Vancouver Olympics one of most challenging ever for journalists

ShareThisDavid EbyIntrepid reporters who are willing risk their pay cheques and their media accreditation to take on the IOC and VANOC are out of luck, writes David Eby.


Vancouver’s Games were doomed from any perspective that values journalistic independence before the ink was dry on first "Yes" vote in the city’s Olympic referendum.

Sponsorship dollars, concentrated media, short-term corporate decision making and anti-transparency initiatives by Olympic agencies have combined to make Vancouver’s Olympics one of the most challenging Olympic Games ever for journalists to navigate with ethics intact and story in hand.

Months before the February 22, 2003 vote on the Games in Vancouver, media giant Canwest, which owns both Vancouver local daily newspapers as well as one of the free weekly newspapers and one of the major television newscasters, donated $1 million in free advertising to the Yes side.

The media giant’s gift was the largest donation the Yes side received. The entire budget for the No side was $5,000.

Later on, after the Yes side won the vote, Canwest, through the Vancouver Sun, became one of the official sponsors of the 2010 Olympic Games. By the time the golden Olympic sponsorship dust had settled, two of the three mainstream daily newscasts (Global and CTV), and three of the four major daily newspapers (Sun, Province, The Globe and Mail) had direct corporate ties to the financial well-being of the 2010 Olympics.

To the surprise of many, more than just sponsorship investments tied news agencies to the Games. Reporters were served up for the IOC as mascots for the Olympics. CTV proudly announced that 27 of its "storytellers" would actually be carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way across Canada.

The Vancouver Sun decided that it wasn’t going to sacrifice its journalists on the Olympic podium, but would prefer to sacrifice its independence on one of the most important local issues around. For the Games, the Sun sponsored a B.C. Government “information” centre on homelessness meant to educate Games-time visitors about the wonderful work that the provincial government was doing to solve Vancouver’s homelessness crisis.

This was the same crisis that had led to two years in a row of homeless people burning themselves to death on local streets trying to stay warm. The same crisis that had been the major issue in Vancouver’s election just one year earlier.

For journalists trying to keep their heads above water, the struggle for air around Vancouver’s Games doesn’t end at the flood of poor decisions coming from head office. Reporters who cover the Games are even more challenged in swimming against the tide if they are weighed down by the millstone of official Olympic accreditation.

The International Olympic Committee’s Host City Contract with Vancouver includes the Olympic Technical Manual on Media, which requires media to be administered in a manner that “by its content, spreads and promotes the principles of Olympism,” and further outlines that the IOC may, at any time and for any reason, strip a journalist of his or her accreditation. If losing accreditation is bad news for a journalist, especially a freelancer, it is devastating for non-sponsor media outlets that have just one or two people on the inside.

For many events it may be perfectly acceptable for a promoter to decide who gets inside the tent and who doesn’t. For the Olympics, which require a massive infusion of public money, the ability to shut the fourth estate out of the tent on a whim takes on a more ominous set of implications around accountability and transparency.

For those intrepid journalists who are willing to take on the IOC and VANOC at risk of alienating those who sign their paycheques and issue their accreditation, they’ll find they’re out of luck. VANOC, the organizing committee for the 2010 Olympics, has been thoroughly insulated by government against meddling reporters in the event some break free of the Olympic sponsorship trap.

No freedom of information requests for VANOC. No financial transparency around conflicts of interest. No line item budget for security, now or ever. Even if a reporter could make an FOI request, he or she would find VANOC doesn’t keep minutes of meetings anyway, just like the Provincial Olympic Secretariat.

Meeting minutes are so 2003.

Check with the Provincial Auditor General? Forget it, no access to internal financial records. The Federal Auditor General? Same deal. Shut out.

As ugly as it is out there for a journalist who wants to write critical stories, what is less apparent is that the current environment in Vancouver is also bad news for those who want to write an honest to goodness positive story about the Games. Nobody will believe them.

It’s hard to blame the public for being skeptical about anything published by the corporate entities that control all of our local news but also have a major business stake in the Games. Even if, as it often is, the story published is of the highest quality either positive or negative, our journalists have been forced to become the story, and as a result, they have had to give up their cherished observer status.

More than anything, journalists should rue this loss.

Not the loss of the investigative resources that won’t ever be dedicated to digging into VANOC or the IOC’s sins, not the loss of access to government documents, not the loss of a fair process around accreditation, but the loss of the independent and trusted voice of the journalist. What surely stings most about this loss is not that it comes as a result of decisions made by any individual reporter, but that the loss of trust comes simply because the biggest circus in the world came to town and Canada’s news outlets made better advertising agencies than truth tellers in the short-term math of the boardroom.

Were newspapers and TV news made for this? The 2010 slogan surely cuts in a different way for reporters around the Games.

David Eby is a lawyer and adjunct professor of law at the University of British Columbia. He is currently the Executive Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and President of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Comments

Mr. Eby, thank you for your honesty and eloquence. Yet it's troubling that a lawyer, not a journalist, had to present the facts. I just find it hard to believe that journalists, supposedly curious and objective, can be co-opted on such a grand scale. I"m sure Canada's J-schools are paying close attention to this exercise.
The Georgia Straight is one of the city's most successful newspapers. It's independently owned. I have written articles over the years about how the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation and its successor, Vanoc, were not covered by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. They were not covered by the Document Disposal Act, the Financial Information Act, and the Financial Disclosure Act. I even called Transparency International about this travesty and included its comments in our paper. I wrote a lengthy cover story before the city's plebiscite called Olympics Inc., which explained how the IOC basically sells franchises to host cities and minimizes its risk. I wrote separate article listing numerous things Vanoc could do to enhance their accountability. This was long before David Eby appeared very interested in this area. Our paper has covered evictions, Olympic expenditures, and the fact that there weren't three billion people watching the opening ceremonies. We have more readers of a single issue in the City of Vancouver than the Globe and Mail and more readers of a single issue in the City of Vancouver than the Vancouver Sun or the Province or the Vancouver Courier. I suspect that David Eby knows these things. Perhaps he didn't want to let the truth get in the way of a good story. Charlie Smith Editor Georgia Straight
Eby makes some vital and timely points. But surely, to balance the shrill tone of this article, the writer could have explored any one of the following questions: * Is there any evidence that Olympic Organizing Committees have withdrawn press accreditation in a selfish or irresponsible manner? * Is there any evidence that the media have actually been pressed to follow the IOC guidleines to "spread and promote the principles of Olympism"? * Is there evidence that any media are backing off on investigative or critical stories in order to avoid ruffling IOC feathers? I'm not disagreeing with Mr. Eby's rant, just wondering how the journalistic community has performed in response to the stacked deck Eby has highlighted.
Way to go Charlie! While there has been rampant boosterism, it doesn't mean there has been no criticism as Eby infers. A little paranoia perhaps? Same with rants against security. Are police supposed to disappear?
It is a huge disgrace David that not one journalist, mainstream or social media, has had the courage over the last seven years to speak out in a timely manner. A few citizen journalists skirted the issue, but not one journalist, mainstream or otherwise that we have been able to find has addressed it in a manner that would help average people understand the conflict of interest between the IOC and news media. Instead they all chose to look the other way hoping no one would notice journalists were selling out our community. Just for the record, it took more than a year for The Vancouver Sun after they executed the IOC contract to place the Olympic 5 ring logo on their publications signifying they were in fact official Olympic partners / suppliers. As far as we have been able to track, The Vancouver Sun also only ran one small article in 20076 announcing that they had become Olympic news partners. It will also come as a surprise to many that "social media" styled journalists, people who purport to pride themselves on transparency, also failed to report the lack of journalistic integrity by their colleagues on both the pro and amateur side. You can learn more about the incestuous relationship news media has with the IOC on this page, published on my blog way back in 2006 . . . http://www.olyblog.com/f/06/ShawLeeF09282006.shtml#INQUIRY Surprisingly, Social Activists also refuse to address this issue because they are more concerned about seeing their names in local newspapers than they are with actually serving the people they pretend to be helping. It is for this exact reason the fight to help Vancouver's homeless has been so anaemic and only now attracting tepid attention from international media. Not so surprising is that politicians also know media manipulation has been happening and they have known it for years, but they also know they need local mainstream news media to get elected so they ignore it too, choosing not to bite the hand that feeds them. The Olympic issue of journalistic integrity, or lack thereof reaches deeply into the community. Is it any wonder newspapers are going bankrupt? They lost community trust.
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I want to back up what Charlie Smith has noted. His publication, the Georgia Straight, has done a stellar job in covering many aspects of the Olympics and has not been compromised by corporate sponsorship, which is indeed troubling when it comes to journalism. David Eby, for whatever reason, chose to leave that fact our of his article. Many other media outlets in the Vancouver area have also covered all aspects of the Games and the lead-up to them, both positive and negative. This includes news stories, features, blog posts, opinion pieces and letters to the editor. I believe there has been balanced and fair coverage of almost all aspects of the Games. It is my opinion that media companies, including television networks who get contracts to broadcast the Games, need to do a much better job at building firewalls between their corporate sponsorship and the journalistic coverage they provide.
I beg to differ Frank, The Straight isn't much different than the rest. I might have missed it, but I don't recall when Charlie specifically addressed the conflict of interest issue between the IOC and mainstream news media. I also don't ever recall him doing a real investigative piece in the "early years" when reporting like that would have made a difference to our community. I do recall me sending media releases way back in 2006 to all local news media including The Straight, and making the news industry aware of the allegations of media impropriety outlined in my book, which was also published in 2006. The issues I raised four years ago detail the exact Olympic problems we are addressing today regarding news media. Granted, Charlie has been one of the most vocal against Canwest on a number of issues, but I don't ever recall seeing anywhere in their print or online pubs where they stood up in a "timely" manner and said, "Heh colleagues, it's not ethical for journalists to shill for the IOC." Yes they have implied it relatively recently, but the community needed to hear this years ago. That's the important issue here Charlie. Journalists looking away while colleagues in your industry sell out our community. BTW, don't think it hasn't gone unnoticed that The Georgia Straight has been running full page ads for Cultural Olympiad with the best of them. It is disingenuous to complain about the Olympics now that the horse is out of the barn. Timing is everything. Chomsky calls it "necessary illusion." Here's a rule of thumb I put forward years ago; for every inch of Olympic boosting or display ads you print, you should also balance it with an inch about the other side of the coin. I haven't seen one mainstream news media company in BC do this yet, and we've been looking and clipping faithfully since 2003. No one is saying Charlie that you haven't done a lot in this regard, but I'm suggesting you haven't done nearly enough. If you would have, Vancouver might not be in this Olympic mess. It would have only taken one respected journalist like you to step up and say enough is enough, "I'm putting my community ahead of my business, because if my community is healthy, my business is healthy." Maybe I missed it.
As a veteran of more than three decades in the trade, writing for the regional community papers, my own thought is that VANOC, along with the two main corporate sponsors, Coca-Cola and RBC, did everything possible to piss off the local small-town reporters every step of the way along the Olympic Torch route. Denied information about who in our communities were chosen to carry the torch so we could contact, interview and write feature pieces on them prior to the event. Add to that the fact that when we hear at second- or third-hand names of possible torchbearers, we are told by these people that they are not allowed to comment or say anything because they are bound by non-disclosure agreements to keep quiet until VANOC makes the official announcement about them. When VANCO and Co. finally released the names, the information came too late for most of us to have any hope of meeting a press deadline for many of our readers who either have no Internet access or do not go online for news. Then there is the torch procession itself. No effort made to contact local media and help them to get photos or stories. But the "official" media got to ride the bus with the torchbearers. About all I can say is, I am glad I am looking at retiring from the trade soon because I doubt I could put up with this kind of crap in future if Canada ever gets another Olympic Games bid and it is anywhere near where I live.
David Eby was attacked on Wednesday, Feb 17/2010 by someone from within his own anti-Olympics group. He was punched and pied during what was supposed to be a non violent meeting convened by his group. Members of the group, including anti-Olympics leader Chris Shaw expressed surprise. I'm not surprised by the attack, but I am surprised it took Eby and Shaw so long to figure out they were laying down with lions. Linda Solomon, Pulitzer Prize nominee reports the details on her news magazine, The Vancouver Observer. http://www.vancouverobserver.com/blogs/overheardolympics/2010/02/19/vancouvers-anti-olympics-movement-fractures-local-activist-hero

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