Friday, June 23, 2006

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Reporters


Last Friday morning (June 16th) I listened incredulously to the 'Cutting Edge of the Ledge' as Vaughn Palmer, Keith Baldrey and Bill Good all dismissed, out of hand, any serious concerns about safety procedures or protocols at BC Ferries. More specifically, all three of them downplayed former safety officer Darin Bowland's Statement of Claim and Mr. Baldrey even raised the spectre that it is all just a desperate act of a disgruntled former employee looking for money . Interestingly, however, there was no serious discussion of the 'Benign Bombshell' also known as the Transport Safety Board's defacto interim report letter that was sent to BC Ferries CEO David Hahn specifically raising safety concerns.

Anyway, with so much else happening this past week, including Little E's really, really big Tap Dance Show, I promptly forgot all about it.

But tonight, after checking my notes, I decided to go fishing around the outer reaches of the google cache and came up with this, from Mr. Baldrey, published on March 29, 2006, just two days after the sinking of the Queen of the North.

Early last Wednesday morning - just after 2 a.m. - my home phone rang. That's usually a reason for concern - the first thing that springs to mind is a family emergency somewhere. But this call was about another kind of emergency. 
"Keith, it's Dave Hahn. Sorry about the early call, but I thought you should know. One of our vessels has just gone down north of Vancouver Island. I'm trying to get an update on the passengers. I'll keep you informed, but I thought you might want to get going on this." 
It was a startling phone call, to say the least. Startling because the ferry had only sunk about an hour before, startling because of the potential magnitude of the ferry disaster, and startling because of the forthrightness of the man who runs BC Ferries. 
Mr. Hahn and I talked several more times in the early hours of that morning. He would phone with updates - the most important of which was about the state of the passengers - and try to provide as much information as possible.
As the morning went on, he started appearing seemingly everywhere - one minute on CKNW, the next moment on CBC Radio, the next on Global TV. BC Ferries had hastily chartered a plane to fly Mr. Hahn and Premier Gordon Campbell to Prince Rupert to meet the Queen of the North's passengers. He invited me and a Global cameraman to accompany them. 
As this potentially giant crisis was still developing, Mr. Hahn was front and centre with the public. Rather than hiding and adopting a bunker mentality when faced with a disaster for the company, he was out in front of the story, trying to provide information as quickly as possible.
In other words, he was behaving exactly the opposite of how most politicians act when faced with a crisis. The usual experience, from this reporter's perspective, is having to wait for hours outside a cabinet minister's office (or a premier's office) as nervous aides huddle, trying to figure out a damage control plan before saying anything publicly. 
Not so with Mr. Hahn. 
It's a refreshing approach from the head of a large company, and one that I suspect resonates well with the general public. I ran into Mr. Hahn at a Victoria gas station this past weekend, and attendants there were congratulating him for "being upfront" about everything. The radio phone-in shows have also reflected positive reviews - not scientific research, I admit, but my instincts tell me the approach is working.
All this injects yet another perspective into the ongoing debate over the privatization of BC Ferries. I have a very hard time believing information would have been forthcoming so quickly in the wake of this kind of disaster if BC Ferries were still run by the provincial government.
There are valid concerns about the need for public accountability when it comes to BC Ferries, since the company basically controls the transportation ability for thousands of people who rely on the ferry system for travel, commuting or the shipment of goods. 
For example, the company is exempt from B.C.'s freedom of information law, which shields it from a significant level of scrutiny. 
There are certainly parts of privatization that trouble many people. But in terms of accountability in the face of a disaster as large as the sinking of the Queen of the North, I'll take Mr. Hahn's approach over his predecessors - as in cabinet ministers - any day.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.

Now, after reading that, I have two questions.

First, the obvious: Why, exactly, does Mr. Baldrey automatically conclude that persistent attempts at PR Spin = Accountability?

Second, the less obvious: Why, exactly, does Mr. Baldrey not recognize when he himself is, perhaps, being spun?

With respect to the latter question, could it be that Mr. Baldery likes it that way?

And could it be that Global TV viewers like it that way too?

After all, they wouldn't want to be faced with the spectacle of Mr. Baldrey having to actually get out there and dig for the story so that that he could come to his own conclusions based upon the 5 W's now would they?

No, of course not.

And neither, apparently, would he.

Because if he did that he might not get those special phone calls in the middle of the night or offers of super-duper seats on special charter flights.

Or, worse, the tap of free and easy info flow might dry up completely.

Just like it did for a real reporter named Chris Montgomery who tried like heck to get behind the spin and the freedom of information shield now protecting BC Ferries, the private corporation.

And here's what happened to her:

In the days just following the ferry sinking, Chris Montgomery, a Province reporter who has long led the pack in maritime news, broke stories about the Queen of the North's delayed decommission date and the inaccurate passenger manifests. But after Montgomery co-wrote a story claiming an RCMP investigation into possible criminal negligence by B.C. Ferries was underway, Hahn publicly took issue with the claim that B.C. Ferries was itself the target of the investigation. An RCMP representative told The Tyee the difference of opinion between Montgomery and Hahn is one of "semantics," though a criminal investigation can not be formally announced until the TSB issues its report, possibly years away.
In the meantime, B.C. Ferries no longer returns Montgomery's phone calls.

Now this is no laughing matter, because as long as spinmeisters are able to hook lazy journos with promises of special, unlimited access they can effectively shut out the real reporters, the ones who are actually out there trying to get to the bottom of things.

And when that happens the public is never well served or served well.

Oh, and just so you know, this wasn't the first time Mr. Baldrey went to bat for Mr. Hahn after an accident. He also had some very flattering things to say about Mr. Hahn's willingness to put himself 'front and center' after the Queen of Oak Bay had a mechanical failure and drifted into the Marina at Horsehoe Bay last summer. Which is a very strange thing indeed, because while Mr. Baldrey might have had to wait for Ministerial announcements and the like in the 'bad' old days, I cannot remember ever having to wait for a ferry because it completely lost power and drifted over pleasure craft while trying to dock. Not once. Not ever. 



North Van's Grumps said...

Too bad about the links, every one of them is broken... Its almost worth it to go Laila's way, where she re-creates her own documents of the originals.

RossK said...

I hear you NVG--

I think we're going to have to start doing that.

Although the google cache can help if you chunk out actual passages and use them as the search string.