Monday, December 17, 2012

Grilling the Guest – Laurier LaPierre and the Hot Seat Interview

As a pioneer of early CBC current affairs journalism, Laurier LaPierre made a lasting contribution to a key element of investigative work – the focused accountability interview.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the public broadcaster began developing programs that would re-shape television journalism for the next few decades. Programs like Close-Up, Inqui’ry and ultimately This Hour Has Seven Days utilized a set of techniques designed to hold powerful interests to account and get closer to the truth of important issues.

In 1963, producers Patrick Watson and Douglas Leiterman drew up a document that would become the manifesto for Seven Days, which was destined to become CBC’s most popular and controversial program. It had three main planks:
  1. A Film Report: The mainstay of the magazine will be the film report with live links covering in energetic style the significant current affairs of the week.
  2. An Investigative Report: Using special camera techniques we will probe honesty and hypocrisy.
  3. A Hot Seat would be a tough encounter with a prominent guest who is hot in the news and prepared to be grilled.
As co-host of Seven Days, LaPierre’s specialty was the hot seat interview, and he exhibited no shyness in mercilessly grilling the willing and provoking those who thought they could outwit him.

In one interview, with cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp, LaPierre violated every convention of modern questioning technique by kicking things off with the statement: “The affairs of this country are in a hell of a mess,” and then waiting for a response. This resulted, as it often did, in a lively exchange.

Most famously, he allowed his passion and emotions to shine through in a piece about Steven Truscott, a story the program had adopted as a recurring symbol of injustice. Another interview with John Diefenbaker led to a formal complaint by the former prime minister.

What LaPierre was doing wasn’t accidental.  Leiterman firmly believed that interviewers had to adopt a devil’s advocate stance for maximum impact. As for Watson, he saw the accountability interview as one of the CBC’s main contributions to investigative journalism in the early 1960s. But it couldn’t be just any kind of interview.

“I began to realize that careful, thoughtful, reasonable discussion was not what held viewers to the screen,” Watson wrote in his memoirs. “It was vigorous dispute and strong images that did the trick.”

With such a deliberate stance, it proved difficult to strike a balance between provocative investigative work and stunt journalism – and Seven Days would often serve up helpings of both. But its serious work had the most lasting impact.  LaPierre’s persistent pillorying of people in power served to steer the program away from what Watson considered at the time to be the typical CBC program’s deference to the establishment.

The problem, of course, was that it wasn’t just interviewees who were being provoked. The government didn’t much like what LaPierre and Seven Days were doing, and it wasn’t hesitant in passing along its displeasure to CBC management.

The overt ideological battle between producers and managers became evident in some of the internal documents that became public in the wake of the program’s death. An internal management memo in 1966, commenting on a Seven Days satirical song about U.S. policy in Vietnam, noted: “This is just one example of a long series of straight and light items which made fun of or criticized the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. These skits do not appear to contravene any specific corporation policy, but they are in bad taste.”

Even though Seven Days was drawing a record audience of 3.2 million, the program was cancelled after just two years on the air. LaPierre’s CBC career was short but memorable. He returned to academic pursuits, and eventually entered the political arena.

People who are hot in the news today are far less willing to be grilled than they were 50 years ago. A platoon of communications and public relations advisors stands between journalists and prominent newsmakers, making it difficult for accountability to be captured in its most basic form.

Sadly, too many journalists are now pressured into accepting email responses to their questions. Those responses are often designed to dodge the real accountability issues, but the lack of back-and-forth means that key questions remain unanswered.

It might be refreshing for a younger generation of journalists to revisit LaPierre’s flamboyant but persistent style of truth-seeking, and adapt it to a modern context. There are still plenty of people around who need to be provoked.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Very Short Primer on Investigating Companies

When it comes to investigating companies, it makes a huge difference whether the corporation is publicly-traded or privately-held.

Securities regulators ensure that public companies report certain types of information regularly. The best place online to find such information for Canadian companies is

But it's a completely different story for private outfits. There are few mandatory reporting requirements. This means investigative journalists have to be more resourceful.

A good place to check is with credit rating agencies. Equifax will gladly prepare a report on a company, public or private, and offer it for sale. These reports can provide a good idea of how promptly a company is paying its bills, and how much litigation it might have on its hands.

Corporate registries are another useful place to look. Companies registered provincially or federally have to file basic information about directors and, in some cases, ownership. The federal database is online at Industry Canada's site, while provincial registries have to be checked individually.

It's sometimes worthwhile to track the activities of Canadians abroad by checking on their corporate activities in different countries. This can be done online in many cases, though language barriers might make the task daunting for some countries.

Luckily, there are some sites that have aggregated this information in a user-friendly format. Open Corporates, for example, has scraped data from dozens of countries and re-purposed it to make searching simpler. So has the Investigative Dashboard's worldwide company data site.

A great article by Sheila Coronel, of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, provides links to these and other useful places for corporate research.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Investigative Journalism Reading List

 Check out Alex Roslin's blog post with links to investigative journalism resources, as well as online materials. Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Soccer documentary a testament to CBC’s relevance

Bruce Dowbiggin points out in the Globe and Mail that CBC's coverage of a soccer game-fixing scandal would be unlikely on many other networks.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

YouTube Launches Channel on Investigative Journalism

YouTube has launched its specialized channel on investigative journalism. It's a project managed by the U.S.-based Center for Investigative Reporting, with support from a Knight Foundation grant. Called the I Files, it curates content from a variety of sources around the world and showcases video in an accessible format. Some of the larger contributors include the New York Times, BBC, Al-Jazeera and the Investigative News Network. The Center promises to feature student work and independent projects, in addition to mainstream examples. The CIR is also launching a contest that challenges journalism school students to submit investigative videos, with the best winning a $2,500 prize. The 10 best videos will be featured on the I Files. Contest deadline is Oct. 31.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mike Wallace and His Impact on Canadian Journalism

While Mike Wallace had a legion of both admirers and detractors, there is little doubt his work exercised an influence over modern Canadian investigative journalism.

Many of the genre’s practices and techniques developed in the 1950’s, and Wallace’s Night Beat program for independent New York TV station WABD became an important point of reference for many producers. He and producer Ted Yates created the show in 1956, and it quickly drew a massive audience for each edition.

Even though Edward R. Murrow had already popularized the television interview format with See it Now and Person to Person, Wallace and Yates took it to a new level. They intensively researched each guest, and didn’t shy away from asking uncomfortable questions.

The visual motif of the set also served as a template. It was a stark, black environment, with a single klieg light trained on the guest. Frequent close-ups of the interviewee heightened the drama of the program.

At around the same time, the CBC was asking producer Ross McLean to create a new public affairs program for the network. While he drew on many influences, including BBC’s Panorama and other shows, McLean clearly wanted to capture some of the intensity and success that Wallace had created.

McLean’s show was called Close-Up, and it became the most groundbreaking program of its kind to that point. It featured many early versions of investigative journalism, and its signature interviews were some of the most memorable segments. Journalists like Pierre Berton, Jack Webster and Charles Templeton were among the people doing the interviews.

More importantly, it was a training ground for some of CBC’s most promising producers, including Patrick Watson and Douglas Leiterman, who later went on to create This Hour Has Seven Days.

Daily journalism does not often devote the time and expense to the intensive research that’s needed in investigative work. Close-Up created a process for doing just that – establishing a legacy that has continued in current affairs television programs to this day.

Patrick Watson considered the focused accountability interview to be a crucial component of the investigative work of the era. In drawing up their manifesto for Seven Days, which began airing in 1964, Watson and Leiterman noted the importance of a “hot seat” interview: “a tough encounter with a prominent guest who is hot in the news and prepared to be grilled.”

Though Murrow and Wallace had pioneered some of the early interviewing techniques, Canadians did far more sustained and impressive work through Close-Up and Seven Days. That became clear to the Americans after 1966, when Seven Days was cancelled. Both NBC and CBS scrutinized the program carefully, trying to find a way to re-create its huge ratings success.

Leiterman subsequently went to work for CBS, and he was asked to create a detailed planning document for network executives. It eventually led to the creation in 1968 of the long-running program 60 Minutes, a groundbreaking American show but something a Canadian newspaper reviewer said “has roughly the same format we’ve been used to for several seasons.”

The process came full circle as Wallace joined 60 Minutes. His patented interviewing style returned, and soon morphed into a different genre of attack, involving ambushing perpetrators in the field.

Showmanship has always been an element of the Mike Wallace style. In his early interviews, Wallace went seamlessly from pitching the virtues of Philip Morris cigarettes (his sponsor) to grilling whoever agreed to sit in his hot seat. Sensation was often used for its own sake. A 1957 interview featured Eldon Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. This Hour Has Seven Days also flirted with the same kind of sensation in its two-year run.

John Sawatsky, one of Canada’s best investigative journalists and a student of the interview, has often used examples from Wallace to illustrate bad interview practices. Wallace often injected prejudicial comments and trigger words into his preambles; he would often simply make a controversial statement himself rather than ask a question; and he would belligerently pester people with closed-ended questions, all techniques Sawatsky abhors.

And the image of a crusading Wallace chasing after bad guys on 60 Minutes is something that has polarized opinion. While it is occasionally important to force accountability by door-stopping someone, many feel this has become an overused and tired tactic. In too many items, on too many networks, Wallace’s pale imitators can be seen chasing all manner of unfortunate subjects down the street.

The “hot seat” interview, meanwhile, is also not what it used to be. But this is mostly due to the savvy nature of politicians and prominent individuals who have become adept at dodging the media altogether. While everyone wanted to appear on Wallace’s Night Beat, it’s now the norm for people to be “unavailable for comment.”

Still, when a journalist does manage to score an important interview, it requires a great deal of research and courage to ensure accountability. As Wallace said in an interview himself, that often requires the interviewer to “make them squirm a little bit.”

While it might be easy to dismiss the showbiz aspect of Wallace’s career, it would be a mistake to discount the influence he exercised over journalism in the last half century. Without him, Canadian investigative journalism, particularly the variety practiced on television, might have developed very differently.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hacker-Assisted Reporting: Can it be Ethical?

I have taken the controversial step of mentioning the words “hacking,” “reporting” and “ethical” all in the same sentence. Now I’ll need the rest of this post to convince you I haven’t lost all vestiges of integrity.

The Rupert Murdoch phone hacking scandal has exposed a serious malignancy in the state of British journalism. While everyone can see the moral bankruptcy of hacking into cell phones to harvest celebrity gossip, the scandal has raised ethical issues far beyond the odious practices of reporters at the now-defunct News of the World.

Is it justified to pay a private investigator for information the journalist might otherwise not be able to get? How far can deception go in the pursuit of journalistic truth? Is any form of hacking to be tolerated in the information-gathering process?

The answers aren’t as simple as you might think. Journalistic ethics have evolved over the years, and what may have been tolerated at one time might be seen as excessive at another. Here, for instance, is some helpful advice from a 1976 American book on investigative journalism by James Dygert:

“Information about a person’s phone calls, credit records, airline reservations, or utility bills can be obtained by a telephone call requesting the information in a manner implying the caller is the person in question or someone acting on his behalf.”

The British now call that practice blagging, and it has actually been illegal in Britain since 1994, though an exception is made when it can be shown to be in the public interest. The public interest defence has yet to be tested in court. But many British journalists, whether they work for the red-top tabloids or the more austere broadsheets, comfort themselves by hiring private investigators to do the dicey work for them.

Which brings us back to the topic of hacking, and whether it can ever be an ethical tool of journalism. It turns out that it can.

A good example is the work being done by Paul Radu and the coalition of journalistic groups running the Investigative Dashboard website. The site aims to help journalists around the world track corporate crime and corruption, and to share information that reporters uncover.

While the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires have become adept at setting up offshore tax havens and convoluted business structures to defeat transparency, these journalists have been trying to discover tools to break through the complex web.

One of the most important services provided by the site is a gateway to worldwide company data. This is good as far as it goes, but not every country provides corporate registrations in a user-friendly format. For an investigative journalist, it’s important to be able to plug in a name of an individual to see which companies they are connected to, or to run a name of a company and immediately see the people involved with the firm.

Radu, along with what he calls his “civic hacker friends,” have solved the problem by scraping various sites and reconstituting the data in more usable form. The best example of this is the corporate registry of Panama, a favorite country for hiding money and attempting to cloud the real identity behind corporate directors and owners. Hackers scraped the site of all its data and reposted it in a way that allows investigative journalists to perform meaningful searches.

This is all perfectly legal, since Panama doesn’t charge for any of its data on the site. While the government of Panama may not like having its site hacked and scraped, it’s hard to see what harm, if any, this practice causes. Radu sees this as the beginning of many different ways to use hacking.

“There are organizations of hackers we need to work with,” he said at the recent Global Investigative Journalism Conference. “We have to go to local hack spaces to explain what our work is about. Right now hackers build beautiful tools no one uses.”

There is an ever-increasing supply of data available online, but very few Canadian newsrooms are using web scraping to harvest the information in a meaningful way. That’s not surprising, since most journalists don’t have the time or inclination to learn the programming language needed to perform scraping or legal hacking.

There’s a potential ethical minefield here as well, though. Contracting-out a web scraping or hacking project could bring just as many headaches to the journalist as hiring a private investigator with no strict ethical boundaries can. The collaboration can be a useful one, but it has to be well-monitored and thoroughly understood by the journalist at all times.

If it is, then hacker-assisted reporting can be a useful addition to the journalistic toolbox.