Furlong Defends Self

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"The most offensive thing you can say to a journalist"

When I worked as managing editor of The Sunday Express, it was my job to take editorial' calls from the public.

Mondays were usually busiest, with calls running the gamut from disgruntled readers to agitated lawyers.

The lawyers were calling on behalf of clients, who, embarrassed by the outcome of a story, were complaining that quotes had been taken "out of context."

In such cases, I explained that the meaning and intent of the quotes, whether heard on their own or in the wider context of the interview, still held the same meaning. And that reporters would not intentionally change the meaning of a quote through selective cutting and pasting.

If the lawyers persisted, I consulted the reporter who wrote the piece and explained the situation. They pulled the tape, cued the interview, and I would press play' while holding the receiver to the phone. It was always clear that the person being interviewed had, indeed, said those things and the meaning was obvious. There was never a case, in all my time there, that a lawsuit went ahead because something was taken "out of context."

From that day on, I knew with certainty that anyone who said, I was taken out of context,' was trying to cover his arse. He had screwed up, and was blaming it on someone else.

You become wary of many things, after several years in journalism. Something else that sets off alarm bells for me is when a public figure accuses a journalist of being biased. More often that not, it means something entirely different. Sometimes, it means they don't like what you're doing and want to shut you down.

Recently, Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, accused John Furlong host of the Fisheries Broadcast of "bias" and "distortion" regarding fishery issues.

The story was broken on Saturday by The Telegram's Dave Bartlett, and you can read the full text here.

I listen to the Broadcast every day, though can't say I have a full understanding of all fisheries issues, in every corner of the province. However, this one is fairly straightforward. The issue is the "buddy up" and "combining" programs.

"Both programs allow one fishing vessel to catch the quota of two fishing enterprises, though the former refers to the under 40-foot fleet and the latter refers to vessels over 40 feet," Bartlett explains, far more succinctly than I ever could.

McCurdy wrote to the CBC Ombudsman, complaining Furlong's coverage has created the impression "that the union is at odds with a widespread position of fish harvesters on this issue, although this is based almost entirely on the basis of repeated interviews with two individual fish harvesters."

Kathy Porter, CBC Radio's executive producer for current affairs, defended Furlong.

"I've never, myself, heard anything over the course of listening to the 'Broadcast' over the last year that raised concerns for me that we were being anything other than being objective and even-handed on the issue," she told The Telegram, adding that she is willing to meet with McCurdy to discuss his concerns.

As for Furlong, he reacted to this controversy in his typically shy, demurring manner.

"I'm highly offended by it," he told The Telegram.

I called Furlong for comment.

"I felt my reputation was attacked," he said. "It's not my role to defend the CBC, but I certainly will defend John Furlong It's the most offensive thing you can say to a journalist, that he's biased Earle McCurdy has every right to complain about coverage, but he has no right to suggest that I am biased. That's what truly is offensive That's like calling a doctor a quack."

Furlong said he was amused by one of the comments left on the story at The Telegram site.

"(The writer) disagreed with the way I handled the Broadcast, which is fine, but made reference to the fact that I'm in the twilight of my career. I laughed at that, because I wasn't quite sure what it had to do with it. But having said that, maybe it's the fact I'm in the twilight of my career that I don't care about the Earle McCurdys anymore. They don't frighten me, y'know. That's the sad reality. I always was cursed with the fact that I don't care what people think about me."

Furlong said the specific complaint, about favoritism toward the buddy up system, was "obviously ridiculous." Furlong said he has had McCurdy on the program 40 times during the last year, and listeners have a chance to participate through occasional call-in programs, the Fish Line (a listener feedback line), and on-air interviews.

"All I hear are a lot of people who want both systems to continue buddy up and combining and very few who want the systems to end I'm just reporting that fact There's overwhelming support for the system from my read of it, which can only be based solely on the number of people who call the Fisheries Broadcast. The union may feel otherwise, but this is a very democratic program."

Furlong said it helps that his boss, Kathy Porter, is a former host of the Broadcast and listens to the show every day. "If there was a problem she would have come to me."

On Monday, the Fish Line received a call from Jim Wellman, editor of The Navigator and a former host of the Broadcast. It's worth showing you what Wellman said, in full, so here is the complete transcript:

I'd like to talk a little bit about Earle McCurdy and the FFAW's charges against you and the Broadcast. As you know, I was associated with that program for 15 years and since then I've been a regular listener on a daily basis.

I find the union's allegations extremely bothersome because this is not merely voicing a complaint. Accusing you of bias, distortion, anti-unionism, that's serious stuff, and taking it directly to the level of ombudsman raises the temperature a lot as well.

The charges I think are particularly serious, I think, because he is attacking your personal integrity as a journalist. In my opinion, the Broadcast is today, and always has been, one of the most democratic programs ever aired, I think because it literally allows access to almost anyone with an opinion on any issue.

Whether there are more opinions for one side than another, I don't think that's the point. Maybe I could put it another way: if 90 percent of people favour one side of an issue, no matter what it is, I don't think it's your responsibility to go and look for 50 percent of your callers to represent the other side

I always thought that democracy was the cornerstone of trade unionism but that doesn't seem to be the case right now with the FFAW. I've had a lot of respect for Earle McCurdy for the nearly 30 years that I've known him. This is disappointing, I think, to me, because it appears to be an intimidation tactic, where the intent is to bully you to put a union slant to what you allow on the broadcast.

The FFAW of course is very powerful, they're becoming more powerful every year, and it seems that they've reached a point of wanting absolute power, whereby they want to silence anyone who voices an opinion they don't like. And you know what they say about absolute power.

Anyway, this is my first time ever calling the Fish Line, John. I really wanted to offer my two cents on this one, because it bothers me and I wanted to show support to the Broadcast, and to you as host, and Kathy Porter as producer. I wish you all the best.

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Recent comments

  • Craig
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Geoff:
    Thanks for raising this one. I was appalled and surprised to hear of the FFAW's attack on John Furlong. I have great respect for Earle McCurdy, who, by the way, is a former journalist, and feel that somehow this issue is being pushed by someone below him. I can't see McCurdy being responsible for such an irresponsible accusation.

    Since joining the Broadcast, Furlong has restored what was for a long time a struggling show and returned it to being a flagship journalistic effort and a daily must hear for those of us in this business.

    Again it's disappointing that the FFAW would make this complaint. Obviously someone inside the organization is feeling the heat about Buddy Up. That in itself is not surprising. The union has done a remarkable job under McCurdy of keeping what are often competing interests together inside one tent. This may well be just a sign of some conflict inside that structure.

    As for complaining about specific journalists, we're accustomed to that kind of intimidation from the Premier's Office. It's unsettling to see a union leader of McCurdy's intelligence and stature emulating it. There are days I am seriously worried about the state of democracy in this province.

    Sincerely,
    Craig Westcott
    Editor
    The Business Post