allegations. Under that standard, the reporters responsible for destroying the lives of Mr. Jewell and Dr. Hatfill couldn’t be held liable under Canadian law.

In theory, a vigorous and aggressive independent press is healthy for a functioning free society. I agree – in theory. Practice is another matter altogether. Truth be told, the mainstream American media has become a business controlled by profit-driven companies seeking to bolster their bottom lines and staffed by reporters focused more on promoting their brands than pursuing justice, revealing truth, and upholding the profession’s historic role as the Fourth Estate.

Oh, Canada….you’ve truly picked the wrong standard to benchmark.

New York Times reporter Alex Berenson is representative of the moral compass of journalists who remain in the profession: Having orchestrated a highly dubious scheme to gain access to court-sealed documents relating to the controversial antipsychotic drug Zyprexa, Mr. Berenson then balked about publishing a story when one of his cohorts insisted on making the documents widely available to serve the public good. Faced with a choice of serving the public interest or promoting their own, I sadly suspect most U.S. reporters would follow Berenson’s lead. (An outline of Berenson’s largely unknown antics can be found here and here.)

The Supreme Court of Canada should have taken a lesson from Parliament about knowing when to rebuff the prevailing wisdom of its neighbor. Years ago, Canada’s Parliament blocked four of the country’s five major Canadian banks from merging, showing remarkable responsibility and prescience by ignoring the dominant view in the U.S. at the time that “bigger is better” when it comes to financial institutions. Had those bank marriages been allowed, the merged institutions would likely have been badly crippled during the global economic collapse by their combined U.S. exposures. Instead, Canada’s banks remain among the healthiest and safest in the world.

Canada would be similarly wise to prevent the creation of a U.S. style press where the media can publish irresponsible and false stories with wanton abandon and without retribution. Regardless of your political leanings, it’s hard to argue that despite having the most liberal press freedoms in the world, the American public is any more enlightened than their brethren elsewhere in the Western world.