Leaked documents inquiry hits unexplored territory
Published Monday, December 1, 2008 9:03PM PST
I have called media and journalism experts across the land to talk about the inquiry kicked off by the outgoing Vancouver city council into who leaked the documents about the $100-million loan for the Olympic village and there is much confusion about what this could actually accomplish, if anything.
Well, actually, I should say, it will accomplish one thing: Vancouver will now be in the record books as possibly the first-ever civic government in Canada (or maybe North America) to have launched such a process.
But what will we actually learn from this inquiry? It's a puzzle.
For one, it may be put off until after the criminal investigation is finished, which is what happened in the long-ago Bingogate inquiry, if anyone remembers that.
Second, the inquiry does have the power to compel journalist Gary Mason to come and give evidence, which the police don't. (Though police do have the power to order media outlets to produce documents, which they've been using a lot lately, says local media lawyer David F. Sutherland.)
But Gary will likely do what he has already done with the criminal investigation and decline to provide the name of his source for the leaked document.
That can hardly be a surprise to anyone. Reporters -- news flash -- traditionally don't hand over the names and cellphone numbers of their sources. Duh. (And, just to seal the deal, there's been a recent court decision in Ontario that expressed some sympathy for the concept that reporters are obliged to protect sources. For those of you panting to immerse yourself in media law, here's a good recent story on the legal ins and outs of source protection.
So that means the inquiry, some lawyer who will be billing at we don't know how many hundreds of dollars an hour, will be left with interrogating the 11 city councillors and various city staff about who was in possession of the various forms of the document at what times.
This could be an entertaining soap opera for the city -- don't forget that, unless this inquiry is conducted differently from most standard inquiries, it will be a public process complete with everything but a popcorn stand outside the hearing room -- and we may find out a lot more than we wanted to know about where documents get photocopied at city hall, but it's unclear whether that will ultimately find the culprit or culprits.
The research I did and the various journalists and media lawyers I talked to around Canada indicated to me that, if the leakers of documents are found, it's usually either through a court proceeding or through an intense internal investigation by the institution where the leak happened.
They had doubts about the rationale or effectiveness of a public inquiry held by the local city government.
I have to say, it was quite hilarious trying to explain to the out-of-towners what was going on here. They kept asking questions like, "You mean the city's not going to have an inquiry into why it gave a $100-million loan and then said it had to be kept secret from the public?"
And they even wondered what purpose would be served by identifying the leaker, other than to allow city government to continue a tradition of secrecy that perhaps should never have been allowed to exist in the first place.
There has been quite a lot of speculating about who the leaker is -- I've even done it myself. It's a great parlour game.
"But everybody's got a motive when they give you information," says Allan Thompson, a professor at Carleton University's journalism program.
The leaked document may very well have come from a disgruntled city employee or even a councillor. But is that really what's important, he asked? Or is it the loan that's important?
He's not a fan of inquiries that just go after the leaker and wonders about the real purpose of inquiries like that.
"Inquiries can be an end in themselves. They can be used as a distraction or to make the story go away."
The one time when he thinks inquiries into leaks can be useful is when someone has leaked false information to the media, like in the Maher Arar case, where reporters were given information from a source early on to make the case that Arar deserved to be sent to Syria because he was part of some terrorist ring. That information turned out to be completely wrong.
So if there's something that should possibly be investigated, it should be who at city hall leaked the allegedly incriminating cardswipe data to Global TV, which then produced a report that appeared to point the finger at Councillor Raymond Louie on the thinnest of evidence. (Lawyers now involved there, so I won't go into that more.)
Ultimately, though, it seems as though the city hall inquiry will achieve one real purpose, which is to make people there even more scared about giving out information -- even if perhaps it might be a good idea for the public to have that information.
The city and Councillor Peter Ladner keep trying to make the point that city's ability to negotiate was damaged because the news about the city's willingness to lend $100 million was made public.
But from everything I've heard, Millennium and Fortress knew -- even before the councillors gave their reluctant approval at the in-camera meeting -- that the city was preparing to lend up to $100 million.
Maybe the best thing about the inquiry might be that we'd find out whether the city's negotiating position was actually damaged -- or whether the whole leak was just an embarrassment.