This is a story of a cart put firmly before the horse. Or, if you want to consider it a different way, about how he — or she — who sets the terms of reference, in a subtle way, can decide how the report turns out.
Back in October, the CBC broke a story about a top-secret report on the sex trade in this province. The CBC had asked for the report under access to information laws and had been refused access to each and every one of the report’s 120 pages.
When the news outlet obtained the report and released part of it, even the police called a news scrum to denounce the CBC’s “irresponsibility.”
The charade got even more hilarious when the CBC revealed that information from the report had not only been made public, but was being used in a video in schools.
Turns out, though, that the story doesn’t end there.
Because releasing the report was never in the cards.
In fact, before the project even began, way back in the original terms of reference, the people doing the research were told that the minister intended to keep whatever they found out of the public eye “for the safety of those involved.”
Page 14 of the terms of reference spells things out pretty clearly: “The minister responsible for the Status of Women will be the public spokesperson for the project. The minister will reiterate the following messages:
“Key Messages for Minister
“• Individuals in our province are involved in the sex trade: these are primarily women
“• Many of these individuals have complex needs, and work and engage in risky behaviours
“• Any work being done is to ultimately provide people with safe and accessible options and rehabilitation services or lifestyle changes
“• For the safety of all those involved, we cannot discuss details at this time.”
Now, you can say that the minister followed those talking points to absolute perfection.
Here’s Charlene Johnson, criticizing the CBC for reporting details of the report: “And I have to say, in my view, this was completely irresponsible. These people, by being involved in the industry, are at risk, just by the sheer nature of the potential of being sexually exploited. Having these recommendations, or pieces of the report, out there now, elevates that level of risk.”
You could hardly even see the puppet strings moving.
At the time, Johnson said the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary had advised against releasing the report.
What she didn’t say
She didn’t mention that, right back to before its creation, there had never been any intention of releasing the report — its details were always going to be deemed too sensitive to discuss.
(Interestingly, the terms of reference also suggest that the researcher was not even supposed to directly interview sex trade workers: “For the protection of the sex trade workers, the information gathering process for this study will be done by discussing the issue with current front-line delivery workers and other service providers in our communities. The reason for this methodology is to ensure for (sic) the protection of those involved in the sex trade as well as the researcher undertaking the work.”)
Now, all of that may sound like just the slippery give-and-take that cabinet ministers can find themselves right smack dab in the middle of when they dance the transparent and accountable waltz.
But it is all the more interesting as we wait for the provincial government to set its terms of reference for a review of electrical power problems in the province.
When you get to set the terms of reference, you get to pick what you fence in and what you fence out.
In a lot of ways, it’s like the “pick this or that” terms of reference the province’s Public Utilities Board got to make when it “reviewed” the Muskrat Falls project.
He who pays the piper picks the tune.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached
by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.