Voice in the Wilderness

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Lingering doubts about the Cameron inquiry

Premier Danny Williams's appearance as a witness last week at the Cameron inquiry was something of a letdown, after the many months of hype that preceded the event.

The questions were predictable, as were the answers, and there was no high-pressure questioning, as we've seen of other witnesses at the inquiry. The premier had an easy ride.

Most importantly, he stayed calm during his entire appearance, never once lashing out the way he did, for example, when attacking the "inquisitorial" tone of the inquiry lawyers, or questioning the money it was costing (never mind that, at the time, it was within budget).

And then there was his apology, which the mainstream' local media reported dutifully. In fact, the premier had a pretty easy ride in coverage subsequent to his appearance. Even cancer victims seemed to accept his apology without question. However, there was at least one local media person who wasn't buying it.

In his column of October 31, Brian Jones, a desk editor with The Telegram, focused on one key piece of Williams's apology:

In Wednesday's Telegram, under the headline "Premier apologizes," the first full quote attributed to Williams sounds striking, but upon a second, closer reading hits you between the eyes like a Phillies' baseball bat because of its astounding implications: "Patients who are involved in this process are the pioneers and martyrs who are paving the way for a better health-care system at the end of the day."

There are no pioneers or martyrs here. There are only victims.

That statement is so insulting and offensive that it almost negates the legitimacy of the premier's apology.

A pioneer is someone who willingly sets out to be among the first to do something or go somewhere. Albert Einstein was a pioneer. The Beatles were pioneers. The voyageurs were pioneers. People who get cancer are not pioneers.

A martyr is someone who willingly risks his or her life or, at least, gives up his or her comfortable life in pursuit of a task or an ideal. St. Boniface was a martyr. St. Sebastien was a martyr. You could even say that Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy were martyrs. But people who die of cancer are not martyrs.

They were victims, period first of medical mistakes, and then of a bureaucratic coverup. It is ludicrous to suggest, as Williams did, that the people who were victimized by the hormone receptor testing scandal were "paving the way for a better health-care system."

This is insensitive spin at its worst. I'll hold off, and leave it to others to ask that the premier apologize.

Jones makes an excellent point. And he drives it home nicely in his conclusion:

People can probably forgive the mistakes. Forgiveness for the ensuing coverup won't likely be as forthcoming. This scandal arose because people made decisions and took certain actions or, if you prefer, took no action. It did not arise due to "pioneers" or "martyrs."

Statements of banal contrition will not suffice. After all, as Williams said, "We're talking lives here."

Let's not forget that public opinion in this province was almost universally opposed to the premier, when he was attacking the tone and costs of the inquiry. If Williams was sincere in apologizing, he should have said he was sorry - especially to the cancer victims - for that lapse in good sense.

At least one blogger cried foul last week. Ed Hollett, writing in Bondpapers, suggested that local media were water-skiing over the story when they should be diving deeper. And he linked to an editorial in The Globe and Mail that made some pretty pointed observations. Here's an excerpt from the Globe piece:

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams plausibly denied responsibility yesterday at a judicial inquiry into the province's unconscionable eight-year record of botching cancer tests. But whether plausible or not, his testimony marked a low point for accountability in government.

He didn't know about the hundreds of botched tests and potentially fatal results until he read about them in a newspaper.

He didn't keep detailed records on his day-to-day activities. That would have eaten into his workday, he explained.

His office receives 125,000 to 150,000 contacts a year, and he can't be told everything.

He is "disappointed" no one told him. (No, he apparently didn't fire anyone.) He has instructed cabinet ministers to tell him the next time something important happens.

The editorial's conclusion also kicked some ass:

The Premier was contrite yesterday. He apologized to patients. But in weeks past, he set a new standard for public hostility to an inquiry that his own government called. He accused Judge Cameron of presiding over a witch hunt, or an inquisition. He appealed to her to halt aggressive questioning ("this is not a Perry Mason exercise") from counsel. This is at best needlessly insulting, and at worst an attempt to intimidate.

Sometimes all people can do is roll their eyes.

You can read the full editorial here.

Yes, Brian Jones was a lonely voice in the local media this week.

But you can bet he was heard, loud and clear, where it matters most.

He may be a voice in the wilderness, but Jones is not alone. I agree with everything he said.

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  • Frank
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I agree with everything Brian Jones said too. Its frustrating to see the local media skirt around this issue and let the Premier off unscathed on this issue. They're scared to death of him, and probably with good reason. He's never been forced to explain his story of his top aides knowing about the botched tests, while he only learned of them months later in the media. That's absurd.