Media criticism

Is the Globe and Mail too close to Canada’s spy agency?

Why is the outlet that once called a former CSIS director “reckless” now relying on his credibility for its legal defence?
Photo: frederic.jacobs

There are two ways journalists can cover the murky world of espionage. The first is to play handmaiden to the security-intelligence infrastructure itself. Journalists who take this friendly route tend to get rewarded with state-cleansed scoops that make those institutions and officials look good.

The other, much harder route is for journalists to serve the public interest, not the parochial interests of powerful government officials. A free press requires that journalists act as a counterweight — even a brake — on spies and the extraordinary powers they wield. Doing the job this way is grinding, frustrating work, and the journalists who do it tend to be branded as troublemakers and frozen out by the powers that be.

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We’ve seen the disastrous consequences that follow when journalists develop self-serving, incestuous relationships with spies. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, the New York Times and many other mainstream media organizations abandoned skepticism and allowed themselves to become willing conduits for government-sanctioned lies.

It’s important to keep all this in mind when considering the stunning position the Globe and Mail finds itself in today. The Globe, its publisher Phillip Crawley, editor David Walmsley and reporter Craig Offman are, simply put, legally in bed with this nation’s spy service.

The Globe, its publisher Phillip Crawley, editor David Walmsley and reporter Craig Offman are, simply put, legally in bed with this nation’s spy service.

The unsettling nature and extent of Crawley and company’s relationship with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and its former director, Richard Fadden, is plainly set out in a Feb. 29, 2016, statement of defence that was drafted by the Globe’s lawyers in response to a libel suit filed last August by Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Michael Chan.

Chan is suing the newspaper for $4.85 million after it ran a series of stories in June 2015 penned by Offman — a feature reporter — suggesting that Chan, the provincial minister of citizenship, immigration and international trade, is a national security risk because of his alleged sympathy for Beijing. (Chan launched the lawsuit after the Globe refused to issue a retraction. It did, however, print an open letter from Chan on June 17, 2015. The minister said he plans to donate any money awarded him through the lawsuit to PEN Canada and a local hospital.)

In its 46-page statement of defence, the Globe denies that it libelled Chan and insists that its stories — given his job as a senior government minister — were in the public interest. “We stand by our stories,” Walmsley said last June.

That’s fine. What’s not fine is how the Globe now finds itself “standing by,” and relying on, the ex-CSIS director’s coy, changing statements — made in a speech to the House Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security and during interviews with two high-profile CBC journalists — to defend its reporting.

In page after page of its statement of defence, the Globe cites as corroborating evidence Fadden’s vague claims that the spy service considered two prominent but unnamed Canadian provincial politicians to be agents of influence for China. (Fadden has never publicly named the politicians. According to the defence, Fadden named Chan in a secret July 2010 memo to the minister of public safety.)

Later, Fadden had to publicly walk back his veiled comments after he was roundly criticized for what amounted to a smear by nudge-wink association. But in its statement of defence, the Globe insists that Fadden’s embarrassing volte face was followed by yet another 180-degree turn, where Fadden walked back his walk-back.

I’m also not a libel lawyer, but even I know that Fadden’s changing story isn’t going to help his credibility if this lawsuit goes to trial

I’m also not a libel lawyer, but even I know that Fadden’s changing story isn’t going to help his credibility if this lawsuit goes to trial — as it appears destined to do.

The other problem confronting the Globe is that the newspaper itself once denounced Fadden’s innuendo-laced allegations as “foolish,” “reckless” and “contradictory” in a blistering editorial on June 23, 2010 — one that it apparently has forgotten about. I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find any reference in the Globe’s lengthy statement of defence to the paper's own stinging editorial excoriating Fadden’s “poor leadership” and his references to those two unnamed politicians’ supposed links to Beijing. (Soon after his departure from CSIS, Fadden was appointed national security advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a position he held with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, until he retired in late March.)

The Globe’s lawyers now describe Fadden as a “respected civil servant.” The paper's publisher and editor are, in effect, burnishing the credentials of the former head of a secretive government agency that the newspaper’s reporters — including its national security reporter — are supposed to be keeping a skeptical eye on. That’s an ethical pretzel that raises all sorts of prickly questions.

How can the Globe “cover” a spy service when it needs that spy service to provide “cover” for it in a libel suit?

How can the Globe suggest that it is not in a glaring conflict of interest with respect to CSIS in light of the fact that it’s relying on the security service to help get it out of a potentially costly and embarrassing legal jam?

Why does the Globe now accept the word of our former top spy as gospel despite having previously assailed him, and what does that say about the newspaper’s malleable attitude towards other senior officials in positions of authority in Ottawa?

The Globe appears to be mired in an ethical quagmire of its own making. Its relationship with the intelligence sector certainly has changed over the years. When I was the newspaper’s national security reporter, CSIS wrote letters to my editor trying to get me canned and wailing on about how my colleague, Jeff Sallot, and I were pursuing a “vendetta” against the spy service through our many unflattering front-page stories.

Now, the Globe lets the new CSIS director occasionally write a column to tell us about what a great job his troops are doing keeping us safe from terrorists. Meanwhile, its lawyers write statements of defence telling us what a great job CSIS has done ferreting out Chinese espionage in Ontario and beyond. What a happy marriage of convenience.

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