Elizabeth May has built her long and distinguished career around the idea that she is the archetypal anti-politician. Openness, honesty, and transparency have been her mantras since taking the helm of Canada’s Green Party, and she has campaigned on the importance of allowing elected MPs to vote their conscience.
Sadly, her handling of the BDS debate within her own party has revealed another side of the popular politician.
This is not an editorial we wanted to write. We were more interested in publishing May’s answers to questions we and many others had about a series of leaked emails we published, but also about her firing of three critics, her handling of the BDS resolution and her future with the party.
We wanted to follow up on three pieces of our original reporting, pieces that together were read by over 12,000 Canadians, many of them Green Party members, and put some of our questions, but also some of the questions flooding in to us on social media, to the leader of the Green Party.
Instead, her press secretary forced our hand. By not only refusing our interview requests, but linking that refusal to our publication of leaked documents, the Green Party raised the spectre of retaliation against a media outlet for doing its job, a threat that requires a strong response from any credible news organization.
The week before last, Ricochet published a series of articles following the abrupt dismissal of three members of the Green Party’s shadow cabinet. They were fired for having signed an op-ed, alongside two dozen other prominent Greens, defending the party’s official position on BDS against attacks by B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver.
Ricochet interviewed Dimitri Lascaris, one of the fired critics, and published two additional reports based on leaked internal emails provided to this outlet. One report revealed the role Weaver played behind the scenes in pushing for sanctions against the op-ed’s authors, and the other reported on controversial comments made by May about Quebec Green Party leader Alex Tyrrell.
It should be noted that May agreed to an interview with this outlet at the end of August and that she is often quoted favourably in our news coverage. Furthermore, she agreed to an interview with our colleague Jeremy Nuttall of the Tyee as she was stonewalling our requests.
This clearly isn’t about Ricochet’s work, nor is it a widespread unwillingness to agree to interview requests. It’s an abrupt revocation of access for one outlet, explicitly tied to our journalism.
The ability of media outlets to report freely on political parties, without fear of retaliation for negative coverage, is at the core of our democratic system. In this age of concentrated corporate ownership of media and an ever-diminishing number of outlets, safeguarding the right of journalists to report on matters like leaked emails relevant to the public interest is more important than ever.
Editorially this outlet has a certain respect and admiration for May and the role she plays in a political system dominated by big parties, and we tend to agree with her on issues related to climate change, water and electoral reform, to name but a few.
But we did nothing more than our job by accepting leaked documents that shone a light on a story of significant public interest and reporting on them accurately and fairly.
For May to retaliate against this outlet for doing so is fundamentally offensive to the concept of a free press, and for us to fail to disclose this incident would be an ethical failure on our part.
‘We decline an interview at this time as a standalone request’
We requested an interview with May prior to publication of our first piece of coverage on Sept. 14 and reiterated the request four times over two days. We were denied each time, and her press secretary, Dan Palmer, declined to answer most of our questions, referring us to her public statement.
Our fifth email pointed out that she had agreed to an interview with the Tyee while our requests were being rebuffed, and suggested that she seemed not to want to answer our questions.
“Your assumptions about her not wanting to answer questions are ill founded, I'm afraid,” Palmer responded. “She's had quite the packed day today and this evening she's hosting a town hall on Vancouver Island. I'm happy to pass on a request for tomorrow, and we'll see how we do with scheduling. Back to you shortly.”
The next day we sent a follow-up email, asking again whether an interview would be possible.
“Doesn't look like today is going to work with Ms. May's schedule on the West Coast,” Palmer responded. “Checking on weekend or Monday. However, as private communications between party officials are subject to confidentiality and not intended for public consumption, we may opt to decline comment at this time. Will let you know. Apologies for the delay.”
Palmer did not respond to two follow-up emails asking if any progress had been made on scheduling an interview and making clear that we were not seeking comment on the emails but an interview with May on all recent developments. Three days later, on Sept. 19, we wrote to him again.
“Is she available for an interview? Or is your position still that ‘as private communications between party officials are subject to confidentiality and not intended for public consumption, we may opt to decline comment at this time.’ As I mentioned before, our questions are not exclusively about the emails but we don't negotiate exclusions for interviews, so we reserve the right to ask about them.”
Palmer responded, “Yes, that's our position on the emails.”
At this point we raised the question of retaliation. Palmer denied that retaliation was involved, describing it as a “significant assumption.”
In a subsequent email, he said, “As I said above, that's our position on the emails – As private communications between party officials are subject to confidentiality and not intended for public consumption, we decline comment at this time. We decline an interview at this time as a standalone request. All members are welcome to submit their concerns to our office or Ms. May's Parliamentary office, where they will receive a response in due course.”
Palmer may argue that the rejection of our interview request is unrelated to their feelings on the leaked emails, but he brought them up in rejecting that request, raising the question of retaliation.
This is unacceptable. It is impossible to report fairly on political parties if we fear that unfavourable coverage, no matter how journalistically well founded, will lead to a retaliatory denial of access.
However, our hope is that this decision was made rashly, and that with the benefit of hindsight May will accept to conduct an interview with us at her earliest convenience.
Our door is always open.