Investigative reporter Kevin Donovan on why Canadian journalists need to be vigilant on institutional secrecy
|Toronto Star 04 May 2021 at 06:55|
The Star’s chief investigative reporter has following his many years of battles in court to obtain documents in high-profile criminal and civil cases, such as the Barry and Honey Sherman murder investigation.
The citation recognizes journalists who reveal information of public interest “while overcoming secrecy, intimidation, refusal to comply with freedom of information requests or other efforts to foil their work.”
For Donovan, that has frequently meant appearing before court to argue the public must have access to documents to properly understand how the justice system works — and to highlight the areas where it is not working correctly. With no legal training, he has made arguments before the Ontario Court of Justice, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Appeal.
The Star asked him about why it’s worth it to fight for access to documents, and about the future of journalism in an increasingly digital society.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why is recognizing contributions to revealing public information especially necessary in the current climate?
First, we cannot lose sight of the fact that journalists in Canada are not operating under the extreme repression existing in many other countries — as the various awards and citations issued by World Press Freedom show.
That said, journalists in Canada need to be vigilant. Sometimes, government, police and other institutions seek to keep information secret as a knee-jerk reaction to a request from the media. “We are not going to give them anything” is a common reaction to a journalist’s request. Other times, it is because the institution is legitimately fearful that if certain information gets out it will cause the public to lose faith in it.
I would like institutions, and police and government are notorious for keeping information secret, to realize that sunshine truly is the best disinfectant, to borrow an old phrase. We learn from our mistakes and it quite often takes the airing of a mistake to effect change.
What more can be done — on both the journalists’ end and the institutions’ — to ensure transparency for the public?
Relationship journalism. That’s a phrase I use to describe making connections with sources of information and using them to help us get to the bottom of a story. Before we fire off a request to a court or a government, we need to have insiders help us understand what we are looking for.
Second, in the case of information in a court file, we need to learn the law. What are we entitled to? How do we go about asking? While it is great if a media organization could send their lawyers to court each time, it is often too expensive. That means the reporter has to learn how to write an application, file it in court, cross-examine a police officer, and argue the case.
On my various cases I have spent many hours at a Staples Business Depot assembling briefs to file in court. The work is ultimately exciting, but can be a tad tedious along the way.
If a young reporter were to pull a chapter from your book, what is the most important thing you’d want them to remember?
Be bold. Be prepared for the courts and in many cases the government to push back. The first time I did this four years ago I recall a senior Crown attorney initially refusing to deal with me because I was not a lawyer. I had to set him straight. When they push back on you tell them you are doing this on behalf of your readers or listeners and by extension the public. That often helps.
Finally, how has the pandemic, with virtual court and virtual press conferences, impacted your work? Do you see big future changes in the way information will be accessible to the public?
Before the pandemic, journalists had to go to a physical court to see if a civil suit had been filed, or if a criminal case was coming. In what seemed like overnight, the province instituted an online search. Simple, but something they had refused to do before.
As to Zoom hearings, I think they are fantastic. In two cases I am pursuing now — the Sherman murder investigation and a probe into — I have been able to cross-examine a police witness in open court and make arguments — in both cases in exactly the same way as I did previously in a live court.
In my admittedly brief experience, the judges, Crown attorneys and court staff have been absolutely excellent in these hearings. While I am sure there will be a return to live courts in some cases, I see no reason why many cases could not be held by Zoom.