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Protesters stand beside a mock guillotine outside Queen's Park during a protest against the provincial government of Premier Doug Ford on May 1, 2019.

Tallan Alexander/Handout

Were you shocked when protesters showed up at Queen’s Park last week with a mock guillotine and beheaded an effigy of Premier Doug Ford? Lisa MacLeod, the provincial Conservative cabinet minister, sure was. “It was disrespectful, it was cruel and it’s a credible threat that has been referred to the Ontario Provincial Police,” she declared to a clutch of reporters.

It was also, apparently, a fiction. Yes, about half a dozen black-clad protesters had brought a wooden prop, adorned with red paint, to the south lawn of the legislature. But a glance at the photos and video of the incident show the fake guillotine had no working blade. And no credible evidence has yet surfaced of an effigy, never mind one that was beheaded.

So, why aren’t the news media calling MacLeod a liar?

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Over the past four years, many Canadians have stared across our southern border in goggle-eyed bafflement at the American Fabulist-in-Chief, wondering why the press there still hesitates to say he’s lying.

The Washington Post maintains a fact-checking database of what it calls Donald Trump’s “false or misleading claims” (which, as of Tuesday afternoon, numbered 10,111). But it rarely uses the L word. Even The New York Times, which ran a piece in December, 2017, titled “Trump’s Lies v. Obama’s” (spoiler alert: It wasn’t even close), frequently hesitates to call Trump’s lies – well, lies. Slowly, though, the U.S. press pack seem to be getting more comfortable with using the word.

Up here, the news media – already demoralized, on the economic ropes – are facing the triple challenges of new Conservative provincial governments that are hostile toward journalism, a fall federal election with a desperate Liberal Party and a public that often views reporters as too cautious. Worse, lies are being weaponized. All of which is why we need to be able to call them out when we see them.

Why are we normally so wary of calling politicians liars? It’s complicated. Tradition and a commitment to fairness require the mainstream press to treat lies in the same way the police approach, say, a homicide, when they weigh whether to charge someone with murder or manslaughter: Was there an intent to deceive, or was the deception accidental? When someone points out the misstatement, does the fabulist retract it and try to do better next time? If so, it’s hard to say for certain that they lied. But if they dig in their heels and double down? (Hello, Mr. Trump!) Well, frankly, then they deserve to be branded a liar. Still, many journalists believe the word should be used sparingly, lest we dilute its power.

Which brings us back to Lisa MacLeod – and her boss.

In the scheme of things, it seems absurd – embarrassing, even! – to care about whether there was or was not an effigy (there was not) that was or was not beheaded (it was not: because it didn’t exist). But the consequences of that misstatement are real and potentially chilling.

Here’s why. At first, Mr. Ford seemed wholly unbothered by the guillotine, advising the Toronto Sun’s Joe Warmington, “Don’t take it too seriously.” But soon afterward – a reasonable observer might suggest he was capitalizing on an opportunity – Ford made a sharp about-face, declaring during Question Period last Thursday that the guillotine “goes way overboard.” MacLeod dutifully echoed his comments, elaborating with some sharp language about an effigy. She also alleged that the NDP “condoned” the protest.

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Their remarks won that day’s Queen’s Park news cycle: The Toronto Star, CBC, CTV, City and Global Television all produced pieces reporting MacLeod’s allegations and her statement that the incident had been referred to the OPP. (CBC and City were the only ones noting they saw no evidence of an effigy.) Global ran with an incendiary headline which mentioned a “mock execution of the Premier.”

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer retweeted Global’s story, adding: “This is incredibly disgusting. This type of violent extremism has no place in Canadian politics and must be clearly denounced by leaders on all sides.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted out the same story, writing: “Encouraging violence is never acceptable, no matter your political beliefs. Period.” For good measure, on Sunday the Toronto Sun invoked the effigy in an editorial that urged critics “to cool the rhetoric against Ford and [Alberta Premier Jason] Kenney.”

And so it was that a handful of demonstrators awkwardly rolling a dummy replica of an artifact from the French Revolution onto the grounds of Queen’s Park came to be dubbed “violent extremism” – equated with actual terror attacks that actually kill actual people – and used as a justification by the Ontario government’s most supportive mainstream media outlet to argue that protesters should pipe down.

Still, I couldn’t be certain MacLeod told a lie unless I did some basic fact-checking. On Monday, I e-mailed her spokesperson asking where she had heard about an effigy. I received a reply from Simon Jefferies, Ford’s director of media relations. “The Premier’s Office heard first-hand accounts that an effigy of the Premier was decapitated at the May Day event,” he wrote. This explanation seemed weirdly vague. From whom did his office hear these “first-hand accounts?” I asked. “Individuals who were at the protest,” he replied, tautologically.

Did his office make any attempts to confirm the allegation? I asked. “Yes. We confirmed with those who saw it,” he replied. What proof did they offer? I asked. He replied: “They were there. They saw it happen. I am not sure what else I can say to convince you. You clearly have made up your mind.”

In fact, I replied, I was just looking for something that might substantiate their allegation. After all, the incident was heavily documented. And yet, I told him, “You have offered no proof.” He didn’t respond.

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On Tuesday morning, Conservative supporters received a fundraising e-mail from MacLeod with the subject heading “They want to cut off his head.” It mentioned the guillotine.

But there was nothing about an effigy.

Hey, it’s a start.

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