Media gave premier the benefit of the doubt
In yesterdays post, CBC provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane dropped a bit of a bombshell in the comments section.
I opened that item with a quote from Hansard, in which Premier Danny Williams mused about possibly selling off Hydro to pay down the provincial debt.
Cochrane stepped in to confirm that Williams had indeed said that in the House, but corrected himself in a scrum immediately afterward. I was in the legislature when Williams made that comment, Cochrane wrote. The entire press gallery perked up when he spoke of selling Nalcor. We pulled him outside for a scrum to ask about it. Even before we asked a question he clarified his comments. He said he misspoke in the legislature. He wasn't talking about selling Nalcor. He was talking about selling the individual assets it acquires. For example, if the Hebron stake is eventually worth 5-billion dollars and someone wants to buy, Williams said he would consider selling it to reduce debt. That was consistent with past comments he had made when the government rolled out its plan to revamp Hydro into an energy company. So while his statement in the legislature certainly appeared to be big, big news the followup showed that it wasn't what it appeared but rather a careless comment from Williams that he immediately clarified. I don't write this to defend Williams. Only to explain why the media (this IS supposed to be a media blog isn't it?) didn't do a breaking news story that day.
Other commenters expressed surprise that the media would drop the story, so Cochrane replied with further clarification.
Nalcor has a division between the regulated side of its activities (the old Nfld Hydro) and the unregulated side (the new energy corp). Williams has said repeatedly he wants to build wealth in the unregulated side and use that to increase the province's net worth and reduce debt. He can either flip those assets as they grow in value, or use the revenue they earn to pay off debt. That is what he was talking about. He had said that very thing many, many times before. So it wasn't news once it was clarified.
If he had reported the premiers comments as spoken in the house, the media could be accused of manufacturing a controversy, Cochrane said.
Williams did not let those comments stand. Within five minutes he came out to a scrum and said I gotta clear something up, because he realized what he said in the legislature was not what he (apparently) meant.
Cochrane describes an interesting ethical dilemma, and has a good point when he says unlike you guys I was there.
We all look at these things differently, through the filters of our own experience. In my case, I ask myself what would have transpired had this happened at The Sunday Express (an investigative weekly where I worked from 1988 to 1991, when it folded).
I think we would have weighed what Williams said in the House, against his subsequent retraction, and asked ourselves three questions:
1) How credible is the retraction? Was it an honest mistake? These things do happen;
2) OR did he accidentally divulge a policy direction that was not intended for public consumption, and was now attempting to contain it?
3) On either account, should the media agree to ignore such a controversial statement?
I think we would have done the story.
First, Williams statement in the House is unequivocal. The subject of his paragraph is Hydro; this is what he is talking about selling. But accepting that he did indeed misspeak, I question the logic in what he supposedly meant to say. The equity chunks he is taking in various projects will be valuable, but they will need to fetch $10 billion in order to pay down the debt. I suppose thats possible, but there is room for doubt here.
Second, its possible that the premier did let slip a bit of unintended information. Even Cochrane said it was (apparently) not what the premier meant. So, yes, there is room for doubt.
Finally, I would be uncomfortable ignoring a quote from the premier that was, after all, going to live forever in Hansard. In the interests of historical accuracy, I would have reported the full story. I would have opened my story with the quote in the House, then followed with the premiers clarification.
And thats where it would have sat. On the public record. For viewers and readers to decide for themselves.
Heres how I would present the story:
Premier makes, then retracts, controversial statement on Hydro
Premier Danny Williams raised the prospect today of selling Newfoundland Hydro. He made this statement during debate in the House of Assembly:
(audio or transcript of quote from Hansard.)
However, he attempted to retract the statement immediately afterward, in a scrum with reporters. The premier said he misspoke; that he was talking about selling specific pieces of non-regulated assets, such as equity stakes in oil developments, and not the hydro asset.
(audio or transcript of Williamss scrum with reporters.)
There was considerable controversy in 1994 when Premier Clyde Wells announced his intention to sell Newfoundland Hydro. The plan was eventually scrapped.
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And thats it. Straight reporting of both points of view. I dont think this is manufacturing a controversy.
But it does put things on the public record, in the unlikely event the premier does announce a plan, somewhere down the road, to sell off the entire corporation. And if he doesnt, the record reflects that too.
I realize I am viewing this in isolation. On that date in April 30 2008, there would have been a number of stories competing for a reporters attention, including the testimony of Louise Jones at the Cameron Inquiry, and the resignation of the provinces third pathologist in two weeks. With so many balls in the air, it might have been easier to let this one drop.
All Im saying is, I wouldnt have dropped it. I would have done the story.