There must be an awful lot of red faces at the Sun newspapers and Sun News Network these days. And they should be ashamed of themselves.
On the eve of the federal election, Sun editors and producers ran a story that claimed Michael Ignatieff helped plan the Iraq war. They also seriously entertained the idea of publishing a picture showing the Liberal leader in uniform in Kuwait, wearing U.S. camouflage gear, holding an automatic weapon and wearing a goofy Santa Claus hat. The story and photo (which was not of Ignatieff) were "leaked" to the network by, ahem, the Conservative election campaign.
A few days later, they ran another story, quoting an anonymous former policeman who said he found Jack Layton naked in a massage parlour in 1996.
Something sure stinks big here.
At the very least, the episode shows that the Harper Conservatives spent considerable resources trying to dig up dirt on their election rivals, and managed in Ignatieff's case to feed some rather dubious and unverified information to the one news organization they knew would be politically predisposed to publish it. Here is how they managed to pull it off.
The Sun chain published a story on April 20 with the headline, "Ignatieff linked to Iraq war planning." It reported that in his political career Ignatieff has always said he was on the sidelines of the Iraq war, but "new information reveals he was on the front lines of pre-invasion planning" when he worked at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights. It did not publish the grainy picture leaked to accompany the story simply because some wary editors were still trying to prove that the soldier portrayed was Ignatieff. It wasn't. They decided not to print it. But, as we shall see, they published it anyway.
The story by Brian Lilley, who is a prime-time host on Sun News Network, quotes an American military official who described the work the military did with the Carr Center and who named Ignatieff as one of its employees. The article said Ignatieff's work with the organization and his writings helped push the U.S. government's message that the war was necessary.
Lilley did not bother to get any comment from Ignatieff before the story was published -- an unpardonable journalistic sin, given where the information came from. Ignatieff issued a categorical denial the next day.
We now know, thanks to an extraordinary Sun editorial by Pierre Karl Péladeau, president and CEO of Quebecor Media, that the source who supplied the information was Patrick Muttart, former deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a strategist in the 2006 campaign that brought Harper to power. He currently works for Mercury LLC, a public affairs and political strategy firm based in Chicago and Washington. He was also working for the Conservative campaign in this election.
Péladeau commandeered space in all his papers on April 27 to blow Muttart as the Sun's source for the story and the photo and to accuse the Conservatives of trying to damage the credibility of both Ingatieff and the Sun News Network (as if that wasn't damaged enough by the network's own actions). The boss outlined the steps his editors took to try to verify that the low-rez photo was actually not of Ignatieff. Amazingly, the very picture that his editors refused to publish was used to illustrate Péladeau's come-clean editorial.
The Conservative campaign confirmed that the photo and other information it had "acquired during Internet research" was supplied to Sun Media. Muttart, it promised, would have no further involvement with the election effort.
Péladeau did not apologize for running the bogus story, but provided details of how closely Harper's henchmen work together to plant politically damaging stories in the media.
He said that Kory Teneycke, vice-president of Sun News and Harper's former communications director, was contacted by Muttart, who said he had a report prepared by a "U.S. source" outlining the activities and whereabouts of Ignatieff during the time leading up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003.
Péladeau said Teneycke and the news team were "excited" to receive the information that contradicted Ignatieff's denial that he played any role in the Iraq war. Muttart, he said, "knew that we were planning to go to press with it."
The photo, taken in 2002, turned out to be of an unidentified soldier, not Ignatieff. Sun Media, Péladeau said, was upset with what he called this "troubling episode." He added: "Bad information is an occupational hazard in this business, and fortunately our in-house protocols prevented the unthinkable. But it is the ultimate source of this material that is profoundly troubling to me, my colleagues and, I think, should be of concern to all Canadians."
Then he added the incredibly self-serving comment: "If any proof is needed to dispel the false yet still prevalent notion that Sun Media and the Sun News Network are the official organs of the Conservative Party of Canada, I offer this unfortunate episode as Exhibit A."
What Péladeau said is pure bullshit. "Our in-house protocols" allowed his newspapers to publish a bogus story without checking, and they refused to apologize for it later. The same protocols allowed his newsrooms to be hoodwinked for days by a ridiculous photograph leaked by a source who had something political to gain by it. Then they published it anyway.
Following Péladeau's attempt to ride his journalistic high horse, the Tory campaign hit back, saying it had "made clear to Sun Media that the identity in the photograph could not be verified and that our own efforts to verify the photograph had been exhausted."
Mercury, the firm where Muttart works, hit back at Peladeau too, saying at no time did Muttart "mislead, or intend to mislead Sun Media."
The firm said that damaging the credibility of Sun Media was the farthest thing from Muttart's mind because he was actually working for them at the time. Mercury was hired by Quebecor to help Sun TV News with its pre-license branding and positioning, and Muttart himself was the "original source" for the network's "hard news" and "straight talk" branding language. The firm noted it continues to provide pro-bono work for the network, giving feedback on graphics and on-air promotional spots.
God, isn't this all a little too hand-in-glove for you? It is for me. I am shocked that Sun executives would be taken in by such a patently obvious put-up job. It makes you think they really are journalistic amateurs, totally unprepared for prime time. I am doubly dismayed that the Sun has such close ties with the Conservatives, and its top people will wet their pants for any leak, no matter how improbable. (No one has fessed up about how they got the Layton story, but that smear certainly takes Canadian political reporting to a new low. I wouldn't be surprised if the Conservatives were behind that one too.)
It turns out that the Conservatives may have known before they leaked it that the man in the photograph was not Ignatieff.
A blogger known as The Blog Quebecois has posted that he found the photo on the internet in 2009 and put a playful caption on it, identifying the soldier as Ignatieff. Read his confession here. A year ago, the blogger said, he was contacted by someone identifying herself as "a biographical researcher" preparing a "narrative" on the Liberal leader. Is the photo authentic, she asked. The blogger said he replied: "No, it was just some random photo that I came across in a Google image search. The guy in the middle looked like Iggy, so I decided to have some fun with it." The blogger now believes the researcher was working for the Conservatives.
What a revealing story, huh? Would you want to vote for a party that would try to mislead voters with such a dirty trick just before voting day? Would you place any credibility in a network and a chain of newspapers that would play so fast and loose with the truth?
You'll love this: When Sun News Network's viewership numbers came in after its first week on air, the Canadian Press reported correctly that "Despite launching in the middle of a federal election, the new Sun News Network has so far had little impact on the Canadian news scene." It said only 4,000 Canadians were watching it in prime time. The Sun newspapers, however, headlined their story: "Sun News viewer stats shine bright." They deliberately chose statistics and ignored others to try to hoodwink us into thinking the network was way more popular than it was. Compare the Canadian Press version to the Sun account and judge for yourself.