Some months after I left television, a lady tapped me on the chest and said, “Didn’t you used to be Doug Small?” She remembered the 1989 budget leak story. After 40 years in journalism, I think I can predict it will be the one story that will rate a line in my obituary. It’s certainly the only story that saw me arrested and sent to trial. To this day I can’t imagine not broadcasting that leak. It was my job, any reporter’s job.
I grew up on a farm at Gull Lake, Sask. and met my wife Brenda at the University of Saskatchewan. I had no ambition to become a farmer and wanted to get away from the wind and the chaff, so I went to Ottawa. I know. Metaphorically that makes no sense.
I joined The Canadian Press on Parliament Hill in 1970, later becoming chief political writer, and then bureau chief for Global TV.
Budget day is always very busy on Parliament Hill. Everyone is keyed up. Preparations take hours. On April 26, 1989, the day before then-Finance Minister Michael Wilson was to deliver his budget, I took a telephone call in the newsroom. The stranger on the phone said he had details of what was in Wilson’s documents and offered to sell the information. I told him we didn’t pay for news.
The man on the phone was John Appleby. He was a defence department clerk with a family friend who worked at a recycling plant in Hull, Que. Several copies of the 1989 Budget In Brief had been thrown away as misprints, and Appleby’s friend retrieved a copy.
Budget secrecy was so rigid then it was considered the honourable thing for a finance minister to resign if he could not keep his accounts confidential. The 1989 budget was significant. It closed military bases, abandoned a nuclear submarine program, cut VIA Rail funding, foreign aid and childcare credits. Taxes were raised $9 billion, and cabinet missed its deficit targets.
Appleby called me back: “I’ll give it to you,” he said. What motivated him? He struck me as an affable guy uninterested in any high aspiration to public service. Maybe it was a moment in the sun.
Brenda and I had planned to go out for dinner that evening. Instead I arranged to meet Appleby in a gas station parking lot. “I think I’ve got something you want,” he said, and handed me the Budget In Brief through the car window. He’d even put it in a brown envelope. I asked Brenda to read it out loud as I sped back to the studio.
I ran into the National Press Building and yelled at the control room to get me on the air: “I’ve got the budget story!” On air, I held up the document, said the leak might cost Minister Wilson his job, and read the Budget In Brief. It was 6:55 pm. The effect was immediate.
Overnight the dollar fell a half-cent. Wilson rushed to introduce his budget that evening, a day early, and a Telepoll Research survey found 56 percent of Canadians opposed the tax increases Wilson planned.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was furious. “A crime has been committed!” he said. An aide told me later Mulroney was in a rage over the leak. Public servants take their cue from the man at the top. Later at my trial the Department of Justice said it thought of charging me under the Official Secrets Act. One assistant deputy minister of justice admitted to personally contacting Crown attorneys before charges were laid. It turned out the RCMP spent 2,200 hours investigating the budget leak.
A month after the leak I was arrested and charged with possession of stolen property. They charged Appleby, too, and his friend at the recycling plant, and others. It cast a chill on reporters. In turning the police on me, the message was clear: Anyone interested in following those kinds of stories could expect to face consequences.
On July 15, 1990 the charges were thrown out. A Provincial Court judge described my actions as “exemplary” and called the case an abuse of process. Later I encountered Finance Minister Wilson in a scrum. I asked the first question. He stood there glaring, and said, “Next?” None of the other reporters said a word, God bless them. I asked another question and Wilson, confronted by this group of silent, unsmiling reporters, finally answered. We never spoke again.
John Appleby died of a heart attack in 1991. The leak and the subsequent charges would’ve added stress to his life. At one point Legal Aid put a $12,500 lien on his house. I went to the funeral.
My legal fees cost Global $100,000. When I left the network in 1992, the budget leak already seemed in the distant past. The company offered me a transfer to Toronto but I declined. I was 45 and wanted to get on with my life.
I never regretted the story. My whole life was journalism, and it seemed obvious what my duty was. I can’t imagine anyone in similar circumstances not acting as I did. Once leaked, confidential budget information demands the widest possible dissemination to neutralize any investment advantage anyone with access to that information would have. Whether it irritates officialdom is no business of mine.
Somebody asked me the other day if I ever wished I’d been appointed to the Senate as other journalists have. No, I replied. I always hoped I did my job well enough that no one would have asked.
(Editor’s note: the author is a retired newsman, formerly with Global TV and The Canadian Press. He remains the only Parliament Hill reporter ever to be charged with a crime for reporting a story).