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Arts ‘Write op-eds saying that what she is doing is proper.’ What the Wilson-Raybould testimony reveals about the politics of newspaper opinion pieces

Former justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould prepares to testify before the House justice committee in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2019.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

For a few astonishing hours this week, we were all Neo.

In the 1999 sci-fi thriller The Matrix, you’ll recall, Keanu Reeves plays a computer hacker named Neo who realizes with growing horror that the world he perceives is merely a software-powered simulacrum; with the guidance of rebel leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), he finally sees the appalling mechanics behind the pleasant illusion under which he’d been living.

We could certainly relate, as Jody Wilson-Raybould sat before the House of Commons justice committee and revealed to riveted viewers exactly how the icky mechanics of politics and justice bump and grind together in this country, for the benefit of some.

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Explainer: Wilson-Raybould on SNC-Lavalin and Trudeau: What you missed from her bombshell testimony, and what it means

Among the revelations in her opening statement on the matter of SNC-Lavalin, Wilson-Raybould noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s staff were eager to get another legal opinion to weigh in on the wisdom of a deferred-prosecution agreement that could help the company elude a criminal trial. Apparently, Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, floated the idea that, if Wilson-Raybould were concerned about blowback, they “would of course line up all kinds of people to write op-eds saying that what she is doing is proper.”

The reaction to this – the implication that the Prime Minister’s Office might have pliant editors on speed dial – was swift and damning. Ken Whyte, the former editor-in-chief of the National Post, wrote on Twitter that he found it “the creepiest thing,” and added, “editors need to be extremely cautious about taking op-eds from hacks and consultants and others close to governments because you become vulnerable to [stuff] like this. Credible op-ed pages should have no part of party activists and consultants.”

To make matters uglier, there’s a $600-million elephant in the room. David Akin of Global News tweeted that the scenario helps give “credence to all those who say media can be bought with the $600m media bailout given by Trudeau gov’t. That a chief of staff to the PMO can “order up” friendly editorials like they do in China.” Akin is a great reporter, but his apparent conflation of op-eds (which are independently written and pitched to newspapers, with no certainty of being published) with editorials (which are written by staff and represent the institutional voice of an outlet) is weird and wrong.

Editors who commission op-eds (it means “opposite-editorial” page in print, not “opinion-editorial”) try to ensure that the articles are fair, and that they shed light on an issue of public interest. And, if the author has a significant or material interest in a matter, that should be disclosed.

Still, this episode has become Exhibit 972 (I’ve lost count) in Why Government-Subsidized Journalism Makes For Bad Optics. The moment an outlet takes a handout, the public has grounds to wonder if the money has strings attached. CBC, for one, has to fight this headwind on a daily basis.

But in many ways, Telford’s op-ed scenario is the air that every public-relations professional breathes. PR firms spend their days cranking out articles on behalf of commercial clients attesting to the revolutionary benefits of a new toothpaste/mindfulness app/social cause, which they hope to place in legitimate outlets.

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Government ministries and departments do the same thing when they have new programs or policies to unveil. Community papers are favourite soft targets for these sorts of messages. The Huffington Post’s Althia Raj suggested on Twitter that Telford’s idea struck her as “no different than what was done in the Harper PMO or other Trudeau gov’t decisions. Think of all stakeholders lined up to support gov’t policy/budgets.”

In fact, Wilson-Raybould wasn’t the first one this week to give us a glimpse behind the Opinion Matrix. The National Observer revealed that Sherri Taylor, the mother of an autistic boy, had been asked by the office of Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod to write an op-ed in favour of the Ford government’s controversial changes to its autism treatment program. Taylor worked with MacLeod’s office on shaping the piece, and was advised that she would need to send it in herself. According to the Observer, MacLeod’s policy director, Susan Truppe, told Taylor: “Newspapers are particular that the person writing must be the person sending the op-ed.” (In the end, she didn’t submit it.)

So, sure, this is how things are done. Still, it would be nice if those submitting op-eds disclosed who asked them to write the pieces. Until then, editors are just going to have to be even more skeptical than they already are. Readers, too.

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