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PMs redux: Chretien and Mulroney still make news

Posted by jsallot under All, Media Commentary

Jeff Sallot

The private business affairs of two colourful  former prime ministers continue to play out publicly,  providing fresh material for journalists.

So, thank you Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien.

The Mulroney case, involving cash payments from a German lobbyist for arms dealers, has been unfolding at a commission of inquiry, making headlines for many days.

The next chapter in the Chretien story opens at the Supreme Court of Canada this month.
Mr. Mulroney threw The Globe and Mail, the paper that first broke the cash payments story,  a curve the other day when he testified editors had suppressed a related story that would have placed him in a better light.

That’s not what Globe editor Ed Greenspon remembers. He says Mr. Mulroney tried to barter his way out of trouble, promising to provide information for another explosive  story if the paper would spike the cash payments story.

The wily editor didn’t bite. Instead, he convinced Mr. Mulroney to share the information in any event, and the Globe would print it if it could be verified. The story Mr. Mulroney was offering didn’t pan out.

But the cash for unspecified services story certainly did. Thus the public inquiry.

The Chretien case is still foggy and mysterious.

The National Post, backed by many other media outlets,  is fighting  in court for the right of reporter Andrew McIntosh to protect the identity of  a source who may have been trying to defame Mr. Chretien.
(Disclosure: I provided an affidavit in this case to support the Post’s contention that the public interest is often best served if sources can speak with reporters anonymously. Further disclosure:  Andrew McIntosh used to work for me at the Globe.)

The story begins in the spring of 2001 when Mr. McIntosh received a plain brown envelope containing a bank document purporting to implicate Mr. Chretien in a shady private business loan.

Before reporting anything, Mr. McIntosh  did his due diligence and was told by the bank the document was a forgery.

The police were called in to try to catch the forger.  They got a search warrant and a court order requiring Mr. McIntosh and The National Post to turn over the original document and envelope. The document and the envelope might provide fingerprints or DNA traces that can identify the forger. The Post and Mr. McIntosh refused to turn over the material.

This is a tough case and is not the one most journalists would have picked to fight a press freedom battle in the Supreme Court.

There are competing interests.  Reporters sometimes need to protect the anonymity of sources to uncover secrets that the public should know about.

On the other hand, it’s not just in Mr. Chretien’s interest and that of the bank to find out who might be forging documents. It’s also in the public interest.

The court may decide this case on the basis of a narrow set of unique facts and let it go at that. But the justices might also use this case to set out constitutional tests to be used by lower courts when balancing competing public and private interests.

Although the hearing is in Ottawa May 22, the Supreme Court is not likely to publish its judgment before the fall, at the earliest.

Jeff Sallot, the  former Ottawa bureau chief of The Globe and Mail, teaches journalism at Carleton University.