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Is the media fueling Canada’s foreign interference scandal?

Our national media outlets have been supplying endless oxygen to the political drama, helping Poilievre pummel Trudeau in perhaps the worst beating he’s received as prime minister.

Former governor general and special rapporteur on foreign election interference David Johnston.
Former governor general and special rapporteur on foreign election interference David Johnston.

There is sure a lot of sound and fury going on, but is the ‘Chinese meddling in our elections’ scandal really worth all the airtime it is devouring?

Going out on a limb, I would argue that we have plenty of channels for spotlighting any wrongdoing (including public hearings, already announced) and for punishing any wrongdoers, including expelling foreign diplomats (already done).

But that hasn’t stopped Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre from making over-the-top accusations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau collaborated with a hostile foreign power against the interests of Canadians. Poilievre’s treason allegation is bereft of evidence. Still, unsurprisingly, he’s romping about furiously, hoping to ride this runaway horse to victory in the next election.

The media’s role is more interesting. Our national media outlets have been supplying endless oxygen to the political drama, helping Poilievre pummel Trudeau in perhaps the worst beating he’s received as prime minister.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with that — the media’s job is to hold the powerful to account, especially the prime minister. But the intense coverage might mislead the public into believing there is clearly a smoking gun here.

David Johnston, the government’s special rapporteur on the file, has faced relentless media criticism for advising the government to deal with the matter by holding public hearings — rather than launching a full public inquiry.

What jumps out is how this fierce media response compares to the mild media reaction in 2008, when this very same David Johnston advised an earlier government to limit the scope of an inquiry into a matter where the gunsmoke was thick and piping hot.

That case, of course, involved allegations that former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had secretly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from a foreign arms dealer with whom he had dealings with as prime minister.

The lurid revelations ignited a raging scandal with an aroused public demanding to learn more. Since there was no way to put a lid on it, then Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Johnston to advise on the scope of the inevitable inquiry.

Johnston did do his best to put a lid on things, advising Harper that the inquiry should not be allowed to investigate the very crux of the matter: whether the payments were connected to the $1.8 billion purchase of Airbus jets by Air Canada while Mulroney was prime minister — as alleged by investigative reporter Stevie Cameron in her 1994 book “On the Take.”

Mulroney had vehemently denied the bribery allegation, and even managed to win a $2.1 million settlement from Ottawa after the RCMP investigated him — and exonerated him — in connection with the Airbus contract.

But by 2008, that exoneration was deeply in doubt due to fresh evidence that Mulroney had in fact received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash — delivered in suitcases to hotel rooms — from Karlheinz Schreiber, the arms dealer with whom he was accused of dealing on Airbus.

It sure as hell looked suspicious. And Johnston’s advice — that the inquiry steer clear of probing any connections to Airbus — was ridiculous, but helpful to Conservatives hoping to cool down the scandal. Harper later appointed Johnston governor-general.

The public inquiry, led by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant, ultimately concluded that Mulroney had received the money from Schreiber — indeed, a cringing Mulroney admitted so himself.

But, constrained by the limited mandate recommended by Johnston, the inquiry didn’t investigate what the payments were for. The possibility that a sitting prime minister had accepted bribes (to be delivered after he left office) was never probed. End of story.

The media is free to investigate whatever it wants and as aggressively as it wants. And I guess it’s not surprising that media outlets — owned by wealthy conservatives — are more interested in advancing scandals that negatively impact governments they do not like.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that our major national media outlets are simply trying to sell newspapers or that they do not have a dog in this fight.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

 

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