Part 1: The Packet responds to government criticism
In the wake of Hurricane Igor, Barbara Dean-Simmons stands next to a washout at Robinson's Bight. (Katie Simmons photo)
June 20, 2011 – It’s a pretty nasty allegation.
Kevin O’Brien has accused a local reporter and newspaper editor of being “irresponsible” in their coverage of the province’s response to Hurricane Igor.
O’Brien is our Minister of Municipal Affairs, the department responsible for emergency response. He called VOCM’s Open Line to complain about an investigative report in the Clarenville Packet that probed the province’s reaction to Igor. The newspaper used a Freedom of Information request to Public Safety Canada, to obtain all correspondence between the federal and provincial government during the Igor response.
The Packet received 247 emails, which reveal that the federal government was prepared to mobilize immediately in the aftermath of Igor, but the province dithered for days, refusing to request help from the Department of National Defence (DND). The article, by Mallory Clarkson (who is no longer with the paper), appeared June 9, along with a strong editorial by Barbara Dean-Simmons, editor of The Packet.
You can read Clarkson’s full story here (and I suggest you do so right now, if you haven’t already):
Here is the link to Dean-Simmons’s editorial:
O’Brien and his government ignored the article, when it appeared on June 9. It wasn’t until other media latched onto the story that O’Brien went into attack mode, criticizing the paper for having the audacity to present the truth.
“It’s a reporter with the Packet… interpreting a bunch of emails to mean something, which it certainly don’t,” O’Brien said, to Bill Rowe. “These kind of things happen. It’s irresponsible really, to be honest with you, and I want to say that up front.”
O’Brien then offers a flaccid defence of the province’s response, actually contradicting himself at one point, but at no time does he explain why the Packet was irresponsible. This is telling in itself. So is the fact that O’Brien and his people didn’t challenge The Packet until the story made provincial headlines. If there was an error, why didn’t they seek a correction when the story appeared?
Now, “irresponsible” is not an accusation that any reporter takes lightly. It means you are reckless, possibly unethical, and can’t be trusted to get the story right.
I asked Barbara Dean-Simmons if she would respond to O’Brien’s slur on her reputation. She agreed.
Dean-Simmons spoke at length about the story, and how it came together. She chose her words carefully and with restraint, defending The Packet but not attacking her antagonist. I began by asking if she was offended by O’Brien’s accusation.
“Yes, I am a little offended by it,” she said. “I guess, really, it is up to the public to decide whether or not we were irresponsible. What we’ve done is obtained 247 pages of emails, back and forth, the intent of which was to answer the question: where was the military? And in these 247 pages, I think – no, I am sure – we have the answer. Because the story is told by the emails and documentation that we have. There is nothing else in that story but pure, hard fact.”
The seed for the story was planted the day after Igor struck, said Dean-Simmons, who lives on Random Island. She said the scope of the disaster was apparent almost immediately, even while listening to the radio during the storm. The next day, reporter Mallory Clarkson was able to survey the damage from the air.
“Mallory managed to get herself on the premier’s helicopter, that flew over the area on Wednesday,” Dean-Simmons said. “I don’t think she was prepared for what she saw. It struck home for her how serious this was. When we got those aerial photos, we realized – this is big.”
And that’s an understatement. The damage was extensive and widespread. About 90 communities, up the Bonavista and down the Burin peninsulas, were isolated by road and bridge washouts (and these were massive washouts, wide and deep). Dozens, perhaps hundreds of homes were flooded, many of them destroyed or swept out into the bay. An estimated 50,000 people were without power, and telephone lines.
“I woke up Thursday morning (two days later) thinking, this is big. This is really big,” Dean-Simmons said. “This is too big for anybody to handle. The Department of Transportation vehicles were not in a lot of these (stranded) areas. When CBC called me on Thursday morning (for an interview), my first remark was, ‘I think we’re going to need the military here.’”
That night, she received a call a friend who works in the military, who had heard her CBC interview that morning.
“His words to me were, ‘Barb, we’re waiting to go. We’re frustrated. We know we need to be there to help, but we can’t move until we’re officially asked.’ That’s when we knew what was happening behind the scenes. And that’s where our story started.”
In October 2010, Mallory Clarkson submitted the Freedom of Information request to Public Safety Canada.
“We knew the documents had to be out there, that emails must have been flowing back and forth, so we set out to find them,” Dean-Simmons said.
The request was fulfilled and the package arrived in the latter part of April 2011. Clarkson set to work dissecting the correspondence and writing her story. “All we did was set out the facts, as contained in the emails,” Dean-Simmons said. “And we have 247 pages of documents that back up the facts we have in the story.”
Furthermore, before running the story, the newspaper contacted the provincial government several times, looking for a comment.
“We made an effort to have O’Brien and (Tom) Hedderson (the minister responsible at the time) to speak to this, prior to the story running, and they declined. I don’t know what else we would have done differently.”
Last week, The Packet received a letter to the editor from O’Brien, criticizing their coverage and attempting to put out the political fires. That letter will appear in Thursday’s paper, and the editor will respond to it.
“He used the word ‘irresponsible’ in that letter as well,” Dean-Simmons said. “He also accused the editorial of being irresponsible. I guess I’m confused about what he means by ‘irresponsible’. Our story laid out the facts from the emails,” she said.
Dean-Simmons read the opening statement from O’Brien’s letter to me, over the telephone: “As the minister responsible for Fire and Emergency Services, I would like to respond to the recent inaccurate and irresponsible editorial by Barbara Dean-Simmons. First off, by saying that the provincial government was not prepared for Hurricane Igor, and is not prepared for a future type event, does not accurately reflect the state of emergency preparedness in our province.”
Dean-Simmons said she doesn’t normally respond directly to letter writers, but in this instance, was compelled to write O’Brien’s PR director with a correction. She wrote, “I just want to point out that the lead sentence in your letter is not entirely accurate. My editorial did not use the words ‘is not prepared for a future type event.’ The last line in my editorial merely posed the question, ‘Are they better prepared for the next one?’ Regardless, I will run this letter as is.”
(Apparently, asking such questions is “irresponsible” in our current political climate. Contrast that with the Government of Nova Scotia, who, in the wake of Hurricane Juan, released a report on their response and asked for public comment on how they could respond more effectively in future.)
Dean-Simmons said she was a little surprised by the tone of O’Brien’s letter. “One line that really upsets me is this: ‘Secondly, the author cavalierly dismisses the actions of the employees of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, who responded to help their neighbours in a time of need.’ Not once in that editorial did I mention the employees of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. That editorial simply posed the question, what did the government do?”
Dean-Simmons didn’t say it, but I will: It’s sad when a government minister uses the old ‘attacking the wonderful people of our great province’ line, in a tacky attempt to cloud the issue and deflect tough questions. The fact is, by publishing this piece, Dean-Simmons is looking out for the well-being of area residents.
Kevin O’Brien has done a contemptible thing here. He has attacked the integrity and hard-earned reputation of one of the best newspaper editors in the province, to cover his political ass.
He should apologize to Barbara Dean-Simmons, and come clean on this province’s bungled response to Hurricane Igor.
Was it really bungled? I will tackle that question in part 2 of this post… stay tuned.
On a side note: Reporter Mallory Clarkson is no longer with The Packet. She accepted a job with Torstar, working at a new community newspaper in London, Ontario. “Her family lives in Chatham, Ontario, so this job puts her closer to home,” Dean-Simmons said. “It was an offer she couldn’t pass up.”