Welcome to EDITOR TO EDITOR, a new series of interviews with journalism leaders sharing their challenges and victories, along with vital current newsroom insights.
David Walmsley, Editor in Chief of the Globe and Mail in Canada, has been in the news this month for a story he was assigned 30 years ago as a rookie reporter – one which he has continued to investigate and which has defined his approach to journalism.
Wamsley is co-producer of the BBC documentary Chinook: Zulu Delta 576, an engrossing account of the search for the truth behind the British Chinook military helicopter crash into Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre in 1994. It aired two weeks ago.
“Being asked to cover the crash as a young reporter was the greatest single gift I’ve been given,” he says of the assignment that set the tone for a career dedicated to truth, transparency, accountability – and paying back.
“I felt indebted to the promises that have been offered to me. So it was important for me to repay that back to the organisation and to the story writ large.” While the true cause of the crash has never been revealed, Walmsley is content in having achieved exoneration for the two flight lieutenants initially blamed for the crash.
The lessons learnt from the decades-long investigation had an indelible impact on his approach to journalism – as a reporter, and editor – and within the newsrooms Walmsley’s overseen across the UK and Canada since. He’s headed up the editorial operations of Canada’s The Globe and Mail since 2014, overseeing 240 journalists across the globe.
‘Deadlines don’t exist’
“I think the greatest and greatest lesson is, as a sentient being, I fundamentally believe truth will always outlast the unbending and unfeeling world of a bureaucracy. That is journalism’s advantage. And the biggest lesson that imparts to me is the message I say to my whole team every day, which is: ‘there’s no such thing as a deadline’ – stories are published when they’re ready.
“This investigation will also help the political class to understand whether they’ve been badly informed in the past. I think exposing cover-ups helps institutions to be honest and transparent, even if they don’t wish to; there are powerful forces in the permanent government, in all governments to try to hold the line. That the political class has a chance to bring democracy back to the people and to actually say, I can’t stand by that because you gave me wrong information – which is really what the Defence Secretary at the time said.”
Reporting on the Defence Secretary’s position – and then being called out for the inaccurate reporting – set Walmsley on a path to transparency.
“Journalists are the one group that exists in society that can offer the truth. Lawyers can give you great statements of fact, people can get perspectives, but unless you’ve heard from all sides, you can’t get to the truth – there’s an inner engine discovery that can’t be resolved until the truth is known.”
Walmsley’s relentless search for truth and the advancement of journalism has seen him spearhead numerous media initiatives: he is a founding member of The Trust Project, a Board member of the Arthur F Burns Fellowship and he worked with Professor Anthony Feinstein of the University of Toronto to create the world’s first moral injury scale for journalists.
He is a Deputy President of the World Editors Forum, a past Chair of the Canadian Journalism Foundation and is the creator of World News Day. He sits on the advisory board of the digital media zone at Ryerson University, Toronto and on the international media council of the World Economic Forum.
In a career filled with achievements, it’s hard to believe that he once considered turning his back on his chosen profession.
“Between 2010 and 2012 (at the onset of digital disruption), I looked at what was going on in the news industry, and I thought: ‘I don’t belong in it any longer. I don’t recognise myself in it’. He attributes his decision to stay to a “moment of profound arrogance, decided that, no matter what I was experiencing, it was better to stay inside the business and change it toward my way of thinking” – which soon paid off, with his appointment as Editor in Chief of Canada’s largest daily.
And while the investigations continue – Secret Canada is a Freedom of Information project; Unfounded is an award-winning Globe and Mail project on how Canadian police handle sexual assault cases – Walmsley is still paying it forward, by fostering emerging talent.
“I think that bravest work done by those who are starting and it’s a fool’s errand for news editors to not give them that opportunity – but you give it to them with responsibility; with a sense of recognition, they don’t necessarily know everything, and may make mistakes, and you have to be there for them.”
Fostering emerging talent: advice for newsroom leaders
Journalism, believes Walmsley, is a vocation. “I do not think it can be taught; 80% is enthusiasm, 20% of it is teaching and experience, and making mistakes. But I would much rather hire an enthusiastic 17-year-old. I think editors have to do an assessment of their staff and recognise that investigative journalism is not for everyone – but to encourage those who have an appetite and interest, and determination.”
While actively encouraging emerging talent in the newsroom, Walmsley also believes in easing access to entry: “There also needs to be a change in the way we recruit; I think that we should be opening up institutions to people who are not coming from the right schools, or the right education. The right education for journalism is life – and there are many people who have lived a life and who have an ambition and a determination to make the world a better place.”