Blog by John Miller

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The real story

Why do Canada's news media fall so easily for the political spin-doctoring being dispensed by the Prime Minister's Office? It's almost as if Stephen Harper can seize the news agenda these days by simply dragging a mildly odiforous and vaguely crimson herring across the path of reporters. Away they go.

One of my previous research projects examined how easily the media lapped up a campaign the PMO orchestrated for federal security officials to put an alarmist political spin on a series of terrorism arrests. In the case of the so-called Toronto-18, I found that Canada's biggest newspapers abandoned their own standards and granted those sources wholesale anonymity, with no attempt to even try to  corroborate anything they said. Many of the dire predictions proved to be exaggerated.

Now, with Harper's Conservatives pinned down by a scandal in the Senate, we have proof that the Prime Minister is using his office to try to turn the tables on one of his tormenters, Justin Trudeau. The Liberal leader has spent the last week defending himself against charges he abused his Parliamentary privileges by charging charities speaking fees of up to $20,000.

Thanks to some courageous journalism by an unlikely source -- the Barrie Advance -- we can now see just how far the Prime Minister's Office will go to sling mud. (I say "courageous" only in the present context of the media tending to act more as lapdogs than watchdos; it used to be the way I thought any newsroom worth its salt should work. And I say "unlikely source" because we don't often depend on small community newspapers to show national networks the proper way to deal with high-level political sources who have something to gain.)

It all started last Monday when a rather clueless PMO communications officer, Erica Meekes, phoned Lori Martin, the editor of The Advance. That had never happened before. What was up? Was the PM planning a visit to Barrie? Were the feds announcing a major spending project for the area? No, Meekes said she had details of a local engagement that had paid Justin Trudeau a $10,000 fee, but left Georgian College with a $4,118 shortfall. All the newspaper had to do was attribute the information to a "source," and not the Prime Minister's Office.

Martin, who evidently learned a lot at journalism school, said she'd have to see the information before she agreed to anything. Her account of what happened appears here on J-Source.

So Meekes sent the information via email, using these words: “As a follow-up to the growing controversy over the weekend on Justin Trudeau charging charities for his speaking services, I have enclosed further materials that demonstrate the scope of this practice, cost on the organizations, and in many cases, poor outcomes and large deficits as a result of his speaking tour. As discussed, these materials are provided to you on background, and should be attributed to a ‘source.’”

The material included invoices, a promotional poster and an accommodation receipt for the Toronto Four Seasons Hotel. Amazingly, Meekes added a zinger that demonstrates the zeal that Harper's office staff seems to be bringing to the job of smearing a political rival: “To be fair, there is an in-house yoga studio at the Four Seasons!”

To Martin, the real story was not the revelation about Trudeau, but the dirty hands of the PMO trying to manipulate the media under the cover of anonymity. She published the real story, and good for her. Other media treated this story differently, as this blog from the Toronto Star's Susan Delacourt demonstrates. I think they missed the boat.

The PMO made two dreadful mistakes. One grew out of arrogance. Meekes seemed to think the PMO would be protected just by asking, not realizing that journalists are supposed to negotiate such deals, and use of anonymity or deception is only a last resort. There was no need for negotiation. Second, Trudeau's speech for Georgian College was in 2007, when Trudeau was a private citizen. While there's a legitimate question about whether a member of Parliament should charge speaking fees, no one questions the right of a private citizen registered with a speaker's bureau to do the same. Trudeau wasn't elected to Parliament for Papineau riding until fall, 2008. There was no news here.

But consider this: Does it make you comfortable knowing our Prime Minister employs such nincompoops and encourages them to stoop so low in order to get back at his political enemies?

What happened here adds some credence to Liberals who see Conservative hands behind the whole controversy about Trudeau's speaking fees.

The controversy erupted after the Grace Foundation, a New Brunswick charity that funds a seniors’ home, complained it paid Trudeau $20,000 to speak at a 2012 event that aimed to raise $300,000, but ended up losing money.

The Globe and Mail reported that the charity’s board includes Judith Baxter, who has ties to the Conservatives. She was appointed by the Conservatives as a trustee of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and has posted a photograph of a visit to the PMO. Baxter’s husband sits on the constituency association of local Conservative MP Rob Moore.

Asked to comment by the Globe, PMO spokeswoman Julie Vaux said: “You have to question why Justin Trudeau ever thought it was appropriate for a sitting member of Parliament to charge tens of thousands of dollars to non-profit groups. Most parliamentarians raise money for charity, not from charities.”

For the record, between 2006 and 2009, Trudeau earned $1.3 million for public speaking engagements. He revealed that income during his campaign for the Liberal leadership and said he’d stopped accepting paid public speaking engagements after throwing his hat into the ring.

As scandals go, this pales beside the widespread expenses scandal that has ensnared two of Harper's high-profile Senate appointments, former broadcasters Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

Good for the Barrie Advance for standing up for good journalism.