Premier Trump? Legault accuses journalist of harassment for tagging him on Twitter

Six members of the premier’s inner circle, and Legault himself, circulated a Twitter thread suggesting health reporter Aaron Derfel could be sanctioned for tagging the premier
Photo: Axel Drainville
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Sometimes you wake up on a Monday morning with lots to do, and then you see that the premier and his staff have done something so earth-shakingly stupid that you have to write about it.

First, there was the press conference in which Premier François Legault singled out Montreal Gazette health reporter Aaron Derfel and accused him of spreading alarmism about the government’s often incoherent COVID-19 response.

Then, last week, the premier blocked Derfel on Twitter, claiming that a journalist tagging the premier in tweets that cited his statements amounted to harassment and making the false claim that Derfel had accused the premier of lying.

This absurdity was roundly mocked, and the premier eventually unblocked Derfel. That should have been the end of it.

Get off Twitter, Mr. Premier, and do your job. No one cares that a journalist didn’t show you the deference you believe is your due.

Instead, a former police officer named Paul Laurier published an analysis yesterday on Twitter in support of the claim that Derfel was harassing the premier. As first reported by CBC journalist Jonathan Montpetit, three members of the premier’s office (press secretaries Ewan Sauves and Nadia Talbot and director of media relations Manuel Dionne) retweeted this deeply embarrassing admission that they don’t understand Twitter, or the relevant jurisprudence.

Sauves and Talbot retweeted the thread with nearly identical comments, suggesting that their efforts to amplify this thread were coordinated.

Laurier noted that Derfel had tweeted significantly more in the last three months than he had in the previous ten years, and that the premier had been tagged 320 times in Derfel’s tweets.

What Mr. Laurier has discovered is that a health reporter tweeted significantly more during a pandemic, and that anyone tagged in the first tweet in a thread is automatically tagged in subsequent tweets. The phrase “no shit, Sherlock” comes to mind.

During the pandemic Derfel has tweeted a nightly thread, often running into dozens of tweets, summarizing the latest data on the coronavirus. When he cites the premier, he tags him, and given how Twitter works that means the premier is tagged in subsequent tweets in that thread.

But it gets better, dear reader. Laurier continued his thread by claiming that Derfel had violated the press council’s rule against harassing and intimidating a source (he has not).

This is the thread that has been shared by three members of the premier’s inner circle. While Derfel committed no such offence as harassment, this pattern of behaviour by the premier and his staff certainly looks like an attempt to intimidate a journalist whose reporting has been critical of the government.

Update. June 8, 2:33 p.m.: I only had the half of it. My sources have tipped me off to the fact that this smear against Derfel was also retweeted by Premier François Legault, as well as by Louis-Julien Dufresne, press secretary to the minister of the environment, Stéphane Gobeil, a special advisor to the premier and MNA Christopher Skeete, who is the parliamentary assistant to the premier tasked with relations with the anglophone community. Six senior officials in the government, and the premier, tweeted this over the course of a few hours yesterday. This seems to have been a concerted effort to use the weight of the government to intimidate a journalist. Predictably, a search for tweets mentioning Aaron Derfel shows a torrent of abuse aimed at him starting around when these government officials tweeted. For the premier himself to tweet out a thread that suggests a journalist should face professional censure for harassing and intimidating him, because he tagged him in some tweets, is outrageous. It should be roundly condemned by every media outlet in the province.

“Is the premier's office signalling its intent to monitor whether journalists are adhering to the ethics of our profession?” asked Montpetit on Twitter.

An elected leader’s Twitter account is a public forum

The jurisprudence on this issue is new, but nevertheless fairly clear. A U.S. court ruled last year that it was illegal for President Trump to block people “from following his Twitter account because they criticized or mocked him.”

“Because Mr. Trump uses Twitter to conduct government business,” reported the New York Times, “he cannot exclude some Americans from reading his posts — and engaging in conversations in the replies to them — because he does not like their views, a three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, ruled unanimously.”

Closer to home, a widely publicized lawsuit against the mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, by three Twitter users whom he blocked, ended in 2018 with an unblocking and an acknowledgement from the mayor that “his account is public because he uses it ‘in the exercise of his day-to-day duties’ as mayor.” As part of the settlement, Watson agreed not to block anyone else on the platform.

If Legault were to be sued for blocking followers on his official Twitter account, it seems likely that a Quebec court would also find that the premier’s Twitter feed is public, and blocking critics is unlawful.

Self-inflicted wounds

The whole episode highlights some of the premier’s worst qualities, which makes it all the more surprising that his inner circle are doubling down on the fanciful claim that a journalist citing the premier on Twitter when discussing his public statements amounts to harassment.

Legault is notoriously thin-skinned, and obsessed with his own image. Like Donald Trump, he seems to be fixated on Twitter. This week’s events have made clear that the premier spends much of his day monitoring his mentions. How else would he become so annoyed by Derfel’s tweets that he felt the need to block him?

At a time when the premier should be laser-focused on the pandemic, not to mention the ongoing violence perpetrated against Black Quebecers by our police forces, he’s put the COVID-19 response effort in the hands of a publicist and has been spending his time obsessing over his Twitter mentions.

And it’s not like this is the first time. Back in 2012, when I was covering the student strike and the subsequent election campaign, Legault blocked me. The same day he blocked dozens of other accounts which actively tweeted about the election.

Given that my writing is often on the opinion and analysis side, I was far more critical of Legault then than Derfel ever has been. But political criticism of a candidate for public office is a normal and important part of the democratic process, and shouldn’t result in a block.

The next day, CBC’s Homerun show invited me on to discuss the issue of politicians blocking people on Twitter. Legault and the CAQ declined to participate in the segment.

In my report on the incident I speculated that the block stemmed either from an interview I did with a former CAQ candidate who had quit the party and was highly critical of Legault, or a tweet I sent criticizing him for his shifting position on a now-repealed anti-protest law.

The day after my interview, Legault was on the same CBC show. They played him a clip of my interview and pushed him on whether it was appropriate for a politician running for office to block critics on Twitter.

He responded then as he has now with Derfel, claiming the only people he blocked on Twitter were those who had tweeted insults or personal attacks, implying that I had done so.

This was false, and after I called him out for it on Twitter one of his staff people reached out privately to let me know they had convinced him to unblock me, and they were sorry he misrepresented my political criticisms as personal insults.

They told me the now-premier was prone to getting angry while reading Twitter, and going on blocking sprees, but his staff understood that this was a problem and he wasn’t going to do it anymore.

Seems the lesson didn’t stick.

Imagine being the premier of Quebec, the province with the most cases of COVID-19 in Canada, and the most deaths, and getting so angry about a health reporter tagging you in tweets that questioned the government’s response that you not only block him but disparage him in a press conference and have your inner circle spread accusations that his reporting amounts to unethical harassment.

At a time when the premier should be laser-focused on the pandemic, not to mention the ongoing violence perpetrated against Black Quebecers by our police forces, he’s put the COVID-19 response effort in the hands of a publicist and has been spending his time obsessing over his Twitter mentions. And despite widespread mockery, he and his team can’t seem to let this one go.

Every time this deeply embarrassing story is about to die out of the news cycle, the premier and his team insist on bringing it back up again.

Get off Twitter, Mr. Premier, and do your job. No one cares that a journalist didn’t show you the deference you believe is your due, but we definitely care about attempts to use the premier’s bully pulpit to intimidate a journalist who is simply doing his job.

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