David Asper took our breath away
In this cynical age it's exceedingly rare to read anything in the newspaper that's so startling it takes your breath away.
Yet that's exactly what happened when we picked up the National Post on Wednesday, March 26, 2008.
There it sat. A front page editorial.
"Fight we shall" it declared.
"Scandals come and go: Front-page controversies that convulse Ottawa for weeks, or even months, often fade into obscurity after just a few years."
"So it was with Shawinigate, the scandal surrounding Jean Chretien's efforts to help secure a 1997 loan for the Auberge Grand-Mere, a Shawinigan hotel located adjacent to a golf course in which he had once held an ownership stake. As a result of diligent reporting by a former National Post reporter, Andrew McIntosh, Canadians learned that Mr. Chretien while he was prime minister, had phoned the president of the Business Development Bank of Canada in support of the hotel owner's otherwise questionable loan application."
Blah blah blah. The long-winded editorial explained that an Ontario court had ordered the National Post to hand over to the RCMP an envelope used to deliver forged Shawinigate documents to reporter McIntosh. The police want to test the envelope for fingerprint and DNA evidence to identify the forger. The Post is going to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to hide its source. (For the record, the Post never did any story based on the phony documents.)
"The parent company of the National Post, Canwest, has supported the protection of its journalists in several important cases recently. It has done so because of an unwavering commitment to its journalists, to readers who have the right to a free and vigourous press, and to a society that justifiably expects of Canwest...the provision of a credible check and balance against what might otherwise go on unaccountably in the shadows."
The Post is rewriting history, playing the victim and relying on the public's short memory for this malarky to succeed.
The newspaper---under the ownership of Conrad Black---did pursue Shawinigate vigourously.
But once the Aspers bought into the Post, they deep-sixed the investigation so fast and so deep that the paper's journalists screamed in outrage.
To see David Asper, who appears on the Post masthead as "chairman", tie himself in knots defending journalistic integrity is nauseating.
Seven years ago this month, Asper set the tone on the Shawinigate coverage his family wanted to see with a column titled To Chretien's accusers: Put up or shut up (David Asper, chairman of the publications committee of CanWest Global Communications Corp., March 7, 2001, National Post ).
Asper fils declared that the Post's reporting on Jean Chretien was too aggressive.
"This newspaper and others across Canada, including other forms of media, have had a remarkably unfair 'go' at the Prime Minister over alleged financial misdealings in Shawinigan."
"The media's coverage of the accusations against the Prime Minister has crossed a line that delineates solid investigative reporting from adjective-driven innuendo."
"The time is now long overdue for Mr. Chretien's accusers to 'put up or shut up' with facts and hard evidence."
"It's a sad comment that our national political affairs have been hijacked by mischievous, unfair scandal-mongering as opposed to things that really count."
When The National Post's editors and columnists defended their Shawinigate coverage, Izzy Asper was incensed at the assault on his baby boy and threatened Conrad Black that if it continued he would walk away from the deal to buy the Post.
"I have waited several days since the National Post's outrageous handling of and savage attack on David Asper's opinion piece on the Chretien/Shawinigan Hotel harangue. I had hoped the passage of time would soften my instinctive reaction. in fact, it hasn't and my concern for a troubled relationship has heightened.
"Neither you nor I would profit from a public battle which would give great pleasure to those who wish neither of us well, but regretably you have chosen to publicly throw a gauntlet, administer a public slap in the face which has both embarassed, humiliated, and held up to ridicule and dishonour both my family and my company." he wrote Conrad Black.
Black responded immediately:
"The facts are that Barbara, Peter Atkinson, Gordon Fisher, Ken Whyte, and I all warned David that writing in these newspapers accusing each of them of injustice to Chretien would produce great resentment amongst the journalists and would appear to any one in that country still interested in an independent press to be servile toadying to a rather corrupt regime in what is now more or less a one party state."
In a later letter he was more direct:
"I am aware that considerable pressure has been exerted by David Asper on National Post editorial personnel on behalf of Chretien. ..I am sending an exceptionally worded memo to the most senior editorial people at the National Post saying that should they receive any request from representatives of affiliated companies for material alteration of editorial content of the newspaper, the inquiring parties should be referred to Peter Atkinson or myself. The fact is that given the malicious cowardly ignorant dishonest and illegal assault of Chretien upon me I have shown great forebearance in encouraging as tolerant a tone in our coverage of him as I have. I have undertaken to make it difficult for reasonable third parties to critize the fairness of the National Post's coverage of political matters. I will do that, but not more than that. Perhaps David Asper would like to call me about this at some time."
"The general line taken by the PMO and competing newsmen in the press gallery is that your presence as a shareholder at the post ensures that any criticism of the government is about to subside."
He didn't know how prophetic he would be.
Once the Aspers took complete control of the National Post, Shawnigate coverage evaporated.
In June, 2002, the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, Russell Mills was fired by David Asper, for publishing an editorial, without Asper's approval, calling for Chretien's resignation over Shawinigate.
Mills later spilled the beans. CanWest "offered me a financial settlement that was only available if I would portray my departure as a retirement and sign an agreement not to discuss the situation. I refused. I said that I had not spent 30 years in journalism attempting to pursue the truth in order to leave on a lie."
In July, 2002, Southam News national affairs columnist Lawrence Martin, who had doggedly pursed Shawinigate scandal, was told he was doing superlative work--- and his contract was not being renewed.
None of these dates made it into the timeline the Post carried beside their "Fight we shall" editorial. They didn't fit the historical revisionism of the Aspers' battle for truth and justice in the Chretien years.
The full truth of Shawinigate wasn't unveilled until February, 2004, when a judge of the Quebec Superior Court issued his ruling in Francois Beaudoin v Development Bank of Canada, a lawsuit at the heart of the scandal.
Beaudoin was the head of the federal Business Development Bank when Jean Chretien's friend, Yvon Duhaime, the owner of the Grand-Mere inn, asked for a loan. Beaudoin said no because he considered Duhaime a bad risk.
Chretien went to Beaudoin several times and tried to change his mind. But still no loan. Later eyebrows would be raised when it was revealed that Chretien was owed some money which he would only collect if the Inn was sold.
A couple of Chretien's pals helped the process along.
Michel Vennat was appointed chairman of BDC by Chretien, and Jean Carle, Chretien's former director of operations, was senior vice-president of public affairs. Together, said Quebec Judge Andre Denis, they conducted a smear campaign against Beaudoin for almost four years. Denis described it as "an unspeakable injustice" designed to "break him and ruin his career." The vendetta cost the bank $4.3 million.
The two men approved the loan to Duhaime despite Beaudoin's objections. When he quit the bank, they accused him of "irregularities". He lost his pension. BDC lawyers and accountants raided his home. Carle coordinated public statements with Chretien's office, something Judge Denis called "incredible ... Carle was convinced the prime minister is the only shareholder of the BDC. They are no longer looking like a corporation should, to give the media just the facts ... but only to repeat the position of the Prime Minister's Office." (Pardon the awkward translation.)
Vennat called in the RCMP to investigate Beaudoin as---wait for it--- the source of the "forged" documents sent to the National Post.
The documents purported to be sale records showing that Chretien was owed money from the sale. The RCMP raided Beaudoin's house, cottage and even the golf club where he was a member. His lawyer learned about the raid on Beaudoin's house from a reporter who had been tipped off by the PMO. Beaudoin was never charged with anything.
His vindication came from Judge Denis who awarded him his full pension and severance, and who denounced the testimony of Vennat and Carle.
It turns out that the over-aggressive reporting that so offended David Asper was too mild by half.
And that raises questions about Asper's new incarnation as the defender of the "a free and vigourous press" and his sudden "unwavering commitment" to journalists.
The National Post didn't run a story based on the forged documents. Good.
But was it because someone decided to run interference for Jean Chretien rather than concern about the validity of the documents?
Here's a lesson in journalism for you David.
If a source, no matter how reliable in the past, feeds you phony documents, all bets are off. There is no longer any reporter-source privilege.
You must demand to know where he (or she) got the documents, so that you can follow the story from that angle. If the source doesn't cough up a name, then he can tell it to the cops.
Spare us the drama. There's more to being a journalist than having your daddy buy you a newspaper. Ask some of the people you fired.
Start with an apology to Conrad Black. Then keep going until you reach the citizens of the country.
If you hadn't stopped the Post's investigation of Shawinigate, maybe we would have uncovered the sponsorship scandal years earlier, before the Liberals funnelled $100 million to their ad-pals.