The Official Story

The federal Conservatives have become accustomed to spreading their talking points* through anonymous “officials”. For some reason media outlets have, for the most part, gone along with this, and the question about how much credibility to give unsubstantiated theories touted by anonymous sources seems to have gone forgotten.

Saturday, Conservative officials contacted selected reporters to share selected sections of the 700-page search warrant and associated documents from Elections Canada, and to throw out a few more theories. This morning’s newspapers feature several takes of the same story, with some noteworthy differences.

Let’s start with the Star. Tonda MacCharles reports that the Conservatives released “nearly 650 pages of search warrant documents”. There’s a clear breakdown of each of the three alleged breaches of the Elections Act, and an explanation of the in-and-out scheme, with some comment from third parties. There’s also this explanation of how the Conservatives released this information to reporters:

Saying they wanted to avoid a “media circus,” three party officials also took the unusual step of briefing a “limited number” of invited reporters. But the attempt to frame the party message went awry when other journalists learned of the briefing. To avoid uninvited journalists, the Conservative officials switched hotels, cancelled a briefing, and left via a fire stairwell to avoid pursuit by television cameras.

Conservative spin is given some space in the last part of the story. Unfortunately, it comes from faceless, nameless officials, so there is no way of judging how reliable the sources of allegations such as this are:

Investigators lined 16 or 18 people up along a hallway, one party official said, “like we were going to shoot back? I mean they had … unfettered access to every single thing in Conservative party headquarters. They removed 17 boxes of material specific to our lawsuit, all the background stuff.”

The National Post ran a CanWest News Service story authored by former CTV parliamentary reporter David Akin. According to the story, CanWest “obtained” the affadavit and nearly 700 pages of supporting documentation late Sunday. The story focuses on the language of the affadavit and recaps the in-and-out scheme, with limited colour. The explanation for the just-the-facts tone is explained several paragraphs on:

Doug Finley, the party’s political operations director, Ryan Sparrow, its spokesman, and some party lawyers gave the warrant and supporting affidavits to selected media outlets along with a briefing on the matter.

Canwest News Service, The Canadian Press, Maclean’s magazine and the English and French language news services of CBC were among those news organizations that were not invited to those briefings.

Indeed, reporters from those organizations were asked to leave the downtown Ottawa hotel where representatives from the Toronto Star, La Presse, and CTV were being briefed by Mr. Finley, Mr. Sparrow and others. Other media organizations may also have received a private briefing.

It appears The Globe didn’t get a copy of the affadavit in time for yesterday’s deadline (apparently, its private briefing with Sparrow was cancelled), so its print story this morning reports awkwardly instead on what CTV reported was in the affadavit. The value of the story is in the detailed account of the process by which the Conservatives tried to control their message about the RCMP-led raid:

On Saturday night, Mr. [Ryan] Sparrow called a number of reporters to ask them to come to meetings that had been scheduled for yesterday at the Lord Elgin Hotel in downtown Ottawa saying it “would be worth their while.”

But media outlets who were not among those invited got wind of the meetings yesterday morning and began to ask what was going on.

When one reporter asked in an e-mail about the news conference, Mr. Sparrow replied: “No conference, not sure where you got that from.”

The reporter then flipped Mr. Sparrow back an e-mail in which he had told another reporter who was on the list that the briefing would be at “4:30 Lord Elgin, Boardroom 800. Embargo until 7:30 pm Sunday night.”

To which Mr. Sparrow replied: “I meet with journalists privately all the time.”

Chaos, including a move to another hotel, ensues, followed by Sparrow, Finley, and party lawyer Paul Lepsoe (not identified in the Post story) fleeing down some back stairs.

I think a comparison of these three stories does more than highlight the flawed communications strategy of the Conservatives. It’s an object lesson in the importance of not using unnamed sources.

We learn in the Globe story that Ryan Sparrow will lie, or at least dissemble, at the drop of a hat. We know from David Akin’s story that Doug Finley was one of the three officials at the briefing — the same Doug Finley who has yet to offer any clarification about whether an insurance policy was offered to the dying Chuck Cadman. (The official statement he issued jointly with Tom Flanagan was limited to acknowledging a single meeting with the independent MP.) Armed with this information, we’re unlikely to lend much credence to the allegations we know to be have been made by these same officials in the Star’s story. Without that background on the officials, the seed the Conservatives attempt to plant about a partisan Elections Canada plot against the party might well take root.

*Recent examples: “the CBC was tipped off to the Elections Canada raid of Conservative party headquarters”, “who would underwrite a life insurance policy for a dying man?”