Hacks, Flacks and Superstacks: Inco and the Sudbury Media in the 1970s – by Mick Lowe (Part 3 of 3)

This article (original title – Hacks, Flacks and Superstacks) was first published in the August 1976 issue of Content magazine. Mick Lowe is a well-known retired Sudbury journalist with a keen insight on labour issues. From 1975 to 1988 he worked as a freelance journalist, becoming a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail.

In 1977 he became a staff reporter for CBC Radio News where he helped to open the network’s Northeastern Ontario News Bureau. From 1995 – 2002 Mick Lowe was a regular columnist for Northern Life.

I make a point of watching both local TV newscasts tonight. CKSO has Steelworker president Mickey Maguire on first. Shot in his office with available light, Maguire appears angry and concerned for the safety of his members at Frood. Convincing. Hoskins follows, reading the same statement I heard earlier at CHNO, relying heavily on Harvey Judges to back him up.
With his heavy beard, bad studio lighting, and rehearsed delivery, Mr. Inco presents a haggard image, remindful of the Nixon-Agnew talking heads staring hypnotically into the cameras during the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign.

On CKNC, Hoskins appears again in the studio, though with better lighting, reading the same statement. The Steelworkers have declined an opportunity to reply, but the reporter has located sources willing to give “the other side” of the story.

Received a call from a Sudbury Star reporter early this p.m. He was worried, concerned by accusations from Davie, the ministry official, that he’d been misquoted in the press. I comparenotes with the Star man, and we both have nearly identical statements from Davie about the shutdowns at Frood.

I tell the Star guy how Thomas had had the courage to categorically deny the implications of Hoskins’ statement yesterday, an act that could mean putting his own job on the line. Don’t worry about Davie’s accusations, I tell the Star reporter. “Davie is new at his job, and he went too far when he talked with reporters. Now the heat is coming down from Inco and he’s scared. I’m satisfied that we both quoted Davie correctly. His job may be in jeopardy, and if he wants to make us the scapegoats I don’t really care. I’d rather see guys like Thomas and Davie staying in the ministry, and if we have to take a minor whipping so they can it’s no skin off my nose.”

The biggest surprise of the week comes when today’s Star arrives on my doorstep. The Simard inquest is big news – a skyline head across page 1, and two sidebars on page 3. Hoskins’ denial of the closing are printed on page 8, under the obituaries. And the story includes conflicting sources.

The news media’s objective attitude towards Inco is short-lived. Wendy Jackson, the Star’s labor reporter, quit her job today in protest of alleged interference by Inco in the Star’s news coverage. As 23-year-old Harvard graduate, Jackson started working for the Star in September, 1975. She was the first Star reporter to be assigned to the labor beat in a decade.

Her problems apparently started with an April 17 page 1 story on working conditions in the converter area of Inco’s Copper Cliff smelter.

It was based on a Ministry of Health study which found that converter workers who smoke are subject to higher incidence of chronic bronchitis than smokers working in other areas. Her story quoted Hoskins as saying that “nowhere in that whole study does it state that working in the smelter causes bronchitis. If you do not have a history of smoking, if you’ve quit smoking, then you don’t get sick. The study is about smoking.”

But like his statement on the Frood closings, Hoskins’ remarks on the converter study ran counter to the facts. Jackson’s story went on to point out that the incidence of bronchitis was found to be 14.8 per cent higher among all converter workers than among workers in another “control” area. When smokers were surveyed the difference simply became more pronounced.

On Wednesday, while a few reporters in town were returning from the “debauchery trip” and while others were tracking the Frood closing story, Jackson was called onto the carpet by Star editor Erik Watt. In a sworn affidavit she recounted a part of the conversation, including Watt’s explanation of why he was pulling her off the labor beat.

“Mr. Watt told me that my labor stories were ‘slanted.’ He said, ‘You’re one of a new breed of journalists who are more interested in crusades than in the facts.’ When I asked him to provide specific examples of how my stories were slanted, he said there was nothing specific he could point to, that it was just a feeling he had after reading some of my work.

“Mr. Watt told me I ‘turn off’ people in the business community. He said several business sources – and he named Mr. Hoskins; Fred Brown of Inco’s public affairs department; Bill Rolston, president of the Sudbury and District Chamber of Commerce….

“When I asked why Mr. Hoskins didn’t trust me. Mr. Watt replied, ‘Your standards are too high.’ I asked what he meant. He said ‘When you accept an underground tour (from Inco in November) and return a Christmas gift (a set of glasses) saying it’s against your ethics, he feels he can’t trust you.’”

In her letter of resignation, Jackson stated the conditions under which she would return to work: “Unless you can stand up to Hoskins (and any other advertisers who might try to push the Star or its reporters around, apologize for your insults to me, guarantee me freedom from interference again on my labor beat, and every other beat as well (as a policy of the Star, to be announced to all), I can’t see working for you….”

Interesting to watch the Jackson story unfold in the local media. Although her affidavit has been available to all city newsrooms since morning, no one has touched the story except for Ken Curtis at CHNO who aired it on the 5 p.m. news. Neither Watt nor Star publisher John Friesen were available for comment on the story.

I was gossiping with CKSO news director Jim Marchbank this morning and mentioned the Jackson story. He said they wouldn’t do anything on it since it was an internal matter at the Star. “We don’t meddle in their affairs, and they don’t meddle in ours.”

Thursday, April 29 – For the second time in less than a week, the Star has a surprise. On page 3, beneath a four-column head, the Jackson affidavit is fairly reported as a subject of discussion at last night’s Labor Council meeting. Not surprisingly, the labor movement is quite upset about the Jackson affair. Now that the Star has “legitimized” the existence of the affidavit maybe other news media will pick up on it.

Sure enough. Two days after the affidavit was released to the press and first reported, CKSO-TV gets around to the story. But through an amazing journalistic sleight-of-hand they manage to avoid any reference to Inco. Instead, they refer obliquely to charges of “business influence” at the Star. The Star brass still has no comment on Jackson’s allegations.

Privately a few reporters that I speak to say they’re upset about Hoskins’ alleged interference. One senior reporter who long ago gave up any ideas of “crusading journalism,” says, “It’s one thing for Hoskins to criticize the news coverage his company is getting. But when he starts interfering in people’s jobs, then he’s gone too far.”

A second reporter, a veteran of several “debauchery trips,” puts it more succinctly: “Hoskins is calling in his chits.”

Friday, April 30 – I had a few drinks today with a local news director, a long-time recipient of Inco largesse. He tells me about the Toronto trip last week, about the private rooms in the Hyatt Regency, about the $25 dinners at the Royal York.

“Hoskins really knows how to make you feel like an emperor,” he says with admiration. But, he’s quick to add, when the chips are down as they were at the Frood mine or on the Jackson story, his station covers them like any other story. I know that what he says is true.

“But, look,” I ask him, “how many people in Sudbury know about those trips? And how does that affect or credibility in the community when we’re covering Inco?” He nods his head, shrugs, and pours another glass of beer.
The Jackson affair has lain dormant for two weeks now. Quite wisely, the Star brass has elected to make no comment in hopes that the whole thing would slowly be forgotten. It probably would have, too, except that Globe reporter Arnold Bruner arrived today to do a story on Jackson. He quickly made the rounds of Watt, Hoskins, and Jackson and the final edition of the Star contains management’s long-awaited reply to Jackson’s allegations.

In a Page 1 box headed “Star Statement” publisher Friesen offered a carefully-worded rebuttal of sorts: “Sudbury Star publisher John Friesen today flatly rejected allegations by a former employee of outside interference in the news and staff assignment policies of the paper. He said the whole affair appeared to be an attempt to discredit the newspaper by attacking the professional integrity of its employees.

Mr. Friesen added that in view of certain competitive aspects in the media, he was not surprised that the accusations were being readily accepted without question and with obvious enthusiasm in some quarters. “Despite what is being said, there has been no outside interference in the handling of news at the Star. The suggestion that we alter news and change assignments to suit the casual whims of outside interests is unadulterated poppycock.” Significantly, the statement made no mention of editor Watt and contained no denial that he talked with Jackson nor that he made the statements that she attributed to him.

The Star statement receives widespread coverage on all of the electronic media, including CKNC-TV, which never covered the original story to begin with. I have a good laugh over my beer tonight thinking of the poor bewildered viewers of CKNC news.

While the announcer refers to “allegations” and “a former Star employee” and “outside interference,” there has never been any direct reference to the affidavit, Jackson, or Inco. The station reports as “unadulterated poppycock” accusations which its regular views must never have known existed.

Donald Hoskins resigned his position at Inco Wednesday, May 12, two days after Bruner’s visit. His resignation letter reads: “In light of possible public reaction to certain of my decisions, I would like to submit my resignation as director of public affairs, Ontario Division, Inco Ltd.” “I do not feel that these decisions were either improper or incorrect. However, I feel this action is required to avoid any possible embarrassment to Inco Ltd. And others.” “I deeply regret coming to this decision, but feel it is the proper course of action.”

Two weeks later, CKSO announces that Hoskins has been hired as radio news director. By late June, Wendy Jackson landed a new job with the Ottawa Citizen. Her case became something of a national cause celebre after extensive coverage in both the Globe and Maclean’s and newspapers as far away as The Village Voice in New York called to get her story.

On June 29, Erik Watt announced his retirement from journalism. The Star reported that he planned to “establish a tourist operation in the Northwest Territories,” the culmination of a long-standing dream. CKNC-TV news director Bill Catalano, whose staff did such a scintillating job throughout the Jackson story, told Maclean’s reporte Angela Ferrante that Inco has little effect on journalism in Sudbury.

“Inco has never tried to interfere with any story at this station. A lot o f people are mad because they feel their integrity has been impugned (by the attention devoted to Jackson). You can’t be bought by tumblers and a couple of parties.

AFTERWORD This story, originally printed in the now-defunct Content magazine, was written about one year after the events depicted.

I’m happy to be able to report that the relationship between Inco and the Sudbury media has changed greatly- and for the better- in the 30-plus years since Hacks,Flacks and Superstacks was first published. Oyster- hoisters and debauchery trips are long since in the past.

Unbeknownst to me. the story circulated widely among the Toronto brass of Canada’s publicly- owned broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or CBC. Alarmed at the captive news media in what was then-and still is- Canada’s twentieth largest city, the CBC hierarchy decided to accelerate planning for the establishment of its own radio station in Sudbury. CBC Sudbury went on the air on April 15, 1978. I was hired to be founding producer of the morning show, Morning North.

And the credibility gap and evident disconnect between the Sudbury media and its public? When, in the spring of 2009 the CBC announced a round of national budget cuts that would reduce its Sudbury workforce by half, hundreds of Sudburians turned out for a rally to protest the cut backs.