The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

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Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Friday, May 12, 2006

Parliamentary Press ignores McLachlin flip-flop

Decades from today, a little boy will ask his father: "What did you do in the War, daddy?"

Iraq? Uh uh.
Afghanistan? Nope.
Darfur? Not bloody likely.

The War on Harper? Now you're talking, son.

It was a titanic struggle, boy. Never forget that the evil Harper started it with a sneak attack on the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The day we were stopped from going to the third floor of Parliament will live in infamy. We tried diplomacy, but there was no talking sense to him. We had to fight. We didn't want to. The Press are peacekeepers. But he forced our hand. We had to become peacemakers almost overnight.

- Did, did you kill anyone, daddy?

Shhhh. I can't talk about it any more. It's too painful. But someday, son, you'll know why they call us the Greatest Generation of J-School. It wasn't pretty. But it had to be done. God and Supreme Court Justice forgive us.

- This kid at school says...

I know, son, I know. I've heard it for years. Gotcha journalism. It's historical revisionism.

- Huh?

It means they're trying to rewrite what really happened. Thank G--, uh, lucky for us they found the unwritten laws behind the written constitution that let us punish anyone who challenges the written record of what happened. That, my boy, is our legacy to you. Never forget it. Good reporters with deadlines and editors gave their reputations so you don't have to depend on people in their pyjamas telling you what happened.

- Huh?

The War on Harper began March 27, 2006, when spokesmen for the Parliamentary Press Gallery announced that peace talks had broken down. The Press didn't like the restrictions the Conservatives had set for them. Within two weeks letters of protest had been fired off, and there was no turning back.

For weeks it was only a sniping war. "The Conservatives are hypocrites," chorused the Parliamentary Press Gallery. "Emerson," they sang. "Flags," they bellowed. "No photo ops for coffins," they weeped. "The public has turned on Afghanistan. And you'll pay," they sang from the same songbook.

And then MP Maurice Vellacott wandered into firing range, and got slaughtered.

They're celebrating today at the CBC. They can count coup on the first victim of Gotcha in the Harper administration. That'll teach 'em for trying to put the CBC into the Accountability Act.

Maurice Vellacott can't say he wasn't warned what to expect. The Press was just waiting for someone to be an example, someone to "break" in the words of Larry Zolf. And he walked right into it, eyes wide shut.

The first rule of Gotcha is that truth doesn't matter.


The perfect example of that was the spectacle of a baying Julie Van Dusen (Parliamentary Press Gallery, CBC) pursuing Vellacott who patiently answered her barked questions by advising her to look for answers in Justice Beverley McLachlin's speech in December in New Zealand.

Speech be damned. Where's the entertainment value of reading dry facts?


Good television journalism CBC-style means screeching questions on the run to make it look like your prey is hiding something. Television is emotion, not truth. If you can't make 'em cry, make 'em run.

Good journalism CBC-style is host Don Newman turning his Politics show into an unrestricted platform for the Liberals and NDP to twist Vellacott's statements into their own political fodder. What? Read the speech and font passages that reveal McLachlin's argument for overriding written laws just as Vellacott said?? Get real. Fair and balanced is a right-wing ethos! and CBC won't fall for it.

There are so many examples of Gotcha journalism in the Vellacott matter that it makes for a case study in journalism schools.

Step One: The Gotcha moment. Vellacott talks to a CBC reporter on camera. A twisted version of his taped comments goes up on the CBC website. The Supreme Court issues an "unprecedented" rebuttal. Ignore the fact that it is not unprecedented at all and that its a calculated falsehood.


That would just spoil the story.

Step Two: Ignore the supporting evidence, in this case the speech by McLachlin that Vellacott is referring to.


It wasn't mentioned by any reporters other than The Black Rod in the first two days of the "scandal." It's easier to spin a story if you don't have to bring facts into it. To work Gotcha, you have to simplify the story. Put the schmuck on the defensive from the start. Do not examine whether what he says is true.

Step Three: The speech supports Vellacott, so quickly get off that track.


Sure the Chief Justice said unwritten rules unearthed by Supreme Court judges trump written laws passed by elected Parliamentarians. And that it's the judges' duty for find those rules and stand firm in the face of criticism. And it's true that there are no rules as to when the judges can use unwritten rules. And any laws that try to reverse the rulings of the supreme court are by nature unconstitutional, thereby making Supreme Court judges truly supreme over all other lawmaking bodies in the land.

Forget that stuff. It weakens the story.

Step Four: Go back to Gotcha. Find something to put Vellacott on the defensive. He can't win playing defence.


In this case the Parliamentary Press Gallery latched onto McLachlin's carefully worded statement that she didn't use the exact words Vellacott attributed to her. There was no consensus what words Vellacott used that should be attacked.

Some reporters chose "god-like."
Some chose "mystical."
Except that it was obvious he was speaking rhetorically.

But, remember, facts are irrelevent in Gotcha. Only repeated attacks will make him look defensive and weak.

Here's just a sampling of the spin.


MP's remarks unfounded, Supreme Court says
BILL CURRY (Parliamentary press gallery, Globe and Mail)
OTTAWA -- The Supreme Court of Canada has taken the unusual step of challenging a Conservative MP over false claims about Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
The comments from Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott, which he later said were inaccurate, will likely cost him his new job as chairman of the House aboriginal affairs committee.


( "False claims." Well, that's that then. No ambiguity where Bill Curry stands.)

snip

"I may have given the impression that in the speech she expressly said that she had 'god-like powers.' I acknowledge that Ms. McLachlin did not literally use those words," the release (from Vellacott) said.

Vellacottt is quoting what others said about what he said. For his exact words go to our story.

Chief justice rebukes Tory MP
PM also distances himself from remarks that top court judges play `God'
May 9, 2006. 01:00 AM
TONDA MACCHARLES (Parliamentary Press Gallery, Toronto Star)OTTAWA BUREAU
OTTAWA-The country's top judge has fired back at a Conservative MP who deplored the "God-like powers" judges take upon themselves. Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin took the highly unusual step of publicly defending herself and the courts after Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin) claimed during a weekend CBC television interview that McLachlin herself believes judges take on "some mystical kind of power" on the bench.

Vellacott never used the term "god-like powers'. Reporters like Tonda MacCharles did and attributed them to Vellacott.

PM Peeved By MP's Justice Remarks
KATHLEEN HARRIS , PARLIAMENTARY BUREAU (Parliamentary Press Gallery, Sunmedia)
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper has distanced his government from a rogue Tory MP who suggested Canada's top justice plays God with the law.

snip

Vellacott sparked the firestorm over the weekend when he said Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin had suggested that judges take on "almost god-like powers" when they take the bench.

Even better. Use paraphrasing to make up a completely different story, then repeat the false quote.

What the Parliamentary Press Gallery missed is the fact that Beverley McLachlin is extraordinarily sensitive about this speech.

A good reporter would wonder why?

It's not on the Supreme Court website and this is not the first time McLachlin attacked the credibility of someone who mentioned the speech.

The last time it was a reporter.


McLachlin urges judges to go beyond the letter of the law
Courts should defy legislation to protect rights, chief justice says
Janice Tibbets, The Ottawa Citizen
Monday, December 05, 2005
"Judges should feel "emboldened" to trump the written word of the constitution when protecting fundamental, unwritten principles and rights, says Canada's chief justice.

This pipsqueak reporter had to be squashed.
And Nancy K. Brooke, executive legal officer, Supreme Court of Canada, was sent to do the squashing. In an official rebuke ( which found it's way into the Globe and Mail), the first and well before Vellacott, she wrote:


"Janice Tibbett's report inaccurately represented what Beverley McLachlin said in her recent speech in New Zealand."

"The Chief Justice did not say that rights should be put before the constitution; nor did she say that judges should "feel emboldened to trump the written word of the constitution." What she did say is that constitutions, including unwritten constitutional norms, may supplement and sometimes trump ordinary (i.e. non-constitutional) laws."

Now compare this to how our Miss Brooke responded to Vellacott:

"I can categorically deny that Chief Justice McLachlin has ever said what Mr. Vellacott has attributed to her."

It has, Brooke told the press, "always" been her (McLachlin's) view that "it is a judge's role to interpret and apply the law."

"If a law is not clear, it's ambiguous, judges are required to interpret it, and they're required to make choices but those choices are always made in accordance with legal precedents and with the laws laid down by Parliament and the legislatures."

Somewhere between December and May, the judge forgot she believed in sometimes trumping ordinary laws.

She also forgot people can read.

P.23 of her 30 page speech.
"Here we face another apparent contradiction. On the one hand, the legitimacy of the judiciary depends on the justification of its decisions by reference to a society"s fundamental constitutional values. This is what we mean when we say the task of judges is to do justice. Judges who enforce unjust laws---laws that run counter to fundamental assumptions about the just society-lose their legitimacy. When judges allow themselves to be co-opted be (sic) evil regimes, they are no longer fit to be judges. This is the lesson of the Nuremberg Trials. It is also a lesson, however, that should embolden judges when faced with seemingly more mundane manifestations of injustice."

That's pretty simple. Judges don't have to wait for fascists to impose their order on a country, they "should" be emboldened to overturn mundane laws that conflict with the unwritten principles of justice.

Brooke was playing semantics when she attacked Janice Tibbets.

McLachlin didn't say judges could override the constitution; the constitution gives judges the power to override ordinary laws. The unwritten principles don't override the written constition, they are part of, but superior to, the written constitution.


Attacking Vellacott she said that judges make choices and "those choices are always made in accordance with legal precedents and with the laws laid down by Parliament and the legislatures."

Page 12 of her 30 page speech
"The argument I have been advancing may dispose of the suggestion that, as a matter of principle, it is inherently wrong for judges to rely on unwritten constitutional norms, if constitutional is understood here in the sense of an overriding principle that can invalidate laws and executive acts"

Page 25 of her 30 page speech
"The task of the judge, confronted with conflict between a constitutional principle of the highest order on the one hand and an ordinary law or executive act on the other, is to interpret and apply the law as a whole---including relevant unwritten constitutional principles."

Further down Page 25
"How does the judge discharge this duty? First, it seems to me, the judge must seek to interpret a suspect law in a way that reconciles it with the constitutional norm, written or unwritten. If an ordinary law is clearly in conflict with a fundamental constitutional norm, the judge may have no option but to refuse to apply it."

In simpler terms, McLachlin says there's nothing inherently wrong with using unwritten constituional "norms" to invalide laws passed by Parliament and that the job of judges is to use "relevant" unwritten principles to decide whether a law, passed by Parliament, should be applied or not.

That's as far away from "always accordance with legal precedents and with the laws laid down by Parliament and the legislatures" as New Zealand is from Ottawa.

It's also the exact opposite of what McLachlin told the compliant Gotcha press and what was reported to the public.

Who wasn't telling the truth? Can we trust the Parliamentary Press Gallery to give the answer?

The Globe and Mail published an entire speech Stephen Harper gave in 1997 in Montreal to a meeting of the Council for National Policy, which was identified as "an obscure right-wing American organization". The speech was printed during the election campaign when Liberals and New Democrats thought it could hurt Harper at the polls.

Three years ago, the Globe published an entire speech delivered by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin on human rights. (Coincidentally, she quoted liberally from Michael Ignatieff in her speech. Who knew?)

But when it comes to a speech outlining her views on the supremacy of judges in the political system of Canada, the Globe and Mail can't find space to publish more than a snippet here and a snippet there.

Gotcha.

*******

While we're at it, it's not all bleak. There is some good reporting out there which deserves commendation.

** Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck won an in-house award, the Edward Dunlop award for excellence within Sun Media newspaper chain, for his series of stories about a world war two veteran who was a bureaucratic prisoner of the public trustee's office.

Brodbeck successfully forced the province to change a bad law, which is more than PC caucus managed in the last year.


** Winnipeg Free Press writer Gerald Flood asked the right questions and had the right answers in his editorial page column "Flood Structural Flaws doom First Nations". Why are there no native-run commercial businesses on Indian reserves when non-natives make a fortune?


** Winnipeg Free Press reporter Bill Redekop did impressive digging to uncover the story that new water conservation laws can wind up costing farmers $1 billion cost land in lost land values.

The story prompted one reader of the Black Rod to say:

You complain a lot about the lack of journalism work ethics among today’s reporters.

In Monday’s FP, Bill R. displayed good investigative reporting by actually taking the time to get in his car and travel beyond the Perimeter Highway.

In his journey, he found and reported on a story that no one else was willing to profile. I appreciate his effort to get out of his office, speak with real people, and report their stories in his articles.

I hope his example will get the editors of the FP to recognize that there is a province beyond the city as well.


And bad reporting continues to give the profession a bad rep:

* *Let's start with the discrepancies in the daily newspapers in their stories about the latest ratings for the local television newscasts.

CTV viewership
164,400 (an average quarter-hour) Winnipeg Sun
179,000 (from 6 -6:30 p.m.) Winnipeg Free Press

Up about 8000 from last spring (i.e. 156,000 last spring) (Winnipeg Sun)
Compared to 169,800 at the same time last year (Winnipeg Free Press)

CityTV Viewership
8,700 average audience Winnipeg Sun
9.600 viewers Winnipeg Free Press

down from 13,000 from A-Channel's supper hour show (Winnipeg Sun)
compared to 18,000 in last year's spring ratings book (Winnipeg Free Press)

** Just a week after delegates to the Mayor's City Summit agreed on the need for action on the city's problems instead of more talk, we had this story by Mary Agnes Welch

Commission idea revived.core residents seek help to fight slum landlords, beggars

The headline writer thought the big story was the proposal for a new police commission. But nobody could answer how such a commission would operate so that part of the story was fizzled out.

To Welch's credit, she highlighted the real story of the meeting --- the Spence community's plea for help and the city council's brush off.

Once upon a time this is the kind of story that would have inspired a newspaper to throw all its resources in.

Editorial writers would have excoriated the councillors for their insolence. A team of reporters would have been marshalled to go into the community to dig out individual human interest stories. Columnists would have given voice to the residents and reported on the progress of the city in helping its citizens.


Instead we had one throwaway City Hall story with a bland headline.

The Free Press devoted more space, more resources, and more energy into attacking Sam Katz for making a passing reference to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.


Attention publisher A. Ritchie: Are you wondering why fewer and fewer people are reading the newspaper?

** Canwest News television reporter Jacques Bourbeau (Parliamentary Press Gallery) doesn't understand the boundaries between editorial comment and news reporting.

A recent report by him on Kyoto funding carried this line:

"As the Conservatives slash and burn environmental programs"

He then went to speak to the owner of a hybrid bus---Liberal Scott Brison, whose dual claims to fame are that he's a turncoat Conservative and that he leaked news of his government's income trust policy and cost the Liberals the election. Brison, surprise, surprise, thought the Conservatives were bad people.

Maybe Bourbeau should read a Canwest newspaper like the National Post -- which just days before had a story about how the slashed environmental programs were a vast waste of money and would be the topic of a coming report by the Auditor General.

Bourbeau did end his piece, and we mean at the very, very end, with the comment that the Conservatives were coming up with their own environmental policies.

** Winnipeg's own Paul Samyn (Parliamentary Press Gallery, Winnpeg Free Press) had a follow to his own story, reporting that the first Conservative government budget did not include money to expand the virology lab. They were only getting more money to do more research.

He spoke with Terry Duguid President and CEO of the. Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases who said the Conservatives were bad people.

Samyn failed to mention that Duguid ran twice as a Liberal Party candidate federally (2004 and 2005) and once provincially (1990).


** And, of course, Free Press columnist Frances Russell makes the list again with her latest screed about all her reasons she hates Stephen Harper.

To prove her point she used a poll that was outdated the day before she wrote her column.


"The CTV-Globe and Mail-Strategic Counsel poll shows the leaderless Liberals at 31 per cent, just four points behind the Harper Conservatives at 35 per cent, a drop of six points since April."

"Prime Minister, Canadians are watching you. And they don't like what they see."

Well.

Two public opinion polls published after the CTV poll showed a radically different Canada.

A poll by Decima Research taken between May 4 and 7 found Conservative support at 41 per cent nationally and the Liberals at 29. The NDP came in at 16 and the Bloc Quebecois at 10.

A Leger Marketing poll, also released Tuesday to The Canadian Press, and taken May 2-7 put the Tories at 40 per cent nationally and the Liberals at 30. The NDP was at 13 and the Bloc at nine. The Green party had seven per cent support.

And yesterday a Sun Media-SES Research survey showed Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tories now have the support of 38% of Canadians, ten points ahead of the Grits at 28 percent.

Given the margin of error of roughly 3 percent, statistically Conservative support could be as high as the 40-41 percent found by the other two polls, and taking Harper into majority terrority. The poll found the NDP has the support of 19 per cent of Canadians, while the Bloc Quebecois has 9%.


And these polls were taken after the press had thrown everything it could at Stephen Harper.

A full month of David Emerson. A couple of weeks of flags at half-staff, a week of pundits criticizing the ban on cameras at the return of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and daily mention that Canadians have turned against the military commitment to Afghanistan.


This week the Parliamentary Press Gallery won a battle. When will they report fairly on the war.And finally...

We took a few shots on the blogosphere ourselves over The Black Rod's coverage of the Gotcha reporting on Maurice Vellacott.

The one that hurt the most was the one that claimed we deliberately misquoted Beverley McLachlin. It took us several reads before we saw what people were talking about.

We wrote:
"Confronted with a new situation requiring a new norm, judges just look to the written constitution for the values that capture the ethos of the nation." Ethos, says the dictionary, is the characteristic spirit."

She wrote:
"Confronted with a new situation requiring a new norm, judges must look to the written constitution for the values that capture the ethos of the nation." Ethos, says the dictionary, is the characteristic spirit."

We plead nolo contendre.

We know it was a typo; we even gave readers a link to the speech so they could read it for themselves (and thereby discover the error). But there will always be people who will call us liars.

So instead we're saying we were hacked by Opus Dei which replaced the M with a J as a clue to the Da Vinci Code. That's our story and we're sticking to it.

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