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Rumours .. rumours ..

February 14, 2018

I’ve head a number of commentators say they weren’t surprised to hear of allegations of sexual misconduct against former PC leader Patrick Brown, because “we’d all heard rumours.”

Well, yes we had all heard those rumours. But they were just that – rumours, rumblings, whispers and scuttlebutt.  Someone’s cousin was at a party with someone else’s ex-girlfriend who said someone else told them something else had happened with a girl who looked pretty young.

Odd, then, that no journalist at Queen’s Park wrote that story.

Here’s what I learned in the more than 35 years or so I spent covering politics. Number One: If you’re going to write a story such as this, you pretty well have to have this nailed down with names, dates, witnesses and evidence. Preferably a witness who was in the bedroom at the time. Preferably with photos.

Second, consider the source – and this is key for any political journalist. Politics is a blood sport. There are some “black ops” political strategists out there who will do anything to bring down an opponent. They know – and I’ve had this happen to me – that all they have to do is plant a damaging story with a journalist and if the journo is not careful how she investigates it, the story will spread like wildfire – and truth be damned. I had people plant damaging stories with me about rivals and opponents, hoping I would start asking questions in a way that would actually spread the story.

Someone once told me that a person  in his own party had dressed as a neo-Nazi in his youth. He provided me with no photos, no witnesses. I interviewed this source at length, and he sounded credible and sincere. The story did not.

I was in an awkward situation: If the story were  true, it was in the public interest for people to know this information. Were it false, I could damage an innocent person’s reputation simply by asking the question in a ham-fisted way.

Before I even made any calls, I discussed the story at length with a very savvy editor, who advised me carefully on how to go about probing the story. In the end, we decided there was no story, and we dropped it.

Which is a long way of saying that you can’t write a story from whispers. If I’d written every rumour I’d heard as fact, I’d have been in serious trouble. When you cover politics, you hear wild rumours every day. The question is do the rumours stand up to scrutiny?

Journalists don’t write rumours. They write fact.

Or, at least, they used to.

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