A more thoughtful rebuttal from the Parliamentary Press Gallery

In response to my critique (here and here) of the national news media’s handling of the @vikileaks3o dustup last Friday, CBC’s Kady O’Malley has offered a more thoughtful rebuttal (more thoughtful than this):

Here’s the major flaw in @kempthead‘s thesis re: “Hill journos” allegedly enraged at having “the news cycle snatched from their grasp”… He appears to have mistaken journalists for communications flacks, who *do* attempt to control a news cycle…  Journalists just want news to report. We have no desire to dictate the news cycle, we just hope it takes us someplace good.

To which @DavisvilleHabit tweeted:

That’s a sweeping statement […]

O’Malley again:

Any journalist who aspires to control the news cycle has lost the plot…. Seriously, most of us are chaos junkies. We *love* it when things go exactly the opposite as expected. Especially if it’s pear-shaped…. In fact, if we have a vague kind of raison d’etre, it is thwarting those who DO attempt to control a news cycle…. That’s why the @Vikileaks30 story was covered so heavily, for heaven’s sakes. It was Something Different And Unexpected And Unknown.

[Note: For readability, I have combined several tweets, rather than reproducing them as screenshot. Elipses indicate separate tweets. The order and text are unchanged.]

The Press Gallery responds with lofty dudgeon

Press gallery’ tweets in response to this and this (best read from bottom to top):

My favorite response was Glen McGregor’s question, “Do you know any journalists?” Yes, Glen, I have two National Magazine Awards, one Michener Award (out of three times as a finalist), and when I left journalism, I had more Atlantic Journalism Awards than the province of Prince Edward Island. No offense, though. I’d never heard of you, either.

And for the record, I did not call Kady O’Malley anything. My criticism was directed to the Ottawa press pack generally, and neither attempted nor purported to assess any individual reporter’s role. But on the behavior of the pack, it was right on the money.

Also for the record, I have been enduring very spotty internet connectivity for several days, and my ability to engage these colleagues in real time last night was sharply limited.

@Kady didn’t cover her ears (but doesn’t object to those who did)

I wrote yesterday that only one Canadian news source had taken note of a Robert Kennedy Jr. column on HuffingtonPost slamming Stephen Harper. In fact, the CBC’s Kady O’Malley took note in a tweeet (which is what @kady does):


So did Jane Tabor in the Globe and Mail. Neither piece turned up in a Google search at the time of my post.

O’Malley took umbrage at my post, arguing that RFK’s “entire piece was pure crap” and “a kennedy being staggeringly wrong on facts isn’t news.” This is a strange standard for news selection, especially coming from Canada’s Parliamentary press gallery, where staggering wrongness has never been an impediment to coverage.

You can track our brief twitter debate on the subject here and here.

Letter of resignation

The libertarian devotion to individual freedom that led the Harper Government to kill Statistic Canada’s mandatory long form census questionnaire apparently did not extend to the Chief Statistician of Canada’s letter of resignation.

Munir A. Sheikh posted a note about his resignation on the agency’s website late Wednesday night. The Harper Libertarians redacted it Thursday morning, replacing it with an uninformative generic message.

Here, for the record, thanks to Kady O’Malley, is the full text of the Chief Statistician’s censored message to Canadians:

July 21, 2010

OTTAWA — There has been considerable discussion in the media regarding the 2011 Census of Population. There has also been commentary on the advice that Statistics Canada and I gave the government on this subject.

I cannot reveal and comment on this advice because this information is protected under the law. However, the government can make this information public if it so wishes.

I have always honoured my oath and responsibilities as a public servant as well as those specific to the Statistics Act.

I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not.

Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister. I want to thank him for giving me the opportunity of serving him as the Chief Statistician of Canada, heading an agency that is a symbol of pride for our country.

To you, the men and women of Statistics Canada – thank you for giving me your full support and your dedication in serving Canadians. Without your contribution, day in and day out, in producing data of the highest quality, Canada would not have this institution that is our pride.

I also want to thank Canadians. We do remember, every single day, that it is because of you providing us with your information, we can function as a statistical agency. I am attaching an earlier message that I sent to Canadians in this regard. In closing, I wish the best to my successor. I promise not to comment on how he/she should do the job. I do sincerely hope that my successor’s professionalism will help run this great organization while defending its reputation.

Munir A. Sheikh

Free speech – update

tabatha_southey-225The Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey uses the same Pullman quotation to cast a harsh spotlight on an embarrassing Canadian example of political correctness run amok, courtesy of that habitual offender, the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, a tribunal whose main activity seems to be punishing the exercise of a human right it doesn’t much care for: speech.

Hat tip: Kady O’Malley

Colvin redux

The clarity and detail of the rebuttal Richard Colvin filed with the House of Commons this morning stand in stark contrast to the government’s flimsy response.

With devastating thoroughness, Colvin documented factual errors and faulty logic underlying the testimony of government witnesses who tried to explain away Ottawa’s studied indifference to the likely torture of prisoners our soldiers handed over to Afghan authorities.

Download his statement—it’s well worth the read—or check out Kady O’Malley’s summary and the Toronto Star’s account.

In response, the best Dan Dugas, spokesman for Defense Minister Peter MacKay, could offer was another jingoistic attempt to portray criticism of government policy as an attack on Canadian soldiers, and the lame assertion that the impugned government witnesses had already refuted Colvin’s claims.

That’s “refute,” as in “to prove false,” but the only refuting in evidence was by Colvin of the parade of government and military apologists who had attempted to discredit his testimony. By times, the rebuttal bordered on embarrassing, as when Colvin pointed out that his critics don’t seem to know the difference between the Taliban and al-Qa’ida:

Witnesses who testified that ‘the Taliban are trained to claim torture’ seem to be confusing Taliban insurgents (poorly educated Pashtuns, usually illiterate, with a parochial, Afghanistan-centred agenda) with al-Qa’ida terrorists (international jihadists, often highly educated). There is to our knowledge no Taliban equivalent of the al-Qa’ida ‘Manchester manual,’ which was aimed at a sophisticated, literate audience.

Colvin’s credibility, and the reason Canadians overwhelmingly believe him and not MacKay, arises from his palpable reluctance as a whistleblower. He came forward only under subpoena or “invitation” tantamount to subpoena.

[I]t was not the job of DFAIT officials in Afghanistan to push our concerns on ministers, unless they explicitly invited them, which none ever did. Doing so would have invited a reprimand from our superiors. The chain of command for DFAIT officers was back to DFAIT officials at HQ. Circumventing that chain of command would have been evidence of ‘going rogue.’ I was always very correct in my relations with the political level. I volunteered views to fellow bureaucrats, such as Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch and DFAIT Associate Deputy Minister David Mulroney. But to have done so with ministers would have been inappropriate.

Anyone who has ever witnessed the sometimes awkward interface between the civil service and their political masters knows that this is precisely correct.

Blatchford makes herself useful

In the PMO War Room, columnist Christie Blatchford must have seemed an inspired choice. She can turn a purple phrase with the best of them. She stands foursquare for troops, widows, and orphans. She’s against plummies, toffs, and pointyheads. She’s long on guts and glory, short on assay. She has an ego as big as the Ritz, and fragile as a Gruyère Soufflé. To receive a document drop on a Matter of National Importance would be sweet validation.

So the Harper Government—someone in the Harper Government—got the brilliant idea of handing Blatchford a trove of Richard Colvin’s long-sought emails from Kandahar, the same documents Harper has thus far refused to surrender to Parliament.

This is a standard bit of hardball damage control. Before releasing damning documents to anyone who might review them critically, pass them instead to a compliant journalist—a “high-value third-party,” in PR lingo—who can be counted on to convey their content with government-friendly gloss.

sky27nw2Blatchford did not disappoint. Her piece in Saturday’s Globe is replete with snide references to Colvin, who did not spend enough time outside the wire for her liking. Apparently volunteering to step into the shoes of the highest ranking diplomat ever to be killed in Afghanistan isn’t sufficient for our combat-besotted scribe.

Blatchford says the document drop  “appears to be the entire collection” of Colvin’s Afghan e-mails. Journalists who have actually followed the torture testimony confirm that she appears to have some documents not among those previously released, but she is also missing others. Even by Blatchford’s own account, the documents she got range from “virtually completely blacked out” through “heavily redacted” to [snideness alert] “rattl[ing] on at such length they could have done with a little more redacting.”

The omissions neither trouble Blatchford nor deter her from complaining about what Colvin doesn’t say. She finds nothing in the documents that might have alarmed Colvin’s superiors, noting one memo’s observation that the Kandahar prison was, “not that bad” and “not the worst in Afghanistan.” She somehow overlooked these sections of  Memo Kandh-0138:

Of the [redacted] detainees we interviewed, [redacted] said [redacted] had been whipped with cables, shocked with electricity and/or otherwise “hurt”….detainees still had [redacted] on [redacted] body; [redacted] seemed traumatized.

Individual sat with his toes curled under his feet. When he straightened his toe, it could be seen that the nails of the big toe and the one next to it, were a red-orange on the top of the nail, although the new growth underneath appeared fine. When we asked him about his treatment [redacted] rather than Kabul, he became quiet. He said that [redacted] he had been “hurt” and “had problems.” However, he is “happy now.” He did not elaborate on what happened [redacted]. [Redacted] seemed very eager to please, very deferential, and expressed gratitude for our visit. General impression was that he was somewhat traumatized.

When we asked him about his treatment [redacted] he said he had “a very bad time. They hit us with cables and wires.” He said they also shocked him with electricity. He showed us a number of scars on his legs, which he said were caused by the beating. He said he was hit for [redacted] days….

He and others told [redacted] that three fellow detainees had had their fingers “cut and burned with a lighter”….When we asked about his own treatment [redacted] he said that he was hit on his feet with a cable or a “big wire” and forced to stand for two days, but “that’s all.” He showed us a mark on the back of his ankle, which he said was from the cable. [Note: There was a dark red mark on the back of his ankle.] [Hat tip: Dawg’s Blawg & Voice from the Pack.]

Blatchford gloats that Colvin’s most prolific period as a memo-writier dates from a period in 2007 after Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith began filing reports on Afghan abuse of detainees arrested by Canadian soldiers. This may or may not be true, given that Blatchford is clearly missing half of Colvin’s 2006 reports (and God knows what else). It also shows remarkable intellectual flexibility, given that Blatchford believes nothing bad ever happened to the Afghans we arrested. The mere mention of Smith’s compelling reportage to the contrary must be embarrassing to her.

The redactions are interesting. Let’s call this fellow Detainee 1:

Redact 1-sc

And this fellow Detainee 2:


What exactly are the national security imperatives that prevent disclosure of what Detainee 1 was told after his several beatings, and what he alleged? Why is it vital to Canada’s security that we not know how many men interrogated Detainee 2, or for how long? He was allegedly threatened [blank] and, some time after the interrogation, told that he would not be [blank]. Why doesn’t the government want to fill in these blanks?

There is a bigger issue here than whether one gullible columnist wants to abet Harper’s  assassination of one diplomat’s character.  For weeks, the opposition MPs who constitute a majority in the House of Commons, our only elected federal institution, have been trying to get their hands on the relevant documents. For weeks Harper has put them off, promising eventual delivery while insisting that General Rick Hillier and Ambassador David Mulroney give their evidence before MPs had a chance to study the documentary record.

“The government has. and will continue. to make all legally available information available.” Harper told the Commons.

Now suddenly the unreleased documents turn up in a friendly (and not very sophisticated) columnist’s inbox. All the pious fretting about national security was, bluntly, a lie; the real concern all along was damage control—even when the issue at hand is Canadian complicity in torture.

Footnote: On the Globe’s website, conservative blogger Norman Spector pleads with Harper for the third time to call an inquiry into the torture allegations. Spector warns of a cloud on the horizon in the form of a Wall Street Journal report that Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, “is already conducting a ‘preliminary examination’ into whether NATO troops… may have to be put in the dock” over torture allegations.

Kady smells a stonewall

The CBC’s Kady O’Malley brings prescient analysis—and that rarest of journalistic qualities, a political memory—to the Conservative scheme to fabricate a dastardly opposition “refusal” to hear diplomat David Mulroney rebut fellow diplomat Richard Colvin’s account of how Canada turned a blind eye to Afghan security officials’ torture of detainees our forces turned over to them. Here’s the plan:

  1. Refuse to turn over documents bearing on Colvin’s testimony. Invoke national security, of course.
  2. Have Mulroney show up, uninvited, and demand to be be heard immediately, before MPs have any opportunity to prepare for his testimony, let alone see the documentary evidence bearing on his behaviour in Afghanistan.
  3. Howl in phony outrage over the opposition’s refusal to let Mulroney “clear his name” after Colvin’s “completely unfounded” allegations.

O’Malley points out that this is exactly the same strategy the Harper Government used last year when a pesky Commons committee investigated illegal Conservative campaign financing.

Throughout that week of special mid-recess hearings in August 2008, a series of party-connected witnesses alternately failed to appear, citing improper service, or, in a few memorable instances, deliberately did so on days when they weren’t actually listed on the schedule, whereupon they would demand to be allowed to testify immediately. When gently but firmly rebuffed by the chair, they would storm out of the room to the waiting media throng, insisting all the way that they were being silenced by the tyrannical opposition majority.

In fact, I was sitting not more than a few inches away from the party’s then-political director, Doug Finley—now, of course, a senator—when he showed up, bright and more than a little early, three days before he was scheduled to appear. Squeezing himself in at the table alongside the scheduled witnesses, he informed the chair he was ready to take questions; after he was, entirely predictably, rebuffed, he very nearly had to be removed by Hill security when he refused to vacate the seat. When his name came up on the witness list later that week, however, he was nowhere in sight.

And how is her analysis holding up? So far Mulroney has asked to appear before the committee, and, unbidden, boarded a plane from China to Ottawa for that purpose. In the Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged MPs “not to muzzle” civil servants who want to rebut Colvin’s testimony.

Opposition members of the committee have asked to see cabinet minutes from the time, all memos to and from Colvin, and human rights reports given to the defence department. Harper says the government “has and will continue to make all legally available information available.”

Legally available. You know. The ones that don’t have to be withheld to protect national security.

MacKay stoops lower

A Contrarian reader writes:

If only it were true that they were back peddling. In tonight’s news, MacKay is heard sinking to new depths of loathsomeness by accusing Colvin of impugning the integrity of Canadian troops. He obviously hoping Canadians will turn against Colvin if he can be made to look as if he’s attacking the military. How much more cowardly and disgusting can you get than using the military as a red herring to draw attention away from your own behaviour. I’m beginning to feel slimy just being in the same country with this guy.

Contrarian is out of the country, where my ability to follow the torture scandal over the last few days has been fragmentary. If my correspondent’s account of MacKay’s performance today is halfway accurate, it deserves the appellation loathsome. I hope others will call him on it.

As a placemarker, I want to flag another point for later elaboration: As first noted by Kady O’Malley in our raucus panel on CBC’s Power and Politics Friday, many in the mainstream media have done an exceptionally good job covering this story. The bits and pieces I’ve seen yesterday and today (in part thanks to tweets and e-mails from WLR at National Newswatch) has featured a steady stream of new revelations from Canadian Press, the Star, the Globe and Mail, CBC, and others—none of it flattering to the Harper Government’s crude spinslingers. Confirmation yet again that there is no substitute for good old-fashioned reporting.

CBC’s Kady O live blogs the Colvin reaction

Kady O’Malley live blogs the NDP response to the Colvin torture testimony and the Conservative’s bucket defence. [Note to CBC: Horrible interface.] Moneyquote:

[NDP MP Paul] Dewar… is clearly genuinely angry, and getting more so as he describes the attempts to challenge Colvin, and previously, members of his party — and Harris quotes Former Colleague Wells’ explanation of the Bucket Defence,* which he seems to agree is operational here…

[CTV’s] Roger Smith wonders whether really, this isn’t Afghanistan’s problem — the torture, that is — and not really about Canada. Even if we did set up a better monitoring system, and were able to determine whether Canadian-transferred detainees were tortured, they’d still have been tortured. That’s a bit existential, no? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Anyway, Dewar agrees that the wider question of Afghanistan is a valid one, but Canada’s credibility is at stake. Harris notes that Colvin’s testimony also offered a disturbing assessment of those initially detained — farmers, tailors, other locals — which makes it even more important to make sure that they weren’t being handed over to face all but certain torture. If Canadians are taking people randomly from a field, and sending them off to be tortured, how does that affect our standing with the Afghan people?

*As mentioned earlier , Freud had an even better explanation of the Bucket Defence.