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‘Reliable source’ wasn’t

What we're supposed to offer, those of us in Sarah Palin's "lamestream media," is quality assurance.

What we're supposed to offer, those of us in Sarah Palin's "lamestream media," is quality assurance.

A wild-eyed blogger - as opposed to a steely-eyed one - might report an unsubstantiated claim the premier was about to announce a cut in the HST rate, for example.

But professional reporters would carefully check out the rumour. If the sources were shaky or non-existent, the story wouldn't make it - or at least it would make it clear that the information was one step above coffee-shop gossip. (Though really, why report something one step above gossip? Not reporting seems the best option.)

That quality assurance wobbled last week. A little before midnight last Wednesday, Bill Vander Zalm and the Fight HST forces issued a press released headlined "Rumours abound Campbell will reduce HST rate on Friday."

That's when the premier was to address the Union of B.C. Municipalities. The Vander Zalm release cited "reliable sources" who also confirmed Campbell would announce the HST referendum would be held earlier than next September.

The CBC and CTV bit with news stories Thursday. The CBC report noted the premier's office called the rumours "completely untrue."

CTV reports had similar denials and a weird quote from Vander Zalm that "sometimes these very reliable sources may not be that reliable."

But the chance of an HST rate cut was reported seriously based solely on Vander Zalm's e-mailed news release.

Well, not solely. The Province's clever columnist Mike Smyth, in a piece written before Vander Zalm dropped his bomb, asked "could Gordon Campbell announce a reduction in the harmonized sales tax at the Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention this week?" And CBC reporters said the capital was buzzing with rumours Campbell would announce the provincial share of the HST would be reduced from seven to six per cent.

I'm sure rumours were buzzing. But that could mean one person was spreading the same rumour to anyone who would listen, who would then say, yeah, I heard that too.

Campbell didn't announce a reduction in the HST. Finance Minister Colin Hansen said Vander Zalm must be hearing voices.

Over at, perhaps the most consistently interesting B.C. blog, the Gazetter believes the evidence points to some successful media manipulation.

The Liberal government floated the rumour of a cut in the HST to draw attention to Campbell's speech, the theory goes, and Vander Zalm and company spread the rumour of an earlier vote on the HST to make mischief.

I expect he gives almost everyone involved too much credit. The reports of an HST rate cut didn't help the Liberals. Anything Campbell had to offer at UBCM - and he didn't have much - would seem anticlimactic after the rumours of big announcements.

And Vander Zalm ended up looking goofy - the man whose reliable sources were not.

Vander Zalm said it wasn't his problem if the media chose to report his claims.

Which does seem like the issue in all this. As a young reporter, in the last days of typewriters, I learned from Harold Evan's five-book series on newspapering and All the President's Men, the Woodward-Bernstein book on Watergate.

Two sources, was the rule. Two credible people, in a position to know, who could vouch for the accuracy of the information to be reported.

None of this is simple. Vander Zalm is a public figure right now; if he says a big tax change is coming, should the media refuse to report that?

If they do, they can be called irresponsible. If they don't, they're keeping information from the people.

What we should bring to the relationship with readers, viewers and listeners, are judgment, experience and intelligence.

I can't discern any guiding intelligence behind the HST rumours.

But I also don't think it was a great week for the paid media workers.

Footnote: Two other points. As the Gazetteer notes, the focus on the rumour came at the expense of other reporting, including on StatsCan numbers that showed the Canadian economy shrank in July in part because of the HST's impact.

And why the rush to report on speculation about the speech, when by the next day everyone would know exactly what Campbell said.