“It is fair to say that the Canadian corporate press fails to function as independent critics who rattle their cage or ask hard questions. They appear to function, rather, as public relations experts and spin doctors promoting opinions to favour the state’s agenda or relieve pressure during a crisis.”
While much of the nation’s focus is wrapped up in the minutiae of the burgeoning political crisis around SNC Lavalin and alleged political interference in criminal justice, few people seem to be discussing revelations from this case about the state of press freedom in Canada. This issue was made public in shocking comments attributed to Katie Telford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff. The alleged comments were revealed in Jody Wilson-Raybould’s wide-ranging 3 hour testimony before a House of Commons Justice committee. What we learned from that attributed statement was the cavalier attitude Canadian politicians seem to hold toward the freedom and independence of corporate media in Canada.
Telford reportedly told Wilson-Raybould that if she was nervous about being attacked over a decision not to prosecute SNC-Lavalin (as she was being lobbied to do) the government could commission editorials to support her decision. Telford specifically said she could “lineup all kinds of people to write op-eds” to defend her for permitting the Quebec based engineering contractor to avoid bribery charges. This week we’ve learned that the alleged bribery involved spending tens of thousands on parties and sexual services while entertaining the son of Libya’s former dictator.
In a Toronto Star editorial, Public Editor Kathy English rejected this characterization. English shrugged off the implication but goes on to admit “We well know that political interests could indeed encourage supporters and cronies to submit carefully written op-eds in support of a partisan position, particularly on controversial issues”. Short of giving evidence that there is no interference in Canada’s press, English simply asserts that the media is safe from such interference because editors closely vet contributors for perceived or real bias.
English continues, “The fact that they (Telford) are seemingly so cynical they would tell people they can do that, does not mean they can.” Of course English is going to be defensive, editorial independence is a critical component of ensuring public confidence in any media project. Telford’s alleged statements are a shocking indication that the Trudeau government has come to regard the nation’s broadsheet editorials and news-opinion columns as a de-facto public relations arm of the state.
I have personal experience that reinforces this. One year ago, in March 2018, I was employed at a press freedom organization, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The organization’s mandate is to assist journalists under threat at home and abroad and to monitor, report on and defend press freedom. During my time we had issued statements condemning press freedom violations in countries like Iran, Turkey and China. Frequently, these statements also included calls to action directed to Canadian federal politicians.
In March 2018, the organization was going through a financial crisis. CJFE’s board and membership was comprised of key figures in Canadian media, finance and business. The organization’s staff complement was reduced from a total of 7 full and part time employees down to two remaining staff. I was one of the individuals remaining in my role as communications coordinator. In addition to myself, there was an acting Executive Director who had previously worked as the organization’s campaigns coordinator.
On March 30, 2018 a group of Palestinian demonstrators approached the border between Gaza and Israel. Waving flags and shouting slogans the ‘march of return’ was a symbolic march on a fortified, heavily militarized border fully under Israeli military control. The demonstrators were unarmed and obviously civilians. They were also boisterous. They burned tires to confound Israeli army thermal optics, some threw rocks and in a few cases, burning bottles and other improvised incendiary devices at Israeli troops across the border. One soldier was shot in the six weeks of protests. This was undeniably civil disorder, but did not differ substantively from any demonstration you might expect to see in the streets of Paris during the recent rioting by the Gilets Jaune.
Marchers in the ‘Great March of Return’ were met with a hail of tear-gas, grenade, small-arms and sniper fire from Israeli troops. Hundreds were wounded, many crippled for life as Israeli snipers shot at extremities, particularly the knees of demonstrators. Dozens were killed. Among those wounded in the first two days of the march were two Palestinian journalists. For its own part, the international media chose to describe the indiscriminate shootings of civilian demonstrators as “clashes”.
The final video captured by Yasser Murtaja, a Palestinian journalist killed by an Israeli army sniper during the 2018 demonstrations.
As we did in many such cases, CJFE’s remaining staff drafted and reviewed a statement condemning the indiscriminate shootings of demonstrators and the woundings of journalists. This statement was addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister for International Affairs, Chrystia Freeland. It was also the second time the organization had written a letter protesting Israel’s treatment of journalists since 2014.
We published that statement on our website and sent it as a release to the various media outlets on our distribution list. As we sent it, I remarked to my co-worker “I don’t think we’ll be hearing much back about this. It’s frankly too much of a prickly issue, nobody will want to touch it.”
A weekend passed and I returned to work on a Monday. I was immediately pulled into a meeting by the acting executive director who informed me that there had been significant developments over the last 24 hours: he had resigned, the president of the CJFE board (Alice Klein of Now Magazine) had resigned and half the organization’s Gala committee had resigned as well. The Gala committee was responsible for coordinating the one event which raised the bulk of the organization’s annual funding.
Upon further probing, I discovered that Carol Off, Host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio program As it Happens had withdrawn her support (and by relation, CBC’s support) from the organization’s 2018 Gala which was just beginning to be planned. She had done so over the ‘controversial’ statement we had released condemning the killings and woundings of civilians and Journalists in Gaza.
Another CBC personality, Robyn Urback– formerly of the National Post, now an editor of CBC’s opinions page, had launched a vicious twitter campaign targeting the organization as well. Within a week the organization was gutted, effectively shuttered and I was unemployed after being widely castigated in print and social media, for my role in drafting the piece.
In an attempt to placate its critics, CJFE wrote a watered-down version of the statement we shared, which excluded specific references to factual occurrences, casualty counts, and omitted any call to action from the Federal Government. They did this after two of the wounded journalists succumbed to their injuries and became fatalities. I wrote up my thoughts in a statement and posted them on Facebook. That post was shared more than 2,000 times.
I’ve been advised that I can expect to be terminated from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression this coming Tuesday…
It wasn’t until I read Telford’s attributed comments in JWR’s testimony on the SNC Lavalin scandal that I realized the enormity of what had happened at CJFE. Powerful individuals employed by the state broadcaster in a purportedly democratic country objected to a true and justified statement of advocacy directed to federal politicians by staff at an independent nongovernmental organization which was well within that organization’s mandate. Those powerful individuals used their influence and status as public employees to destroy the organization which produced the statement and push the staff members who wrote and vetted that statement into unemployment. Briarpatch magazine listed this as the top incidence from 2018 in which “Canadian journalists serve(d) the ruling class”
On February 27 2019, approximately one week ago, a United Nations committee investigating the killings and woundings at the March of Return concluded that war crimes may have been committed and that Israeli forces indiscriminately fired on protestors, journalists and medical providers with targeted intent and without justification. CJFE was destroyed as an institution by employees of the state broadcaster, because its staff dared to speak truth to power and the absolute veracity of that truth has been borne out by the world’s highest investigative body. If that ain’t vindication, I don’t know what is.
A full month passed after the release of the original CJFE statement. Under mounting pressure, Justin Trudeau finally issued a statement of his own. It took the wounding of a Canadian doctor, Dr. Tarek Loubani, to goad the government into action.
“Canada deplores and is gravely concerned by the violence in the Gaza Strip that has led to a tragic loss of life and injured countless people. We are appalled that Dr. Tarek Loubani, a Canadian citizen, is among the wounded — along with so many unarmed people, including civilians, members of the media, first responders, and children,” Justin Trudeau, May 17 2018
The passage of a month from the beginning of the crisis, to the point where it became a political liability, coupled with the strong backlash from within Canada’s institutional media toward a nonprofit shows complicity by the elite classes of Canada’s media, particularly it state broadcaster, in shielding Federal politicians from criticism, just as Telford’s statement indicated. CJFE’s crime was daring to speak the truth before the truth was ready to be heard.
Also worthy of note, one particularly well-worded defence of the CJFE statement, written by veteran columnist Neil Macdonald, was contested by a member of the public in a complaint to Esther Enkin, CBC’s ombudsman. In a response entitled ‘managing opinion’ Enkin refuted many of the complaints in the letter, but urged CBC management to “find other columnists to write about this contentious topic.”
Robyn Urback, one of the journalists who rushed to condemn the CJFE statement (and to mock its author) is actually an editor of the CBC opinion page where Macdonald’s op-ed was published. This means that the CBC Ombudsman, supposedly an independent civil servant, directed her statement to an employee of the state broadcaster, who actively participated in the targeting of the involved nonprofit over its advocacy work. If you want a conflict of interest, there it is.
Now I don’t have evidence that a federal politician got on the phone with Carol Off or Robyn Urback, or to someone above them in the corporate hierarchy at the state broadcaster and induced them to take action against a small, struggling nonprofit which dared to tell the truth. I wouldn’t dare to suggest that and you shouldn’t dare to suspect that. What we do have now, courtesy of Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is a first-hand look at the way in which Federal politicians regard the press as a vehicle for their agenda.
Based on all evidence it is fair to say that much of the Canadian corporate press fails to function as independent critics who rattle their cage or ask hard questions, rather, they often function as public relations experts and spin doctors who can call attention to issues and opinions the state wants highlighted or can act to relieve pressure during a crisis or scandal.
Off had to gall to claim that she had left CJFE to avoid a conflict of interest in her reportage on the Gaza crisis. She had been engaged in reportage on countries like China, Iran and Syria which had also been the target of the organization’s advocacy for years, and, fully aware of CJFE’s activities, had expressed no concern about potential conflicts of interest during that time. Off had also previously quit the CJFE Gala committee and effectively helped to withdraw CBC’s support for the organization when the organization launched a campaign against the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 (formerly Bill C-51). That proposed law was supported by both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Government of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. There is clear evidence that not once, but twice, a senior public employee at Canada’s state broadcaster used a financial handle to try to influence the priorities of a small, purportedly independent nonprofit. This happened, both times, when the organization was financially vulnerable and while engaged in advocating for political action on an issue within its mandate, at the federal level.
It is also worthy of note that Off’s As it Happens and CBC returned to CJFE as funders for the 2018 Gala after kicking up such a furor. Having cowed the organization into silence and destroyed its credibility, they seemed perfectly content to return to owning it. You break it, you bought it, I guess?
Viewing these facts through the lens of what Telford allegedly suggested to Raybould reveals a grim reality: political interference in Canada’s media is commonplace. Federal politicians have suggested to each other as a matter of course that they can just pick up the phone to news-opinion editors or senior commentators in order to spin a crisis or blunt criticism, and frankly, that’s fucked.
“I wouldn’t dare to suggest that and you shouldn’t dare to suspect that. What we do have now, courtesy of Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is a first-hand look at the way in which Federal politicians regard the press as a vehicle for their agenda.”
Consider also that the Conservative official opposition have alleged that Trudeau’s $600 million in federal funding to Canada’s struggling media sector amounted to a bribe. Why might politicians be cavalier about their ability to spin editorial coverage at the same time as they distribute funds from federal coffers into the hands of struggling media outlets? None of these revelations does favours for public confidence in democratic institutions and we’re delusional frankly, if we believe that any political party who stands to gain over the scandal plagued Liberals, will be less corrupt. The change required to address this rot at the heart of our world-order needs to be more radical and longer-lasting.
It is my belief that for the first time in this country, we are getting a grim and personal look at the corruption which goes on just behind the curtain. The reality is, as always, the problem goes much deeper than most people realize. Why is much of the CBC news desk working to manufacture consent for a coup in Venezuela? This blog, admittedly written with an agenda, actually names The Current, which is another of CJFE’s CBC funders. Why is CBC scaremongering about a few thousand twitter bots supposedly poised to destroy our democracy? Why is the Minister of Democratic Institutions insisting that Facebook and Twitter should be subject to federal censorship? Why are we being lectured by top civil servants on the need to regulate social media at a time where online political discourse from both the left and right has become effectively the most free and revolutionary, if perhaps also off-putting, civil discourse in history? We’re joking about guillotines. Of course the elites want to dial it back.
On the advocacy frontier, why haven’t large progressive political nonprofits such as the officially nonpartisan Leadnow (whose ‘vote together’ campaign helped get Trudeau’s Liberals elected) moved ahead of all major political parties in demanding action on prominent political or social justice issues which no party has espoused as a platform? I’m referring to things like Canada’s role in the unfolding Venezuela coup, the Ukraine war or the human rights disaster in Palestine. Where are the petitions on these issues? As New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh finally seems to be delineating his position on Venezuela, I’m predicting that we may see a petition or campaign pop up on Leadnow’s website soon.
Why do advocates need to wait for the nod from politicians or the press, though? I would personally say this is because swift political reprisals and institutional destabilizations, as we saw in the case of CJFE, have infected Canada’s political advocacy class with cowardice. Take it from me, being unemployed and being blacklisted or frozen out of your chosen industry because you told the truth, sucks.
There is of course, a range of “allowable” dissent, but anything that cuts too close to the truth or threatens the multifarious interests of the political and financial elites, must, at all costs, be avoided. Social scientists call this the “Overton window“, a view of ‘acceptable truths and opinions’. The movement of that window has been, until now, firmly under the control of Canada’s media elite who, as we are discovering through this wonderful peephole in Raybould’s testimony, are busily implementing the agenda of federal politicians and ostensibly, the hidden interests that control them.
Most members of the public do seem to understand that pundits, opinionators and editorials are not to be trusted or embraced in their entirety. Still, a great deal of the cognitive capacity of Canadian society, particularly that capacity for original and insightful political thought is offloaded as an heuristic on pundits and parties, delegated with wilfull blindness and reckless abandon to the same corrupt individuals that we’re now learning have been helping to spin the government’s will in the nation’s broadsheets and broadcasts.
In some countries, evidence that the state broadcaster, or really, any major media outlet, has been lying, interfering in civil society, shaping popular narratives and doing public relations work for corrupt politicians might be a fertile enough ground to build a revolution on. In Canada, we still seem too complacent to challenge this hierarchy, but perhaps, things may change. It will take everyone working together to overthrow and eviscerate state and corporate media control, evict corrupt politicians and build an equitable society on a foundation of truth and transparency. And right now I’m not holding out hope, but when you’re ready to revolt– we’ll be there with the scaffold.