Could the right question, asked earlier, have saved a good man his job?
It was not exactly breaking news that my old colleague Bob Fife broke the news about how Sen. Mike Duffy managed to repay $90,000 in improperly claimed living expenses so quickly.
When I worked with Fife at the Toronto Sun parliamentary bureau in the 1990s, he was already firmly established as the best consistent news breaker on the Hill. He has, of course, since gone on to greater glories first with the National Post and now as CTV's Ottawa bureau chief.
What made, and makes, Fife one of the three purest news reporters I've ever known, never mind worked with, is actually simple. He simply asks questions, usually starting with a bevy of freshly plucked expletives. Indeed, having known Fife for so long, I am willing to bet some portion of $90,000 that this is exactly the question he asked and began doggedly pursuing the moment he first heard that the senator had repaid in full all misallocated funds owing: "Where in the (ahem) world does (ahem) Mike (ahem) Duffy come up with (ahem) $90,000 just like that?"
The pity is that no other reporter—much less overpaid opinion columnist—in the parliamentary precincts appears to have done the same. Or perhaps they did and just weren't as fast, dogged, and connected as Fife is in tracking down stories.
My sense, though, is that they did not largely because the fundamental craft of asking simple, basic questions seems to have become a lost art in national journalistic circles and, in fact, in journalism generally. The practice was the sine qua non of journalism. I am never sure exactly what has replaced it, but that is an entirely different point to ponder.
In this case, if the spirit of inquiry were as robust as it should be, at least two faults would have been avoided. The first, obviously, is that we would likely never have been led to believe that Sen. Duffy paid the money back himself so quickly. We would have known the truth, which still counts for something, yes? More, we would have been spared the career execution of Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Harper's chief of staff, who, as most know, lost his job after acknowledging that it was he who helped the good senator pay off his debt.
Put another way, had the first question with regard to Sen. Duffy's means been properly, promptly, and widely asked, the second question upon discovery of Nigel Wright's generosity would have been: "Yes, and what exactly is wrong with that?"
For in all the smoke, light and noise that drove the prime minister's chief of staff from his post, no one has ever said precisely what it was that he did wrong.
There have been references to parliamentary codes of ethics and what gifts it is proper for a senator to receive but surely those apply to the senator in question. Surely it was his obligation to decline the help, however well intended.
No one has suggested in any way that Nigel Wright's gesture was anything but well intended. It came, or least appears to have come, from his own pocket. There is no hint that any sort of quid pro quo was attached, which makes sense given that Sen. Duffy is now such a persona non grata on Parliament Hill that it would be, ipso facto, ludicrous to expect a return of favours from him anyway. What could he possibly hand over: a desk drawer full of chiseled expense accounts not as yet submitted?
With a couple of simple questions, a man whose moral compass seems to have been tossed overboard would have been called to account much sooner. And a man who sought only to do the right thing would have been spared vilification and job loss.
Journalism matters because questions matter. Just ask my old colleague Bob Fife.