In recent weeks, Canadian media has reported that the Chinese government has been trying to influence our country’s democratic process. Several of these reports even allege that Canadian elected officials have been willing participants in this interference.
These allegations are serious, and call for scrutiny and accountability. But, because journalists reporting on this story have been relying on leaked intelligence that has not been made public from anonymous sources, they need to tell their readers how they’ve interpreted their sources and how they’ve determined their veracity and credibility.
Canada’s spy and law enforcement agencies have a long history of making prejudicial and false allegations against individuals or entire communities. To say the least, they are not immune from the biases and prejudices of Canadian society at large and they have a history of allowing these to distort their findings.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, around 9,000 LGBTQ members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, and the federal public service were followed, interrogated, abused and traumatized by their own government. The RCMP alleged that LGBTQ Canadians were disloyal social and political subversives who could be blackmailed by communist regimes. It was all hogwash, of course, but thousands of lives and careers were ruined as a result.
Then there’s the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian of Syrian descent who was accused by the RCMP of being an Al-Qaeda operative. When other levels of government began to doubt that Arar was a “terrorist,” members of the RCMP anonymously gave false information to CTV News, which they subsequently printed, stating that Arar was in truth a “‘very bad guy’ who had apparently received military training at an al-Qaeda base.” These falsehoods grew out of a climate of heightened racism and Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11.
Basing your story off of anonymous intelligence agency or law enforcement sources risks reproducing and amplifying any prejudice embedded within these agencies, and wrongly vilifying individuals’ and entire communities. These agencies have been very wrong before, and it’s possible they could be wrong again.
But it’s not just about the sources being simply “right” or “wrong.” Post-colonial historians have pointed out that state-based sources contain the perspectives of power — its paranoias, discourses, emphases, prejudices, and silences. The state-based sources these journalists are relying on, while they might certainly contain a lot of verifiable facts, have to be understood as already an interpretation of what happened through the lens of power.
One of the Globe’s most recent in a series of stories on this issue “China’s Vancouver consulate interfered in 2022 municipal election, according to CSIS” relies on leaked CSIS documents to claim that a former consul-general in Vancouver Tong Xiaolin sought to “groom” Canadian politicians to be agents of the Chinese government and she was looking for a “good sapling to cultivate.” Pretty damning words, right?
Except for the fact that blustery statements like this happen in political circles all the time and might not be evidence of an actual scheme. Had the Globe considered that the former consul-general might be doing just that in these statements? We just don’t know.
In a short editor’s note next to a recent story in the Globe (an op-ed from the anonymous leaker within CSIS), the Globe’s editor-in-chief David Walmsley writes: “The facts in those stories, which are just part of our in-depth and years-long reporting on the issue, are uncontroverted.” In other words: Trust us. We’ve got this.
But, when one consequence of your story is that the first Chinese-Canadian mayor ever elected in a country plagued by a sordid history of anti-Asian racism is now having to publicly reject suggestions that they are somehow connected to the Chinese government, the reader has a right to know why your facts are “uncontroverted.”
Global News, which has also broken multiple stories on the alleged Chinese government interference, has not provided any editors’ notes at all. Han Dong, MP for Don Valley North, is now suggesting he will sue Global News for a story that alleged he advised a Chinese diplomat to hold off on releasing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
In a tearful address to the House of Commons last week, Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus and will sit as an Independent. He said he denies the allegations.
The reader is owed more explanation here, because the stakes are too high for Asian-Canadians — a community that continues to experience racism and a lack of safety.
This could be achieved through more comprehensive editors’ notes that take the reader behind the scenes, or through standalone explainer stories, which outline how the documents are being carefully interpreted and verified by the journalists.
Sure there are constraints because the sources are anonymous, but the principle ought to be to share as much information as possible with the reader, not simply asking them to accept the story on blind faith.
It would also help to have more LGBTQ people, Indigenous people, and racialized people working in Canadian newsrooms. Through lived experience, these folks are more predisposed to interpret intelligence sources critically and question their veracity and credibility. To be clear, anyone is able to develop a critical perspective on sources generated by the state, but if the journalists who have been reporting this story are in fact doing this, then we aren’t being told about it.
The truth needs to come out, but getting there requires extra caution. Too many peoples’ lives and careers — especially Asian-Canadians who have stepped forward for public service — are at stake to get it wrong.