Inside Politics

Where questions go to die

Residents of Harbour Mille, N.L., reported seeing this object fly over their community Monday night. (Courtesy of Darlene Stewart)

It was a difficult, frustrating day in the military affairs corner of the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau.

It's a small corner that typically hums with activity. There's the sound of the loudly-clacking keyboard, the softly-clicking computer mouse, the ringing of phones, the buzzing of a Blackberry and the loud exclamations of a reporter (Scoop, we'll call him) uncovering dirt, malfeasance and hitherto unknown bits of important news and information.

And Wednesday for Scoop, looked like it would really no different. There was the promise of news - early in the day, thank the blessed news gods - and of stories to consequently write and tell. And there was the promise of lots of it. By 10:20 a.m., the news started rolling in: A news conference on Afghan detainees was about to start. Surely that would give Scoop something to tell the nation that night.

And then there was a mysterious email, fired off by Scoop's boss - a hardened news hound who, insists he could sniff out a story at 10 paces - containing what appeared to be journalistic gold.

"Apparently the French are using St. Pierre to launch some rocket that will travel over Newfoundland," the Boss wrote. "Check it out."

The questions started to bubble up from the back of Scoop's mind.

Was the story true? Were the French, in a fit of independiste Gallic pique and military pride, refusing to notify Canada of a missile launch, from islands mere kilometres from sovereign Canadian territory?

Was it really the French? Were the Russians messing about in submarines, or was it the Americans? Did Liechtenstein suddenly acquire a sea-going navy and declare war on Canada for some obscure trade slight? And what was the Government of Canada going to do about it?

These were the questions that troubled Scoop. He needed answers. No, the country needed answers.

Scoop quickly fashioned a raw and rough media inquiry and with the bash of his thumbs and the click of track ball, fired his questions off to the offices of the ministers of defence and foreign affairs.

Scoop had contacts there - people he'd developed Blackberry relationships with. When something was going on, they were usually good about getting Scoop the goods.

Cat over in Foreign Affairs would know - or find out - whether a foreign government had advised Canada of a missile launch. Cat was good at her job, a real pro. If there was something diplomatic happening on the alleged missile front, Cat would surely pass on what she could.

Then there was Dan at Defence. Dan used to be just like Scoop, when he was a journalist: an old ink-stained wretch with a heart of gold. But now in media relations, Dan seems a little tougher than he ever used to be. But it was still a good tough. And Scoop always knew where he stood with him. Dan at Defence would have the information at his fingertips. Dan always did. And when he didn't, Dan would find out.

Scoop's email worked its magic. Cat and Dan got rolling on answers. It was still early, 'round 11 a.m. and Scoop was hopeful more information would come soon.

Then The Boss flipped him a new note. Seemed that missile launch, if that's what it was, had already happened. And maybe the missile wasn't French after all, even though it looked like launch from St. Pierre.

Scoop passed that on to Cat and Dan. The two flacks flipped notes back, widening their circle, including more government flacks on the question. They asked for clarification -more info. Scoop did what he could.

Then came the note from Newfoundland. Turns out the missile, if that's what it was, had been launched Monday night. And Darlene Stewart of Harbour Mille, N.L. had "seen it."

Here's how CBC Newfoundland wrote it up:

"Darlene Stewart spotted the object while taking pictures of the sunset over Harbour Mille, a community of about 200 residents on the south coast of the province. She says she started snapping photos.

"'I really did get sick to my stomach, I was shaking when I seen it,' Stewart told CBC News on Wednesday. 'We were just in awe of what we seen.'

"The photos taken by Stewart show blurry pictures of what appears to be a long, round object, much like a missile, seemingly rising from the ocean, with either smoke or flames shooting out the back end."

Scoop read the story and studied the picture. It was as if he was staring at a thousand little words. It sure looked like a missile rising through the air. This changed things. He fired the Newfoundland report off to Cat and Dan and that widening circle of flacks. Scoop waited. Not very patiently, but he waited.

Meantime CBC Newfoundland was working its own sources, getting their news up on the web and on the air. They were counting on Scoop for the Ottawa angle: The government response, the definitive word on what that thing Darlene Stewart saw and took photos of actually was.

CBC Newfoundland got ahold of RCMP Sgt. Wayne Edgecombe.

"We confirmed that it was something," he told them. "It's nothing criminal."

Edgecombe said he'd called some folks at the Department of National Defence - Dan's place - and they passed on some information that helped him decide to wrap up the criminal case. The RCMP typically investigate criminal matters - not missiles - he said. It would be up to Defence to make public what they knew.

As Scoop quickly shoved Chinese noodles down his throat, he read the story and wondered what was going on. His Blackberry buzzed. It was a
message from one of Cat's colleagues:

"This would be a Public Safety lead. Please speak to PS at: 613-991-XXXX"

This was interesting. What would Public Safety have to do with missiles, Scoop wondered. Public Safety is the ministry that oversees the Correctional Service of Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and, from a policy perspective, the RCMP. But the Mounties have their own communications department, so why would Public Safety be stepping in?

Scoop was intrigued. He let his mind wander: Was the missile manned? Did it fail to stop at a Canadian Border Services Agency checkpoint on the way across Canada's border? Was CSIS using missiles as some form of new-fangled intelligence-gathering technique? Did some prisoners escape a federal penitentiary aboard a contraband missile they'd constructed in their cells at night, riding it to freedom like that cowboy pilot in Dr. Strangelove?

Scoop couldn't make sense of it. This wasn't really a Public Safety file, especially since that Mountie sergeant in Newfoundland was telling people the Defence Department knew what was going on.

Scoop picked up his phone and called Public Safety. He left a detailed message and asked for a quick response. Then he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Just as Scoop was beginning to lose hope, the phone rang. He snapped to attention and answered the phone.

"Scoop," he said gruffly, in a vain attempt to mimic an olde tyme newsman.

It was Public Safety. They were looking into things, they said. They'd get back.

Scoop was hopeful, but not too hopeful. It was his experience that Public Safety was where news queries went to die, cold and lonely and unanswered.

He started to wait, again.

By the time 4:30 p.m. rolled around, Scoop had had enough. There's only so much research a guy can do. But some of it yielded fruit.

The French Ministry of Defence had posted a communique on its website. Turns out they had launched a missile from a submarine, but they did it Wednesday, not Monday, as Darlene Stewart of Harbour Mille reports.

And besides, the French missile was launched from their side of the Atlantic, not off Saint Pierre OR Miquelon. And it splashed down 2,000 kilometres off the coast of South Carolina, not off the coast of Newfoundland.

So, there were still questions, and Scoop still needed a story: Something to write, and vet and voice and put on the air. And to get that story, he needed a government response to those queries about that now non-French alleged missile.

He called Public Safety, again, but there was no answer.

Scoop left a message. Then he flipped a note back to Cat and Dan and all the other flacks, hoping one of them would get things rolling - get on Public Safety and get them to flesh out an answer. There was no response.

At 5:08 p.m., just as Scoop was starting to get ready to go home, an email popped up on his Blackberry. It was from David Charbonneau at Public Safety. According to the email, Charbonneau was the departmental spokesperson.

Scoop paused for a moment, wondering whether that email might answer all his questions. He opened the note, and read. Quickly at first
and then once more, slowly

"With respect to your query regarding the sightings off the coast of Newfoundland, the Government of Canada is aware of media reports of public sightings of unidentified objects in the sky off the coast of Newfoundland. The RCMP is investigating the alleged sightings.

"Best regards, David Charbonneau."

Scoop cursed. There were no answers here, only more questions. He considered deleting the email right there, but he realized that was only irrational spite.

Instead, Scoop responded.

He pointed out that Sgt. Edgecombe in Newfoundland had said the Mounties had already put the case to rest. He pointed out that Edgecombe had passed the buck to DND much earlier in the day, that his initial queries had gone to DND and that they, and Foreign Affairs, had passed the matter back to Public Safety, even though it didn't seem at all clear how Public Safety could even be involved. Unless that was, of course, it had something to do with the RCMP, which, of course, has its own media relations department and is quite capable of answering its own queries, as Sgt Edgecombe did earlier in the day.

What, Scoop asked, was going on?

A second after he clicked send, a note popped up in Scoop's inbox.

It was from Charbonneau. He was out of the office, and wouldn't be back until the 29th.

Scoop started up his web browser, and with wildly typing fingers, Googled "missile" and "Newfoundland." There were just a few links. One to the CBC Newfoundland story, and a few more pointing to a yarn written up by The Canadian Press.

Scoop wondered if he'd been beat.

But he scanned the wire story and exhaled a loud sigh of relief.

They had nothing more than he had. And just like him, they'd been referred to Public Safety, who, according to one of the stories, "did not immediately return phone calls."

Maybe it was a meteorite.
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