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LETTER: Confidentiality and confidence are not the same

Letter to the Editor
Letter to the Editor

For some years I was a freelance editor, and for a few years I was an in-house editor for a local publishing company. I enjoyed the work and edited a number of books, chapters of books, reports, essays, stories, textbooks, and articles for various publications for private clients and for publishers.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s writing community is in my opinion the most prolific in Canada. People around the world are interested in knowing details of the contents of government reports.

Why not? Their taxes have paid for them, and their taxes will rise or lessen depending upon the decisions taken by the party in power. Ahh … the party in power. Therein lies the problem. At present our own federal government is faced with protests and defenders with opposite points of view on what truth is, and what truths can and should be revealed. The antagonists in our neighbour to the south are the same: the Right versus the Left, and money versus principle. My personal experience with the print media over thirty years ago is, I think, relevant to the situations we face in the two major nations on this continent. Hired as editor of a large federal-provincial report in the mid-1980s. I was obliged to sign a document which stated that the information contained was confidential. I spent probably three weeks editing the report as sections of it were made available to me. Editing wasn’t difficult; I was intrigued to note that the main author of the report, a university professor, used jargon and convoluted phrases; two fishery observers whose observations were first-hand, wrote plain and unambiguous English. I red-inked much of the text by the professor, and barely touched that by this pair.

However, the conclusions were written by the major author; one of them was unclear enough to cause me to consult with the federal Chair of the committee which had hired me. He told me unequivocally that the sentence must remain as it was, because "Ottawa wants it that way". I argued that since the subject of the report was the state of the East Coast fishery at the time, it was extremely important that conclusions be unambiguous as possible so that planners could direct the government and industry to protect one of Canada’s, and certainly this province’s, main source of income. To clarify this I should say that the phrase that I sought to amend was that (such and such an area) “tends to attract excess fishing capacity.”

I pointed out that this could be variously interpreted as: “is vulnerable to the possibility of being overfished” “is being overfished” “the fishery in this section is at risk” “could result in wrongful fishing practices for the industry as a whole” etc. Unfortunately, I lost the argument. Ottawa mandarins had decided to put an inconvenient truth (overfishing is occurring) in conveniently ambiguous language. Depending upon the circumstances, interpretations would vary. The report went to only fifty recipients: cabinet, fishery ministers in Ottawa and every provincial capital, and heads of major fishing companies. The media presumably received a one-page summary…written by the lawyer-guided civil servant responsible for release of its findings.

In 1992 the cod fishery was closed and all hell broke loose. Lives were changed forever. Hop, skip, jump and slither were the methods of locomotion in St. John’s and Ottawa. Civil servants became uncivil; lawyers ignored laws. Communities died; people changed occupations; many left the province. Over time, we stumbled towards recovery. Several years ago at Government House the senior politician of that 1992 fishery closure, by that time our Lieutenant-Governor, admitted to me in front of witnesses, that “of course we knew that overfishing was occurring. You were right when you said that on CBC radio in 1992.” I was impressed with John Crosbie’s complete and refreshing honesty. He declared with a smile that I was welcome to make his comments public. As a politician, he had been obliged to toe the party line. But he always had guts, and proved to be more courageous than most former politicians. Recently, two federal politicians have been turfed out of caucus because their colleagues are ordered to present a united front to the country, rather than to tell the truth. The Opposition, past or present, is similarly constructed. Canada has no moral high ground in a face-off with any other democracy. It is not only governments which withhold the truth. The media have to start challenging the status quo. Surely it is time we as a country grow up and stop lying and defending liars. We might even influence other countries to do the same.

Judith Gibson

St. John’s

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