Journalists ignore ‘troublesome episode’
It is one of the enduring mysteries of Canadian political journalism. Why are Ottawa journalists still so incredibly, inexplicably incurious about the fact an infamous international wheeler-dealer gave Brian Mulroney $300,000 in cash from a Zurich bank account within months after he stepped down as prime minister.
And why is nobody asking — demanding — to know why Stephen Harper’s Tories, within months of taking office last year, shut down a federal justice department inquiry into whether it should apply to have Mulroney’s $2-million settlement of his 1997 libel suit against the federal government set aside because Mulroney l— … er, was not entirely forthcoming about his relationship with the man who gave him those envelopes of cash at a series of meetings in hotels and restaurants?
We only learned about this latest Tory twist in the tawdry affair last week, thanks to an access to information request filed by the CBC, the only major news organization that seems to care about these questions.
The story of how this story has come not to be remains fascinating, and puzzling.
Quick summary. In the 1995, the federal government — investigating whether German-Canadian wheeler-dealer Karlheinz Schreiber had made illegal payments to grease Air Canada’s purchase of new jets — wrote to the Swiss government, seeking access to certain bank accounts. Mulroney took exception to the way in which the letter described him, and sued Ottawa for $50 million. Before that trial could begin — but after Mulroney testified under oath he barely knew Schreiber and had had no business dealings with him — Ottawa caved, agreeing to apologize and pay the former prime minister’s $2.1 million legal and PR bill.
The government, of course, didn’t know at the time Schreiber had secretly paid Mulroney $300,000.
When that information finally became public — buried deep in a 2003 Globe and Mail series attacking author Stevie Cameron for her role in promoting the RCMP investigation of Mulroney — the former prime minister’s flack claimed the money was for consulting work Mulroney had done for Schreiber in connection with plans for a pasta business. End of story.
But then Schreiber himself, in an interview with the fifth estate last February, effectively demolished that defence, claiming with a laugh that he had “learned to my great surprise that [Mulroney] worked with me on spaghetti.”
After that broadcast, lawyers in the federal justice department decided to re-examine the original file to see if there might be cause to ask the court to set aside the original deal with Mulroney because of his failure to be forthcoming in his testimony.
We still don’t know what the lawyers’ advice to the new Tory government actually was; we only know the department now “considers the file closed.”
That’s not all we know, of course. We know too that Mulroney, in the delicate phrasing of a Canadian Press report, has become “a valued advisor” to the new prime minister.
Which may explain why the federal government wishes this whole messy business would just go away. But it doesn’t explain why Canada’s journalists seem so disinterested in asking questions.
With the exception of a report and an editorial in the Globe and Mail, a quick search through Google News indicates not one news outlet did more than reprint the CP story on the new information.
Even the Globe’s own weasel-worded editorial is telling. Timorously entitled The Question Mulroney Hasn’t Really Answered, the editorial turned itself inside out to praise him as a man who had “earned the status of elder statesman,” and then suggested, oh-so-politely, that because he “is best positioned to clear the air over this troubling episode… he owes it both to the public and his legacy to do so.”
There was no hint in the editorial that its reporters would camp outside Mulroney’s home and office until he answers those “troubling” questions. And the Globe editorialists didn’t even bother to ask — politely, of course — why the Harper government decided to close the file so soon after it took office.
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, is an award-winning author of five nonfiction books and a novel, Reparations.
I’ve been writing about media coverage of Brian Mulroney and the Airbus scandal for years.
Here are some of those earlier columns as well as a link to a magazine profile of Mulroney I wrote for the Financial Post magazine back in 1978 — between his first failed leadership bid and his second, successful one..