Commissioners were "incredibly naive" admits Desbarats

SYLVAIN COMEAU | You would think that a man who had spent most of his career as a political journalist would have lost his idealistic virginity years ago. But it seems that Peter Desbarats' experience as a commissioner on the Somalia inquiry has left him feeling shocked and violated. His profound outrage is directed as much at his former colleagues in the press and the Canadian public as it is at politicians.

Media failures and public apathy made it easy for the government to get away with an affront to democracy when it aborted the Somalia inquiry, Desbarats told a McGill audience.

"We achieved the dubious distinction of being the first public inquiry in Canadian history to be terminated by a government  for blatantly political reasons  before its work was completed. I still have a hard time believing that this actually happened, and an even harder time accepting and understanding that Canadians tolerated this violation of our democratic system with hardly a murmur."

The government shut down the commission this past summer, imposing an early July deadline for the inquiry report, well before the commission had completed an investigation into allegations of a cover-up in the 1993 killing by Canadian soldiers of a Somali teenager.

Desbarats noted that the action was not illegal, but unprecedented and undemocratic.

"In retrospect, we three commissioners look incredibly naive. We believed, until it was too late, that the government would respect the independence of a public inquiry. Up to this year, independence had been assured by almost 150 years of unbroken tradition and the notion  mistaken, as it turned out  that public opinion would not tolerate such a break with democratic tradition."

Desbarats was dean of Western's Graduate School of Journalism when he was appointed to the commission of inquiry in 1995. Before that, he had spent three decades as a newspaper and television reporter for a number of outlets in Canada, including the CBC, the Montreal Star and Gazette, the Winnipeg Tribune, the Toronto Star and Reuters. As a member of the Ottawa Press Gallery, he saw politics close up and is the author of a biography of René Lévesque and a book on Canadian news media, among others.

His latest book, Somalia Cover-Up: A Commissioner's Journal, documents the Liberal government's actions to choke off the inquiry, which had become a major political embarrassment  and the inaction of everybody else, including the Somalia commissioners.

"Even when Defence Minister Doug Young telegraphed his intention (in November 1996) to close us down, some of us on the inquiry did not take it as seriously as we should have. I continued to see it in the light of political tactics and posturing. I suppose the news media also did, because there was no reaction at all from them.

"If the media had reacted then, immediately and aggressively, it's possible that the government would have hesitated, and perhaps reversed course. Certainly, the lack of media reaction must have encouraged Young and the Cabinet that they could get away with something as outrageous as closing us down."

He quoted an entry from his diary dated last February, a month after the government's announcement that the Somalia inquiry must present its report by July.

"My sharpest disappointment has been the inability or unwillingness of journalists to perceive the real issue at stake here  the independence of public inquiries. Even editorial writers have paid insufficient attention to this principle."

He was equally disappointed to observe that there were no political consequences for the government during the subsequent election campaign.

"The government did something this outrageous, and the average person didn't protest. Members of Parliament I spoke to told me that people never mentioned it to them when they were ringing doorbells and canvassing on the street."

While the government acted without scruples, Desbarats says the media also failed to exercise any ethical responsibility, concentrating instead on the political gamesmanship. In doing so, they completely failed to see the forest.

"Do they no longer understand that the erosion of freedom in one part of our system is a threat to the free expression that is the life blood of journalism? Many of my colleagues in journalism treated the issue as a political question, a question of political tactics. Would the government win? Was it doing the right things strategically?

"The problem with this kind of reporting is that it loses sight of the moral issues involved. Many journalists looked upon it as a 'we against them' conflict  we three commissioners against the government and the military. But the 'we' in this case was not the commission, it was the Canadian people."

Desbarats' Astra lecture was presented by the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.