Friday, December 07, 2007

What The Canadian Press Didn't Say About RailGate



Paul Willcocks has an excellent piece in which little, lead or otherwise, is buried, in Friday's Times Colonist.



I don't want to slag the work of Camille Bains, who is a very good reporter for the Canadian Press.

And I realize that the CP has an extremely tight, lead-driven format for their wire stories.

Having said all that, I am starting to become quite concerned that the really important stuff is being wiped from our collective memory as the sporadically published RailGate stories get more and more formulaic.

What the heckfire am I talking about?

Well, as time drags on without an actual trial for the media to chew on, the vast majority of the ProJourno print stories* are boiling down to the following formula:

First - lead with the factual description of yet another bizarre procedural gambit in the courtroom.

Second - get a quote from a 'talking head'/'expert' about the legal implications of said bizarrity.

Third - finish up with a barebones explanation about what RailGate actually is.

By way of illustration, here is how Ms. Bains' RailGate story on yesterday's super-secret, cone-of-silence Supreme Court hearing fits the formula:

First the Lead On The Bizarrity.....
A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled reporters and the public will be excluded from the courtroom during testimony from a police officer connected to the B.C. legislature raid case.

The officer is expected to testify that documents turned over to defence lawyers for former government officials facing several charges were censored to protect the identity of an informant.

Justice Elizabeth Bennett ruled Thursday that defence lawyers for Dave Basi, Bobby Virk and Aneal Basi could remain in the courtroom if they promised to keep the information confidential.

But Bennett allowed the Crown to file a federal statutory certificate indicating it was necessary to conduct the hearing in secret, without defence lawyers.

Crown lawyer Janet Winteringham orally filed the certificate, saying defence lawyers must be excluded to protect the confidential informant's identity.

On Thursday afternoon, Bennett began hearing arguments from defence lawyers in a separate in-camera session to determine if they should be entitled to participate in a hearing to determine the legal validity of the certificate.

That hearing was also closed to the media.

Solid stuff there - factual, but detailed and to the point (although, for those who haven't been following the case closely, they would have missed the fact that the 'Crown lawyer' Janet Winteringham is actually the 'junior' special prosecutor, which suggests that, once again, the big kahuna, Bill Beradino wasn't present when the going got tough).

Second, the implications of the Bizarrity:
"There's a secret hearing to determine whether the accused's counsel can attend another secret hearing," said Roger McConchie, a lawyer representing The Canadian Press and other media.

McConchie said the complex case that has already included several legal battles between Crown and defence lawyers is like a maze or "a nested doll situation."

"How far down is this series of nested in-camera dolls going to go?" McConchie said outside court. "This is the first time I've seen the nested doll syndrome go into operation."

He said the case is so mired in legal wrangling that a trial could be derailed.

If that happens, the public may never learn what led to the legislature raid on Dec. 28, 2003, when police carted away boxes of evidence from Basi and Virk's offices.

A recent Supreme Court of Canada decision gives judges the power to order closed hearings to avoid identifying confidential police informants.

(Justice) Bennett is presiding over pre-trial hearings to discuss evidence for a corruption trial slated to begin next March involving the three former B.C. government officials.

This, too, is fair enough - although it's interesting to note that Mr. McConchie is actually working for the CP (and other ProMedia outlets) on this matter. Thus, Ms. Bains didn't have to go very far to get his opinion.

Third - The Bare Bones Wrap-Up:
Virk and Dave Basi are former ministerial aides charged with fraud and breach of trust connected to the $1-billion privatization of B.C. Rail in November 2003, which was followed a month later by a police raid on their legislature offices.

Aneal Basi, Dave Basi's cousin, was a government communications officer and is charged with money laundering in connection with the case.

The Crown alleges that between May 2002 and December 2003 Basi and Virk received benefits from lobbyists at a firm called Pilothouse Public Affairs Group in exchange for providing them with confidential government documents regarding the sale of B.C. Rail.

Pilothouse was representing OmniTRAX, an American company that was among the bidders for B.C. Rail.

The winning bidder was Canadian National Railway.

Now, one could fuss about things like the lack of inclusion of 'Project Every Which Way' (ie. the drug investigation that led to the defendents initially becoming persons of interest), the interminable delays to the start of the trial (and all the obfuscation that has gone regarding what is, and what is not, 'evidence') and/or the connections to the provincial or federal Liberals (ie. the connections of the defendents, the connections of the lobbshop, the pol work of one of the principals of the lobbshop, and/or meetings of at least one cabinet minister with the rail company involved before the deal was done), but that might be seen as quibbling, given the format contraints.

So, what's the problem then, you may be asking yourself?

Well, it's those last two sentences, which are so cryptic that they are, in my opinion, actually misleading with respect to what really happened.

Here they are again (stuff in brackets mine):

Pilothouse (the lobbshop) was representing OmniTRAX, an American company that was among the bidders for B.C. Rail.

The winning bidder was Canadian National Railway.

Now, let's pretend you are a member of the public and that you do your best to keep up with current events but, because this is the real world, you are not obsessed with RailGate. And let's say you opened your paper this morning and read those last two sentences at the end of a wire story buried in your Globe and/or your Sun on pg S3/A11.

With a set-up like that, isn't it pretty darned likely that you might conclude that this entire thing is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot given that those last two sentences imply that the bribery did not work and that the big, bad Americans did not get their hands on our rail lines (ie. the company with the 'Canadian' moniker, CN, won the bid anyway).

So, what's missing?

What is that thing that was left unsaid at the end of Ms Bains' story that might lead a reasonably well-informed member of the public to come to very different conclusion?

Well, it is a thing called a 'Quid Pro Quo'.

Which is otherwise known as a purported before-the-sale deal, perhaps brokered by the accused and/or the lobbshop in question, between the Provincial Government and OmniTrax (who stayed in the bidding to give 'competition cover' after the other 'Canadian' railway, the CPR, dropped-out early screaming that the fix was in) for the left-overs (ie. the Roberts Bank spur-line).

Now, it's important to realize that this quid-pro-quo thing is not just a figment of the fevered imaginations of we, the non-real-world, RailGate obsessives.

Unless, of course, you also think that Vaughn Palmer is also obsessive.

Regardless, if the average member of the public knew that there is a very real possibility that bribery-fueled secret deals were used to grease the wheels of a rigged sale of public assets to a hand-picked private sector company** in perpetuity (and/or 990 years, which ever comes first), don't you think that he or she would feel very differently about this thing?

I do.

*I'd be happy to comment on the 'lectronic media coverage of RailGate, but that would be impossible because there isn't any.
**Which also turns out to be a formerly public, now private, company that has donated about $150,000 to the BC Liberal Party since the current premier, Mr. Gordon Campbell, became its leader. Interestintly, it is also a company that, along with its chairman, Mr. David McLean, just keeps on giving.
To give Ms. Bains her due (and I really do understand the pressures of her format, and also understand that it may have been an editor who slapped those last two sentences, sans explanation, on the point of her inverted pyramid), BC Mary is reporting that she, Ms. Bains, was one of only two, count 'em two!, members of the media who were in the Studio 54 courtroom yesterday. The other one, according to Mary was our own ol' reliable (and we mean that in a good way), Bill Tieleman.


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