It was when I saw that Justin Trudeau had toured the Lac-Mégantic disaster site that I started to think something is seriously screwy about this whole situation.
I take seriously the sincerity of every politician arriving at Lac-Mégantic to tour the site of Saturday’s early-morning train derailment, and I note that it is starting to be a long list. I stand to be corrected on this chronology, but in very rough order it has included Premier Pauline Marois, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, several members of Marois’s cabinet, two members of Harper’s, and Trudeau. On Tuesday Olivia Chow and another NDP MP will add their names to the list of MPs, MNAs and other dignitaries who have walked through the zone where the devastation occurred and the lives were lost. I assume it has been a harrowing experience for all of them.
But to some extent I can only assume, because no journalist has been allowed to take the same walk the politicians have taken. I did a radio interview today, and the reporter said, “The Prime Minister said it’s like a war zone. What have you seen?” And I said, more or less, I’ve seen some Sûreté du Québec scrums, and the haunted eyes of a few lucky survivors.
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Now. There are reasons reporters wouldn’t be allowed to see the accident zone, and reasons why politicians would. But the parade of the latter is starting to make the curtain drawn in front of the former seem faintly ridiculous. The accident zone was hot for days, although apparently not so hot that a succession of politicians couldn’t get close. There are other security concerns, though apparently not insurmountable (see: succession of politicians). And political figures are responsible for authorizing relief efforts. But that’s less true for opposition politicians, and a whole lot less so again when it comes to leaders of third parties.
What do journalists bring to such an area besides morbid curiosity? Well, they bring cameras, so you can see what happened. Experienced eyes and some ability to describe a scene. For much of my career, that was considered enough for authorities to permit access to at least a few reporters to the scene of a disaster.
Note that I do mean “a few.” It’s routine in such instances to organize a pool, which would share its video and writing with colleagues. When I was a very young reporter covering the Oka standoff outside Montreal, there were few places soldiers could go that a small press pool, consisting of, say, a cameraman and a wire-service reporter, couldn’t go.
Why hasn’t that happened at Lac-Mégantic? Again, it can’t be safety because that hasn’t stopped a dozen politicians from traipsing in. My best guess is that it’s because there is a lake of spilled oil on that site, and no politician, federal or provincial, wants anyone seeing that on the TV news.
But we’ll be debating what happened in that town for a decade. A precondition of that debate is that reporters should be permitted to see and record what happened.