Dr. Dawg

Annals of journamalism: Brian Lilley

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Some time ago, I watched, with mounting amazement, a fund-raising SubTV clip by “senior correspondent” Brian Lilley discussing a court case in which I happen to be involved.* Not only did he get his facts gloriously wrong, but his description of one of the litigants was a bizarre caricature, a mustachioed cartoon villain who ties helpless free-speech-seeking damsels to railway tracks. It took a measurable amount of time to realize that it was supposed to be me. When that realization dawned, I hastily tore up the cheque that I had impulsively made out.

Let me reminisce for a moment. As a young teenager, I tended to believe what I read in the papers. I lived in a critical household and so should have known better, but the authority of print held sway. Our world, as we know it, is mostly mediated: and surely the media are but mirrors.

But all that changed when I became a young activist, and took part in a prolonged demonstration in front of the US consulate in Montreal. I read the reports, and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was all wrong. Some important details were left out; others, as near as I could tell, were invented. Hell, I was there. And so a corrosive scepticism was born.

More than that, however, I slowly began to understand the Rashomon-like quality of news reporting in general, and to question the notion of an objective, authoritative account of anything. Decades later, this sceptical stance became a key aspect of what we now call “postmodernism.”

It’s not, then, that reporters always lie. Two people never see the same thing. Where there is no one “truth,” the notion of lying might seem a little problematic in any case. Yet, when it comes to journalism, we have a consensus: we agree, in order to preserve the shared illusion of “reality,” that discourses purporting to be “non-fiction” should be subject to tests of empirical adequacy. In plain language, when you are reporting, you don’t get to just make stuffup.

Which brings me, in roundabout fashion, back to Lilley. Check out this indignant press release. I reproduce it here in its entirety:

In his story of July 31, 2012, Brian Lilley incorrectly claims that CBC “went so far as to pay for a private box for a special concert” during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee events in London, England, also implying that the cost was “between $50,000 and $75,000”.

There never was a “private box”, nor did CBC pay anything in the range estimated by Mr. Lilley.

CBC News covered the Diamond Jubilee concert like numerous other international broadcasters. It did so from what is called in the industry a “stand-up position” - a space for a camera and reporter, which allows a clear view of the event to film. To use this space, broadcasters each paid less than a quarter of what Mr. Lilley reported.

SubTV has, of course, a major issue with what it risibly calls our “state broadcaster.” In brief, it would like the CBC to disappear, and its man Stephen Harper has obliged with enough torturous hacking and hewing to gladden the hearts of the most seasoned politico-sadists. But the old dame isn’t dead yet, and so, as the government’s unofficial advance guard, SubMedia never misses an opportunity to take yet another shot, almost invariably unjustified, at the venerable and doddering MotherCorp.

We have not yet heard from Lilley on this, but the motto of SubMedia seems to be “never explain, never apologize” (unless, of course, the issue is forced). In the meantime, I would never accuse the man of outright lying—but where on earth did his incredible shrinking story come from? Hundreds of people are clamouring to know.

[H/t Andy Lehrer]

UPDATE: Lilley responds to the CBC, in his characteristically vulgar fashion:

SO a CBC PR flack is now having to polish the turd laid by a CBC employee and is trying to do that by claiming that a story I did the other day is fales [sic].

The story was on the state broadcaster’s expenses for their coverage of the Queen’s Jubilee concert is false [sic].

Here is some guffaw-worthy hedging:

Calls made by Sun News gave the indication that such a box would cost between $50k and $75k.

“Gave the indication.” Wow. Then we are told that a reference to a “private box” appeared in an email from a CBC employee to “Andrew MacDougall at the PMO.” Lilley reproduces that email, which wasn’t sent to Stephen Harper’s Communications Director at all, but to CBC employee Nicole Durrant.

As for what I take to be a joking reference to a “private box” in that email from the CBC employee Allie Elwell, who doesn’t work for the CBC (credit where credit’s due here)—I could see sardonically referring to a stand-up position thus—Lilley witters ponderously on:

I would also point out as someone who has been in this business a long time, that no one “parties” at a stand-up position, it is too crowded and filled with wires, it is too sensitive due to camera positions.

Note that the word “parties” is set up as a quotation—but the word appears nowhere else, certainly not in the CBC email cited.

Oh, and

Just the facts, please, Mr. Lilley.

AND SO, IN CONCLUSION: The redoubtable Glen MacGregor discovers…the email was a joke. The fact-challenged Lilley was sucked in and blown out in bubbles. (And I will admit that I was, too, if to a lesser extent. Mea culpa, readers. Thank you, commenter Steve, Tweeter Ian Pert, and journo Glen MacGregor who can get back to defending murderous regimes now.)

This entire hilarious episode should be preserved and used as a cautionary tale in J-schools across the country. “It hardly gets much worse than this.” ~Bob Dylan.

GOOD GRIEF, IS THERE NO END TO THIS? Lilley has updated his post with a “simple explanation” of the email discrepancies. In fairness, I reproduce it here.

Some of you have been questioning the email given the date and the “TO” field. There is a simple explanation that I am used to to and didn’t think of explaining. CBC released what Allie Elwell forwarded to Nicole Durant at CBC when the access request was made.

For its part, the CBC contends that the reference to “a private box” was a joke—as some of us had already surmised. An account, either credulous or biased, may be found here. (“Climb down?” What “climb down?” The CBC has said all along there was no actual “private box,” and unless Lilley and his happy gang can prove otherwise, there wasn’t.)

We have diminishing returns at this point. There will be no further updates.

* As I have no intention of discussing the case (commenters, take note), I am not providing the link.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on August 1, 2012 10:40 AM.

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