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Trudeau's lineup of willing op-ed writers points to larger problem of media manipulation

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford offered to get the minister positive press if she were to follow the Trudeau government’s wishes. That is a problem.

Graeme Gordon Montreal QC

One of the most revelatory bombshells from former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s candid and damaging testimony was when she alleged that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Katie Telford offered to get the minister positive press if she were to follow the Trudeau government’s wishes.

According to Wilson-Raybould, Telford told her chief of staff that the Prime Minister’s Office could “lineup all kinds of people to write op-eds” to defend her for allowing SNC-Lavalin get off virtually scot-free for bribery charges. The alleged bribery included allegedly spending nearly $2 million on parties and prostitutes for deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s son’s visit to Canada.

Telford's alleged statement rankled many in the mainstream media. The Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English was indignant in a column where she said it is “disturbing and laughable” that Trudeau's chief of staff allegedly suggested newspapers like the Toronto Star have what English inferred as a “passive process of publishing to appease special interests.”  

Unless English thinks Wilson-Raybould is lying (she doesn't say as much in her column), Trudeau’s chief of staff believes—with three years on the job and plenty of past experience as a political operative under her belt—the PMO can indeed get a slew of pro-Trudeau government op-eds published in a variety of publications.

It may not be an entirely “passive” process (not claimed in Wilson-Raybould’s testimony anyway) but the Toronto Star certainly has a history of publishing powerful special interests’ op-eds on issues in which the authors have skin in the game.

In fact, a recent example is on the very scandal at hand.

Justin Trudeau, SNC-Lavalin & the media

Jamie Watt, executive chairman of Navigator, Canada’s top public relations firm, is a regular freelance contributor to the Toronto Star and recently wrote a column titled “Why SNC-Lavalin deserves to avoid prosecution.”

Although a reader’s note at the bottom of the article discloses that Watt’s PR firm previously had SNC-Lavalin as a client, it begs the question why the Toronto Star thought it a good idea to publish Watt’s opinion on SNC-Lavalin in the first place?

After all, his company was the spin master paid big bucks by the prominent engineering company to clean up its sordid image.

Canadian media at bat for Justin Trudeua

But this is far from the first time the most widely circulated Canadian daily has gone to bat for a Liberal government. The Toronto Star was also staunch defender of the Ontario Liberal Party’s agenda as it plunged the province into record debt. By now, the love the Star seems to have for Liberal power must seem obvious to even the most casual observer.  

When Finance Minister Bill Morneau was facing his own scandal for not following through on his word to put his fortune in a blind trust when he became an elected official to dissuade making decisions that could benefit him financially. The Toronto Star thought it was the opportune time to write and publish a long, sympathetic profile of the embattled man, comparing him to Batman.

English’s column in the Star completely mischaracterizes how the Prime Minister’s Office manages to get a lineup of favoured peoples’ op-eds published in various publications. Instead of the PMO giving a directive to editors, it can simply indirectly trot out allied economists, academics, consultants, lobbyists, retired politicians, lawyers, pollsters, business persons, etc. to simultaneously argue their case on their behalf.

These same allies also sing the chorus on social media, establishing the correct way to think about any government action.

These same allies are typically on the take through government grants, government work, or some other nepotistic favours that compromise their ability to speak frankly and critically about the government in power.

Here are just a few examples of what I mean:

Parliamentary system expert and academic Phillip Lagassé is often quoted by media for constitutional questions, but it’s scant mentioned that he has worked for the Department of National Defence as late as 2017.

Lagassé was forthright (although many are not) when I reached out for comment a couple of years ago on a story about national defence spending to disclose his conflict of interest and give me a referral. But even if he’s being quoted by media for expert opinion on unrelated matters to national defence, does his affiliations with the government not matter? Trust me, Lagassé is far from the only one, it’s a long lineup.

Or how about pollsters? Many get lucrative contracts from the government. So do you think it’s possible a polling company would suppress a poll that is really bad for Trudeau or use a methodology that benefits Trudeau out of fear of pecuniary retribution via lost government contracts? It’s not far-fetched. And the media almost always uncritically report these pollsters’ public results, dramatically swaying the news cycle’s editorial coverage as many journalists and news outlets buy into the numbers and let them inform their coverage, or at the very least cite them ad nauseum.

While on the topic of pollsters, the public opinion research company Vox Pop Labs is another prime example of how the government can indirectly set the agenda. Vox Pop Labs is the company behind the biased and unscientific (but wildly popular) CBC Vote Compasses that at one point skewed Liberal and predictably tends to field questions pushing a left-wing agenda that just so happens to align well with this government’s.

It also just so happens Vox Pop Labs was behind the Trudeau-government commissioned and much-derided survey that critics pointed out had leading questions, prodding respondents towards the Liberals’ desired electoral system (a government’s attempts to control the narrative sometimes backfire). It also just so happens that Vox Pop Labs’ Canada 150 project received a combined $1.06 million from the federal government and the CBC.

But then there is the roster of journalists themselves who are unwittingly or wittingly at the PMO’s beck and call.

Look at all the journalists tripping over each other to write about the severely over-inflated threat of Russian election interference the Trudeau government continues to push while undue Chinese influence is far more prevalent.

The media are essentially manufacturing consent for the Liberal government to continue to call for social media to censor the internet under the guise that Russia will somehow co-opt the election and get Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in power as Putin’s Manchurian candidate.

The latest flimsy attack from CBC was an attempt to smear right-wing journalists as being propped up by Russian bots online, as if their opinions and stories could only be superficially popular from the help of astroturf from Russia instead of simply being popular with a sizable number of Canadians. Meanwhile the mainstream media let the cozy relationship between the Trudeau government and big tech go largely unexamined.  

Other journalists simply like being thrown a bone and given a pat on the head.

CBC’s The National’s senior Ottawa reporter David Cochrane boasts of scoops and “scooplets” fed to him from the PMO, such as being told by the government about today’s cabinet shuffle first, the PMO’s latest attempt to direct attention away from the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

The day the Toronto Sun was breaking the Atwal scandal, Cochrane’s colleague Terry Milewski suddenly caught wind of the story while the PMO was stalling in giving Toronto Sun columnist Candice Malcolm comment.

That evening on The National, buried thirteen minutes in, Cochrane had a story about the Atwal news that framed it in the best possible light for the government on how a would-be assassin ended up on Trudeau’s disastrous India trip.

(On the other hand, when outlets do negative coverage of the government their access to government “scoops” and the PM are threatened.)  

Other ideologically aligned journalists also seem to get sweet gigs at Liberal-affiliated charities and NGOs. Renowned columnist Chantal Hebert was a Trudeau Foundation mentor in 2011, receiving a $20,000 honourarium and $15,000 travel allowance at the same time Justin Trudeau was the Vice President of the foundation and a sitting MP. Other left-wing journalists have benefitted from being Trudeau Foundation mentors as well.

In another more direct example of journalists getting paid by the government, scrappy Ottawa-based digital news startup Blacklock’s Reporter reported last fall that the Department of National Defence was hiring journalists to conduct training sessions with employees on how to deal with journalists’ questions.

A couple years ago, I reported how Trudeau’s close friend and now Minister of Indigenous Services, Seamus O’Regan was elevated to editorial review committee chair at The Walrus magazine (a registered charity) while running as a Liberal MP.

His role was ostensibly to vet the magazine’s articles, of which, coincidentally, the political ones turned out to all be favourable to Trudeau. The Walrus also pays handsomely to a healthy stable of writers ideologically aligned with the Liberals.

And who can forget former CBC national defence journalist James Cudmore who—shortly after former Royal Canadian Navy’s Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was thrown under the bus—got a job working for Liberal defence minister Harjit Sajjan?

There are nearly a dozen journalists that come to mind who jumped for government flack jobs dangled to them once Trudeau assumed power. CBC itself had fawning coverage of Trudeau last election cycle because—as I’ve heard from sources—some at the public broadcaster saw him as their saviour, promising, and delivering, hundreds of millions in additional funding.  

Other leftist journalists need no incentive to do the PMO’s bidding. They’re true believers that will look for any right-wing extremist who is politically active and try their best to tie them to the Conservative party of Canada (sometimes legitimately). These same journalists, however, have failed to file any reports on extremists from the left, many of whom are also politically active and affiliated with the NDP or Liberals.

When Gerald Butts resigned, some journalists expressed sadness publicly (others were tactful enough to keep it private). It was quite revealing of just how exceptional Trudeau’s best friend and principal secretary was at his job in grooming and managing journalists, some even admitting their overall general agreement with the government and finding it hard to see Trudeau losing the plot.  

And if journalists honestly think that a bailout of the legacy media will not have a net effect on the industry that’s positive for the Trudeau government, their benefactor, they need to give their heads a shake.

Money always has an influential effect, whether intended or not, and $595 million is a lot of influence. At the very least it will help hinder the ability of less predictable and less controllable leaner and meaner startups, not tamed by corporate culture, from thriving in their absence, keeping media ownership consolidated in a few gatekeepers’ hands.

At a pub last week, a friend in banking bluntly told me journalists are simply tools or conduits for powerful people to sell their agenda or message to the masses. After initially feeling personally affronted, I couldn’t really disagree. As a regular contributor and listener to media criticism news outlet CANADALAND, over the past two years too many examples of journalists as tools for powerful people came to mind (a few of which I’ve recounted for you above).  

One of the fundamental jobs of the PMO is to control messaging in the media. So, like the sustained pressure put on Wilson-Raybould, the Trudeau government (and powerful people generally, e.g. Michael Bryant) has a multitude of sophisticated levers and buttons it can pull and push to wholly manipulate narratives in this country. It’s laughable and disturbing to suggest and think otherwise.

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