Cecil Rosner. Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2008. xvi + 266 pp. (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-542733-2.
Reviewed by Dean Jobb (University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia)
Published on Jhistory (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker
Canada and the Tradition of Investigative Reporting
Bob Woodward may owe his Watergate scoops--and his storied career--to a little-known former Washington Post colleague named Henry Aubin. Aubin, a Harvard graduate who apprenticed at the Philadelphia Bulletin, joined the Post in 1970 but left the following year to travel abroad with his wife. Woodward took his place, teamed up with Carl Bernstein, and the rest, as they say, is history. Had he stayed, Aubin later joked, “Watergate might never have become what it did” (p. 86).
Aubin may be a footnote in the history of American journalism, but he went on to become one of Canada’s leading investigative reporters. He joined the Montreal Gazette in 1973, conducted an award-winning probe of the food industry, then spent more than a year investigating who owned his new city. He exposed evidence of money laundering and how shell companies disguised foreign ownership of skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Montrealers were shocked to discover the city’s biggest landlord was the Roman Catholic Church.
Aubin is among dozens of journalists whose exploits are documented in Behind the Headlines, Cecil Rosner’s groundbreaking and ambitious account of investigative journalism in Canada, beginning with the founding of the country’s first newspaper in Halifax in 1752. “Canada has a long and largely undocumented history of investigative journalism,” Rosner notes, “a field that has been virtually unplowed to this point” (pp. v, x).
Rosner is well suited to the task of documenting this uncharted territory. A thirty-year newsroom veteran who teaches investigative journalism at the University of Winnipeg, he has twice won the Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism--Canada’s version of the Pulitzer but far more competitive, as only one is awarded each year. He is also co-author of a book that helped exonerate a man who spent twenty-two years in prison before being cleared of murder.
Rosner starts with two recent newspaper investigations into serious allegations of government corruption by reporters who are arguably Canada’s version of Woodward and Bernstein. Daniel Leblanc’s Globe and Mail exposés of waste and kickbacks in an advertising program created to counter Quebec’s sovereignty movement sparked a major inquiry and helped topple Canada’s Liberal government in 2006. National Post reporter Andrew McIntosh investigated then prime minister Jean Chrétien’s business interests and discovered disturbing evidence of ward-healing and cronyism in Chrétien’s hometown of Shawinigan, Quebec--a scandal dubbed “Shawinigate.”
Such hard-hitting reporting was not always a feature of Canadian journalism. During the century that followed New York printer John Peter Zenger’s landmark libel victory of 1735, publishers in Britain’s northern American colonies risked prosecution or the loss of government printing contracts if they dared to criticize those in power. This discouraged investigative journalism, and Rosner asserts that “Canada’s first true investigative journalist” (p. x) did not emerge until the 1820s. Scottish firebrand William Lyon Mackenzie founded the Colonial Advocate in present-day Ontario and used it to attack the colony’s ruling clique. Unlike other reform-minded publishers who relied on “rhetoric or political invective,” Rosner argues, Mackenzie carefully marshaled his facts, as would a modern investigative journalist (p. 25).
Rosner devotes only two of his eighteen chapters to the first 200 years of Canadian journalism. This is due in part to the paucity of investigative journalism before 1950, but it also reflects how few secondary studies are available. Much research remains to be done on the early history of Canadian journalism, a field academic historians are only beginning to tackle. So while Rosner claims the Halifax Gazette “was always careful to pay respect to colonial authorities (p. 16),” a close reading of surviving editions shows Canada’s first newspaper was publishing criticism of the local administration, and repeating opposition attacks on the British government, as early as 1753. Not overly investigative, perhaps, but far from the work of a timid bystander. Rosner also downplays of the significance of Nova Scotia publisher Joseph Howe’s 1835 acquittal on a charge of libeling corrupt government officials, which mirrored Zenger’s victory exactly one century earlier. Recent scholarship suggests Howe established the defense of qualified privilege and ended the state’s reliance on criminal law to suppress critics.
Rosner’s focus is journalism since the World War ii, and it is here that this book is at its best. He is interested in the investigative journalists behind the stories--their motives and methods, the obstacles they faced, their successes and failures. Ultimately, he wants to understand what drives journalists and news organizations to investigate what lies behind the day’s news headlines.
Rosner shows how American and British initiatives have influenced Canadian journalism, and vice versa. The BBC’s pioneering “Panorama” program inspired the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to launch its own television newsmagazine, “Close Up”, in 1957. In the mid-1960s, in turn, the CBC’s innovative and edgy “This Hour Has Seven Days” became the model for CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
“Seven Days” jumped head-first into the issues of the day--racism, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war--and drew an audience of 3.2 million, still a record for a Canadian current affairs program. It also created headaches for CBC management, particularly a weekly segment that put politicians and newsmakers on the hot seat, and the program was cancelled after just two seasons.
Despite that setback, the CBC emerged as the leader in investigative journalism, supporting a variety of probing programs and documentaries. The successor to “Seven Days,” “the fifth estate,” for instance, has been breaking important Canadian and international stories since its debut in 1975. In contrast to the United States, Canada’s public broadcaster is well funded and enjoys a dominant role in the media landscape.
It is not surprising, then, that the CBC commands much of Rosner’s attention. As a longtime CBC employee--and these days the managing editor of television and radio for the CBC in Manitoba--he is also writing what he knows. Rosner clearly has a bias for television, but his research is meticulous and his approach is even-handed. He reports on the CBC’s mistakes and failures as well as its successes. But newspapers and private broadcasters receive less attention than they deserve. The impact of CanWest, Canada’s largest newspaper chain with leading dailies in ten major cities, is ignored, as are magazines known for hard-hitting journalism such as Maclean’s and Saturday Night. And even CBC Radio’s investigative efforts are given short shrift.
Behind the Headlines remains a major accomplishment. It is one of the few in-depth studies of how journalism has evolved in Canada. As for what lies ahead, Rosner joins the chorus of observers who lament the media’s current infatuation with soft news, celebrities, and advertiser-friendly content. He ends on a positive note, concluding the future of investigative journalism in Canada hinges on the “courage and tenacity” (p. 219) of individual journalists--something that’s as true now as it was in the days of William Lyon Mackenzie.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/jhistory.
Dean Jobb. Review of Rosner, Cecil, Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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