Nfld. & Labrador

Spaniard's Bay: The 5 Ws, and the big question that ought to be asked

Who, what, when, where and why are critical to journalists, but it's how that is far too often treated as optional, writes Azzo Rezori.
Former Spaniard's Bay fire chief Victor Hiscock is seen offering his gratitude to those who attended a rally in support of the department on Jan. 21. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

After 40 years as a journalist, I often find myself forgetting that what I do every day without thinking about how I do it is still the result of following some very basic rules of practice.

The journalist student's five Ws, for example: who, what, when, where, why; plus the question how, the odd one out, because it starts with an 'h' and is far too often treated as optional. 

But is it?

Take what's been going on in Spaniard's Bay these last few weeks.

An explanation of what happened in Spaniard's Bay is equally incomplete without probing the 'how' of it all.

The "who?" has given us the cast of characters: a fire chief, his men, the only woman on the brigade, plus a list of minor roles such as the town's mayor and a firefighting instructor. 

The "what?" has laid out the main event: the men resigning over accusations of sexual harassment by the woman.

"When?" and "where?" has nailed those events down in time and space.

The "why" has come up with the plot of one individual in conflict with the rest of the community over how certain things should be done, like working as a team to fight fires.

Black-and-white morality play

This is the modern, black-and-white morality play where each side claims to be right at the expense of the other side being dead wrong. More often than not, it's also the kind of stuff that polarizes enough to bring about change. But, surely, there has to be more to it than that.

Now's the time to call in the "how?" — the real workhorse of the six questions of journalism.

How did the whole mess come about in the first place? How did it get so out of hand? How did neighbours come to decide that conflict was more in their interest than co-operation? How did community values fail so completely?

Only after asking those 'how?' questions do we get back to a second round of 'who?', 'what?', 'when?', 'where?', and 'why?' to help us get a fuller picture.

Did anybody really want the whole thing to turn out the way it did? What was said or done by whom long before good faith sailed out the window, before jokes turned into insults and a training session ended in a pornographic assault? 

Those questions take us to an article in the local newspaper, The Compass, five years ago. 

"Friction in the Spaniard's Bay fire brigade," the headline reads. 

'Friction' is one way of describing what was going on at the time; 'power struggle' would have been another.  

Volunteer firefighter and town councillor Brenda Seymour. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

According to the article, trained volunteer firefighter Brenda Seymour joined the Spaniard's Bay brigade in 2009 with the best of intentions to make a positive contribution. 

But she ran smack into fire chief Victor Hiscock's way of doing things based on his own best of intentions. She ended up going behind his back. Within a year of being accepted into the brigade, she was kicked out again.

An inquiry followed. 

The author of the final report, a former Spaniard's Bay fire chief himself, found that the way Seymour had been dismissed breached her human rights and ordered her reinstated. 

He characterized Hiscock's handling of the situation as "punitive" in nature (including a 'gag order' designed to keep Seymour from taking her concerns to the Spaniard's Bay Town Council, of which she was a member). 

He noted that Hiscock was a popular chief and a respected member of the community, but added, "The fire community has evolved to a point where a fire chief has to possess the appropriate administrative and management skills to effectively achieve the ultimate aims and goals of the fire service."

Presumably, the ultimate aim and goal of a fire service is to put out fires as efficiently as possible. 

That requires teamwork. 

An exterior view of the Spaniard's Bay fire hall. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Victor Hiscock and Brenda Seymour obviously have different ideas of what teamwork is all about, and Seymour got as much blame as Hiscock did.

"In her quest for knowledge," the author of the inquiry report concluded, "Ms Seymour may have lost the support of many of her fellow firefighters as well as breaching the 'Chain of Command'. 

In fact, her aggressive approach created a hostile atmosphere with her colleagues on the department. This atmosphere contributed to emotionally charged discussions and decision-making by the department."

'Friction' is one way of describing what was going on at the time; 'power struggle' would have been another.

Sincere efforts to clear up the damage from this first blast followed, but the bomb itself could not be dismantled. It was only a matter of time before it went off again loaded with even more rancour and resentment. It did, and this time the shrapnel included sexual harassment. 

Every scientist knows you can't say why something is the way it is without knowing how it works.

Every historian knows you can't explain why a treaty failed without knowing how it was arrived at.

An explanation of what happened in Spaniard's Bay is equally incomplete without probing the 'how' of it all, from the broad strokes down to the first small signs years ago, that what was brewing was never just a situation — but a story in the making that's still far from over, but appears to be heading in a new direction.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Azzo Rezori

Perspective

Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.

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