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christie blatchford

Does anyone care that the new Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition was "found," albeit never charged, in a Toronto Police raid on a rub-and-tug massage parlor 15 years ago? Should anyone care?

The answer to the first question would appear to be a resounding no.

On the very day the Toronto Sun broke the story, Jack Layton's already soaring personal leadership scores jumped some more. The rise in support suggests "that the story in fact helped" Mr. Layton, according to pollster Nik Nanos, who said the numbers showed people saw the piece as a deliberate political smear.

The answer to the second is a little more complicated, or ought to be.

Nothing may better reflect the seriousness of the threat that was posed by Mr. Layton and the New Democratic Party than the timing of this story: Someone, and I don't mean the newspaper, certainly seems to have hoped it would slow the party's momentum, especially since it turns out a similar tale about Mr. Layton, minus the confirmatory details necessary for publication, was shopped around once before, to the National Post, allegedly by a Liberal campaign operative, two days before the last federal election.

But timing aside, does the story amount to a "smear campaign," as it was denounced both by the NDP Leader and his MP wife, Olivia Chow?

It does. My big old Webster's dictionary, 1966 version, defines smear this way: "To vilify or blacken the reputation by applying a debasing or odious epithet." There's nothing in the definition that says the smear must also be untrue.

And there's the rub, as it were.

Mr. Layton has acknowledged that when the cops, looking for underage Asian hookers, returned to the Velvet Touch parlour in the city's downtown Chinatown on Jan. 9, 1996 - their first visit was two weeks earlier and then they apparently charged a man with keeping a common bawdy house - he was indeed there.

Given that the Sun reproduced pages from contemporaneous notes made by one of the officers, including Mr. Layton's name, birth date and address, he had little choice but to make the admission.

But Mr. Layton, Ms. Chow - both then Metro Toronto councillors - and NDP lawyer Brian Iler all painted his visit there as an entirely innocent excursion.

The NDP leader said he simply went for a massage and had no idea the place was suspect; Ms. Chow noted that her husband exercises regularly, was and is in great shape and just needed a massage, and Mr. Iler said in a written statement that Mr. Layton "had no knowledge whatsoever that the therapist's location may have been used for illicit purposes."

A rather richer picture was provided by the officer's reproduced notes and an interview with the Sun: Mr. Layton, ostensibly there for a shiatsu massage (which traditionally doesn't require the removal of any clothing, let alone all of it) was lying naked on a bed; the female "therapist" dumped wet Kleenex into a garbage can upon the arrival of the police, and when Mr. Layton was asked if he'd received a sexual service and replied that he was there for shiatsu and one of the officers asked why, then, he had all his clothes off, he had no reply.

While it's presumably possible to wander by mistake into a seedy little joint with a blaring red sign looking for a normal massage, it seems unlikely, especially for a sophisticated urban-dweller like Mr. Layton.

What it says about one of the most trusted political figures in the country is consistent with a thread of hypocrisy which has run through his political life.

As self-styled defenders of the oppressed and marginalized, Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow, then earning about $120,000 a year between them, nonetheless for years lived in a government-subsidized three-bedroom co-op apartment where they paid alleged "market" rent of $800 a month. As the perennial booster of public health care, Mr. Layton nonetheless once had hernia surgery at a private facility north of Toronto. And as a staunch feminist who, as a councillor, once advocated a ban on touching during lap dancing, he was found naked in a room at the Velvet Touch.

Mr. Layton wasn't charged or arrested. Police filled out a suspect investigation card, and that, until last weekend, was that.

If the revelations actually gave Mr. Layton a boost with voters, then so too should the news that Toronto Police have asked the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate - the leak, of course.

In fairness, it's what the OPP does best.

And so does the weirdest twist in a fascinating election campaign end on a familiar and particularly Canadian note: Damn the story, hurray for poor Mr. Layton and launch the hunt for the source of the leak on possible breach of trust charges.

It is never more satisfying to shoot the messenger than when the information he releases is unpleasant, or contradicts the favoured narrative of the moment.