Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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Toronto Star reporter quits after being banned from reporting on story

This doesn’t happen every day. Paul Watson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, announced he had resigned from the Toronto Star over a “do-not-report” order he had been given by his editors.

From an interview with Canadaland (“Q&A with Paul Watson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist, on why he just Resigned from the Toronto Star“):

I was ordered six weeks ago yesterday to stop reporting on what I believe is a story of significant public interest.

It basically deals with complaints from federal workers and others – experts in their field – who were looking for these lost Franklin ships, Erebus and Terror, which sank in the Arctic when Sir John Franklin and 128 men were trying to find the Northwest Passage way back in the middle of the 19th century.

Now, I realize that on the surface that doesn’t sound like much, but I came to realize it’s part of a broader problem. And you’ve spoken about it at length on your program and others are starting to speak about it. People are sick and tired of a government that is destroying our democracy by intimidating experts into silence so that the politically connected and the powerful can fill that information vacuum.

So that’s the story that I’m working on against the backdrop of the search for the Franklin ships.

A key player in this story is John Geiger, a one-time journalist who has worked with Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke, and is now the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. As an aside, he has written a book on the Franklin Expedition.

From the Globe and Mail (“Dispute erupts over credit for finding Franklin flagship“):

On Wednesday, John Geiger, the CEO of the society, was awarded a Polar Medal for what Governor-General David Johnston’s office called his “essential role in the success of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition.” Three others – a Parks Canada archeologist, an Inuit historian and the government of Nunavut’s director of heritage – received the same honour.

From Canadaland:

Watson: Three are obviously deserving medal recipients. One would have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what John Geiger did to justify winning a medal for the discover of HMS Erebus. His role as stated in a contract has nothing to do with finding shipwrecks. He’s not a skilled searcher, he doesn’t have archaeological background, etc.

He was brought on last April to handle public outreach.

Back to the Globe story:

Paul Watson, a Toronto Star journalist based in Vancouver who had been on the lead exploration ship, CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, last September, said that when he attempted to ask Mr. Geiger in May about his involvement in the search, his editors began asking questions and throwing up roadblocks. In an interview with The Globe on Wednesday, Mr. Watson said a Star editor sent him an e-mail in late May that read, in part, “We require you to cease all reporting related to John Geiger.”

“I knew I had a story when they ordered me to stop reporting,” said Mr. Watson, who won a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

The Toronto Star had a bylined story offering  more details on its side of the case (“Star publisher rejects reporter’s accusation“):

 “(Watson) speculates that the Prime Minister’s Office and a former editor of The Globe and Mail’s editorial page have convinced the Star to constrain this reporting,” Cruickshank wrote. “Let me publicly deny this extremely odd idea. There is no truth whatever to the suggestion.” …

Cruickshank also said this is “fundamentally” a personnel matter, and as such, the company will keep details about the “employment relationship” confidential.

On his blog, Watson said he had an audio recording of Cooke saying the Star didn’t want Watson’s story. “So I resigned to return to work on that story.” Watson gave the recording to Canadaland, which posted it online (“Paul Watson vs. the Toronto Star“). Here is some of Canadaland’s blog post:

CANADALAND can provide the following context to the audio clip above:

The full recording provided is of a tense and testy encounter in which The Star editors express their displeasure at having to fly to Vancouver to meet with Watson. They attempt to engage him in a “fact-finding” discussion about unexplained matters not pertaining to Watson’s journalism, in order to determine his future, if any, with their newspaper.

Watson demands to first discuss the Franklin story, saying that his willingness to discuss other matters will depend on their answer to his question: will they “contradict TorStar Chairman John Honderich” and let him report on the Franklin story?

After some argument about which man has been avoiding the other, Michael Cooke asks Watson to summarize the story so far for him. Watson does so. Cooke then passes on the story and Watson angrily ends the meeting, saying to his soon-to-be-former editors:

“…you are both a betrayal to journalism and to the history of this great newspaper”.

At one point in the conversation, management suggests to Watson that stories are killed in the normal course of events in a newsroom all the time. Watson protests, noting that in his experience stories are killed once they are presented as written, and says that never in his career has he ever been asked to stand down while still reporting a story.

Wed, July 8 2015 » Main Page, Media