There are three words a reporter dreads to hear, especially while working on a good controversial story.
It’s when your interviewee decides he or she is being compromised with what they’re telling you and they ask to go “off the record.”
It means we can’t use what we’re being told. We are bound by the rules of journalism to lock it in the vault. And generally it’s the juicy stuff that people want to talk about “off the record.”
But there seems to be a recurring pattern in Whistler these days with people going off the record — this is a small town and people seem to be more and more hesitant to speak their minds. I know the Pique’s letters to the editor section would suggest otherwise, but on the really big stuff, people are staying mum.
The first time I really noticed this was during Whistler-Blackcomb’s proposed Peak 2 Peak gondola, the multi-million-dollar project designed to link Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain high across the sky.
It was, and still is, an interesting proposal. I believe W-B has yet to find a funding partner, which is why the project hasn’t moved past the proposal stage yet.
I called the usual suspects when the story broke. I went to the open house, which had a decent turnout of community members. But it was tough to get people to talk, aside from the usual gentle comments.
This, despite the fact that there were some concerns about the impact the gondola would have on view-scapes; there were worries that Whistler was moving in the Disneyland direction — how many more gimmicks did the resort need?
Getting someone to say that to me on the record was like pulling teeth.
Because we’re a one horse town and it’s like six degrees of separation. Everyone is connected to “the man” in some way — their wife works for them, they do business with Whistler-Blackcomb, they volunteer there. Why would they shoot themselves in the foot for a lousy three-line critical quote in Pique?
Trust me, I live here too. I understand.
But now there’s a new horse in town and the community is just as hesitant to speak their minds. Move over Whistler-Blackcomb — there’s more work, more contracts, more connections and more possibilities with the 2010 Olympic Organizing Committee.
Take the latest story on the grizzly bears in the Callaghan as an example.
This is a big story. It could change the future of the Callaghan Valley. As with any good story there are two compelling sides to it, from the small amount of information we have right now.
Further development in the Callaghan could impact the small population of grizzly bears there. Limiting development in the Callaghan could impact the viability and long-term sustainability of the Nordic Centre.
Will we be left with a white elephant living side by side with the grizzly bears? Can we build a sound financial business case at the Nordic Centre and still protect the grizzlies? That’s the $116 million question that has yet to be answered.
But while it’s controversial, I’ve noticed some community members are wary of stepping into the debate. Living in a town of 10,000, most of us are connected to the Olympic machine in some way, whether it’s getting business contracts, volunteering for the organization, working directly for VANOC. There’s money to be made, opportunities for the taking.
Voicing our opinions may not be in our best interests. It’s easier to go off the record, speak your mind and get a load off your chest but not voice your opinion publicly. There can be no repercussions, imagined or otherwise.
But that’s a dangerous position to be in.
Whistler is changing and it’s the community’s decision which way we go. People cannot be afraid to speak their minds.
Let me be clear. This is not an anti-gondola column, nor is it a comment on whether we should protect the grizzlies or move ahead with recreation trails, or do both. It is simply a call to get vocal, speak out, and stand up for what we believe in regardless of the consequences.
And I don’t just mean in interviews with Pique Newsmagazine. I mean when we’re given the chance to comment at public open houses, when we’re allowed to add feedback to the environmental assessments, when council holds a public hearing. Get it on the record. You never know who may be listening.
The alternative is if we don’t go on the record someone else will re-write our history book.
And though the off the record conversations can make my job more challenging, they are often the best conversations I have all day!