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More thoughts on torture and politics

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There are many times when, after filing a column, I find I have additional thoughts on the subject I just tackled. You would think that 700 words would be enough to convey just about everything one person thinks on a particular subject. Unfortunately, if you suffer from chronic verbosity, you just never seem to be able to get everything you want to say said.

On that note, I offer a few additional thoughts on my column in today’s dead-tree Free Press on the politics of torture. As many of you know, the opposition and the national media are all over the Conservative government after allegations senior military officials were aware that prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were being tortured after being handed over to Afghan authorities. If the allegations are true, Canada would have violated international humanitarian law.

In my column, I took a look at the politics of the matter, and how the Conservatives have tried to deny the allegations and disparage and discredit the source, senior diplomat Richard Colvin. I suggested that there may not be political fallout from this issue because it’s quite possible Canadians are indifferent about Afghani officials torturing Afghani prisoners.

The issue within the issue I touched on was how often the media is more outraged about an issue than the public at large. This is hardly a groundbreaking observation: journalists like myself who spend all of their time reading about politics and government tend to have different flash points than the voting public. Sometimes, that means the media may be the only source of outrage or criticism on an issue.

The unanswered question in that column (and the reason for this post) is – can the media justify a campaign of outrage even if the public is ambivalent or disinterested?

Many critics of the so-called Mainstream Media would suggest that anytime a news outlet goes nutty over a subject that does not resonate with its readers or viewers, it’s a sign that outlet is out of touch. The current federal government is masterful at convincing its supporters that the news media are constantly picking fights that the public couldn’t care less about. Perhaps, but there is a strong and, I will argue, noble tradition for journalists to seek out, report and criticize things that we know are wrong.

In this instance, I think that dogging the current federal government over the Afghan torture issue is justified because we know that it is wrong in any country, under any circumstance, to knowingly subject a prisoner of war to torture. The War on Terror has changed a lot of minds about the rule of law and humanitarian ideals. In short, there are many people who believe that after terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Centre, the people who were behind those attacks do not deserve the right to a fair trial or protection while incarcerated. Furthermore, that soldiers from nations like Canada and the United States no longer have an obligation to wage war in a civilized fashion.

If we were to say for the sake of argument that a solid majority of Canadians felt that way, does the media have an obligation to reflect that by dropping the story?

At the risk of being labelled a MSM gate-keeping elitist, I will suggest rather strongly the media should object to things they believe are wrong. If Canada turned over prisoners to Afghan authorities with the knowledge they were being tortured, that is wrong in any context. The wrongdoing should be exposed, and the bureaucrats or the politicians who were responsible should be punished. How they should be punished is an issue left to the electorate.

Many of the seminal works of investigative journalism started out as stories that were labelled media witch hunts. Even the Watergate conspiracy, revealed by the Washington Post, was a story that was initially labelled by Republican officials as baseless allegations. At the time, there were likely many in the public who believed the media elites were merely pursuing their own ideological campaign by doggedly digging into the circumstances surrounding the Watergate hotel break-in. They even accused senior editorial staff at the paper of publishing the story as a favour to Democratic friends. Many in the public probably believed all that hooey until the Post reporters connected the dots between the break-in and arguably the biggest political scandal of the 20th century.

Sometimes, simply put, you need to convince the public the issue is worth the outrage. I have written several large investigative series on wrongful convictions. At the outset of each series, it was patently clear the public was either disinterested or, worse, hostile towards the subjects of the story. Justice officials often cheat and cut corners with the knowledge that the public is indifferent to a miscarriage of justice that involves someone with a criminal record. However, after all the horrible facts of these stories were revealed, I think it’s fair to say that in most of the stories I was involved in (Milgaard, Sophonow and Driskell) the public responded with outrage. If the Free Press had bowed to the public’s initial indifference, we would have not fulfilled our journalistic obligation to seek the truth.

That is not to say that the Afghan torture story is Watergate. But there is more than smoke to this story, even if the public cannot smell it yet.

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