Last Thursday a Vancouver weekly paper published a story claiming that eight sworn affidavits of physical abuse at a former Burns Lake school reveal a dark chapter in John Furlong’s hidden past. The school has been closed since 1986, but because it was a Catholic school, media gathered on the doorstep of the local Catholic church to gather footage and get some quotes on record before updating their websites. Before the day was out John Furlong had vehemently denied the allegations, expressed his intent to sue the journalist and the newspaper involved, and every major paper and news service in the province had filed stories with updates.
The Globe and Mail had managed to determine, before noon last Friday no less, that Burns Lake was a town divided by these allegations. I was surprised to read that Burns Lake was already divided by the news of the allegations. I’ve only lived here for a few weeks and can’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of the district, but ‘divided’ isn’t a word that comes to mind.
By Sunday we had learned that the journalist is going to counter-sue Furlong for attacking her journalistic integrity. And now silence, which is to be expected because the matter has been passed on to the RCMP and the courts.
Laura Robinson, the journalist involved, is a respected writer and author and the Georgia Straight a credible paper with a large circulation. It’s hard to imagine that the testimony of the former students could be a fabrication, and it’s difficult to understand why Furlong apparently left his time in Burns Lake out of his official biography. But the story, if anyone is being honest, is confined to Robinson’s investigative work and that’s where we have to assume that the announced RCMP investigation will begin.
Following this story from a Burns Lake newsroom was very interesting. Here was a major local story breaking that involved Burns Lake and community, but the story broke in Vancouver, was gobbled up by the major provincial and national media, and was virtually over before the weekend was out. The major news networks had nothing to do with this story, even though they took it over and cannibalized it.
Part of me is concerned that I was so out of the loop on a story so close to where I now call home. The local paper was the last to know, shame on me. Or maybe that’s just a bruised ego talking. Either way it’s only a footnote to this serious story.
This is a big story, and not just because of the seriousness of the allegations involved and the way they have affected members of the local community. It’s also noteworthy because it comes from outside the large media outlets. The Black Press chain of newspapers (which owns the Lakes District News) has 48 newspapers in the B.C. interior from Cranbrook to Prince Rupert. We exist outside of the sphere of influence of the larger news organizations and are sometimes the last to know of a local story. The attitude seems to be, if you want to get your message out call CBC in Prince George, or better yet, Vancouver.
As last week’s events have shown, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Weekly newspapers maintain an online presence and can break news instantaneously online as quickly as any larger organization. What matters most is the reporter on the ground doing the work, and the trust that people put in that writer to get their message out in a fair and professional manner.