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May 25, 2009

one reader has had difficulty accessing the audio file of Mark Tunney’s commentary last week, so here is a transcription:

Rough transcript of Mark Tunney’s commentary on CBC, aired May 22, 2009, 7:15am

Announcer: Last week the University of New Brunswick announced it was giving an honorary degree to the premier of N.B. and that didn’t sit so well with some of the faculty, especially here in Saint John. The story ran in the front page of the Telegraph-Journal. Mark Tunney is a former editor of that paper and a current instructor at the school of journalism at Saint Thomas University in Fredericton, and he prepared this commentary on what happened after the story ran.

Mark Tunney: So there was another controversy in the world of politics and higher education last week. As the Telegraph-Journal reported on its front page, a hundred or so professors at UNB are not pleased that Premier Shawn Graham is being awarded an honorary degree at convocation. They signed a letter to the university’s Board of Governors protesting the decision.

You know the young reporter who got the scoop? He got fired the next day. The student intern from Saint Thomas University was told that he had damaged the reputation of the newspaper through his reckless reporting and a severely unbalanced story. Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked that the fall guy in this higher education debate is a student. Here I must declare my conflict of interest. I’ve taught the fired student intern. As well, I was fired by the Irvings. It’s not exactly an exclusive club. But as a former editor of the Telegraph-Journal perhaps I can shed some light on what might have gone down here.

First, this story was on the paper’s news outlook sched. All senior editors and the publisher would have known it was coming. That group obviously thought it was a good story. They made the decision to put it on the front page. The night desk would have had a heads up as well. If night editors had any reservations about the story they would have killed it, or held it for a day to flesh out. If there were minor factual errors, well, sometimes that happens with interns. That’s why you have editors.

Was the story severely unbalanced? First, it’s not uncommon for a story to be tilted one way the first day with the reaction getting the headline the following day. Besides, the student’s story did quote a UNB source defending the Graham selection. It also made note that the Premier’s office had refused comment. That’s more balanced than many Telegraph-Journal stories I’ve read in the last couple of years. After all the headline on the followup story read “Degree Deserved.”

But getting back to why the student reporter was really fired. Perhaps here’s a clue. When dismissed he was told he’d damaged the paper’s reputation. The obvious question is, with whom? Based on my experience the answer is just as obvious: somebody powerful. Perhaps somebody from the university’s Board of Governors. Maybe even someone representing the provincial government. We’ll probably never know. I can’t prove that anyone complained about the story to either the publisher, Jamie Irving, or his father Jim Irving, or the paper’s owner, J.K. Irving, but I would bet money on it.

Let me take you back to 1999 just before the provincial election that would eventually bring Bernard Lord to power. Dalton Camp was writing a column on New Brunswick politics exclusively for the Telegraph-Journal. As the column increasingly targeted the governing Liberals and more often than not found its way to the front page, members of Premier Camille Therieaut’s office began complaining to the paper’s editor in chief. Geoffrey Stevens wrote about this in his biography of Dalton Camp, The Player. According to the former Globe and Mail columnist, a cabinet minister, rumoured to be Alan Graham, the father of Shawn Graham, phoned the Irvings complaining about Camp’s column. As Natural Resource Minister, Graham would have overseen forestry licensing, as well as contracts for natural gas distribution. According to Stevens, J.K. and Jim Irving made it clear that the editor’s refusal to deal with the Camp column contributed to his fate. The editor was forced out or stepped down before the election; Camp was then moved off the front page.

As editor, I never experienced anything so dramatic. Still, starting in 2002, Jamie Irving became increasingly anxious about what provincial columnists were writing about. He said Lord representatives were complaining to his father about what they perceived as Liberal bias with some of the columns and suggested that it was complicating J.D.I.’s business with the province. Jamie and his father didn’t want the government and Bernard Lord to think that the columnists’ views represented the newspaper’s position. Eventually the staff columnists were forced out, replaced by columns written by the Liberal and Tory party presidents.

As I said, we’ll never know what went down in this latest affair: who phoned whom, who said what, and why a student had to be made a scapegoat. Regardless, it says a lot about how business is conducted in this province. I think it’s shameful and cowardly that a student reporter was sacrificed to keep somebody powerful, whoever they are, happy, all in the name of higher education. Has the reputation of the Telegraph-Journal been damaged? I’ll let you answer that for yourself. But don’t think for a second that the decision to fire the young reporter was based on journalistic principles. It’s business. Business as usual in New Brunswick.

I’m Mark Tunney.

Announcer: Mark Tunney is a former editor of the Telegraph-Journal. He also lectures at the School of Journalism at Saint Thomas University in Fredericton. Requests were made by email and by phone to the editors of the Telegraph-Journal for an interview. Those calls were not returned.

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