Canada’s media have some answering to do
There are still way more questions than answers. The first, and most important, of course, is why did Brian Mulroney, a former prime minister of Canada, accept $300,000 in cash in brown envelopes at clandestine meetings with Karlheinz Schreiber, a shady German-Canadian influence peddler?
A second question is when did Stephen Harper, the current prime minister of Canada and a recent friend of Mr. Mulroney’s, first discover that Schreiber was claiming the arrangements for the $300,000 payout were made while Mulroney was still prime minister, and what did Harper do about it?
But there’s a third question — not much asked on editorial pages. How and why did Canada’s paper-trained parliamentary puppy press gallery and their bosses in most major news organizations manage, for close to a decade, to not only ignore but also actively, dismissively dismiss what will ultimately be one of the great scandals in Canadian political history?
That last question, one hopes, will not be part of the public inquiry Stephen Harper has now commendably, if belatedly, set in motion — it will have more than enough on its plate — but it is our subject today.
And it should be the subject of soul-searching in most major newsrooms in the country.
While there were a few exceptional exceptions — the CBC’s dogged Fifth Estate (though not its national news division), the late-awakening but now finally-fully-in-the-game Globe and Mail and the much-maligned freelance journalist Stevie Cameron pretty much exhausts the short long list — the reality is that Canada’s news media embarrassed themselves by their kiss-the-canvas collapses on this story.
In 1995, conveniently on the same day the story leaked that the RCMP was investigating Mulroney, Schreiber and former Newfoundland premier-turned-premier-lobbyist Frank Moores in connection with the 1980s sale of Airbus aircraft to Air Canada, Mulroney launched a pre-emptive multimillion dollar lawsuit against the federal government.
Perhaps predictably, the news media chose to focus on the politics of the battle and steer clear of the substance of the allegations to avoid being drawn into Mulroney’s legal crosshairs.
But, in fact, they did much more — and less — than that.
They even applied editorial pressure on the government and the RCMP to shut down the police investigation. “No such crime was committed,” declared the Globe in January 2000. “The case must be formally and publicly closed,” chimed in the National Post.
They didn’t seem eager to find out how Karlheinz Schreiber — already facing charges in Germany for bribing politicians and tax evasion — had distributed $8 million worth of schmiergelder (grease money) Airbus had handed him to help grease the sale of their jets to Air Canada. Or why Schreiber had set up 10 secret Swiss bank accounts with crudely coded names of Canadian political figures.
Except for the Fifth Estate, no journalist asked what Schreiber meant when he boasted to the German magazine der Spiegel that “I could create the most horrible Watergate here in Canada when I want to.”
Instead in 2000, when the RCMP abandoned their investigation, the national editorialists pronounced themselves “relieved for Mr. Mulroney,” and thankful that the “baseless, unjustifiable intrusion on Mr. Mulroney’s post-PM life, one bordering on harassment,” was finally at an end.
In 2003, when the Globe inadvertently tripped over the fact of the $300,000 payment, it did its best to slip it under the rug, burying the news in the 26th paragraph of the third installment of a series that actually focused on attacking journalist Stevie Cameron for her “vendetta” against Mulroney.
No wonder there were only two stories in the week following the revelation, one of which was a largely self-congratulatory report by the Star’s ombudsman, praising its lack of coverage of the Globe revelations.
In 2006, a week after The Fifth Estate broadcast a full-show documentary featuring the first sit-down interview with Schreiber, which neatly connected some of the missing dots between Mulroney and Schreiber’s Swiss bank accounts, I entered the names “Mulroney” and “Schreiber,” into Google Canada’s news library and came up with a grand total of just 13 stories about the Fifth Estate’s revelations. (That compared with nearly 10,000 hits about the Danish Muslim editorial cartoon controversy and more than 6,000 dealing with Wayne Gretzky’s connection to an alleged gambling ring, both of which were in the news the same week.)
Now that it is clear just how badly the news media blew this story, perhaps Canada’s major media organizations will engage in the kind of self-examination the New York Times offered its readers after reality caught up with its woeful early coverage of the war in Iraq. Perhaps…
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, Kimber’s Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.