On Sept. 29, 1972, a story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post that began as follows: “John N. Mitchell, while serving as U.S. Attorney General, personally controlled a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about the Democrats, according to sources involved in the Watergate investigation.”
Not “allegedly.” Not “reputedly.” The story flat out accuses the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government of running a political espionage operation on the side, with the obvious implication that this might have included the Watergate break-in.
Whose authority did the story cite for this explosive accusation, potentially ruining Mr. Mitchell’s career and reputation? “Sources involved in the Watergate investigation.” The story goes on to report Mr. Mitchell “personally approved withdrawals from the fund.” Who says? “Several reliable sources.”
The story, of course, was by the team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It was hardly unique in its reliance on unnamed sources, or in its willingness to make specific charges of wrongdoing about specific people on that basis.
Here’s another one, from Oct. 10, 1972: “The Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.”
No room for ambiguity there. A sweeping, potentially criminal indictment. The source? “FBI agents.” Unnamed or, as some prefer, anonymous (they’re not anonymous to the reporters) sources. Indeed the whole Woodward and Bernstein oeuvre depended on it: not only the particular sources of each story, but lurking over all, the famous Deep Throat, identified decades later as the then-associate director of the FBI, Mark Felt.
Would the story – I mean the larger story, Watergate, the cover-up, the whole shebang – have come out anyway, without Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein’s scoops? Possibly. But their sources, and Mr. Felt in particular, evidently were concerned that it might not. So they placed their trust in the reporters.
The Woodstein team and their editors in turn decided to trust their sources, and asked the public to trust their judgment. Not everyone did. They were denounced, notably by the White House press secretary, Ron Ziegler, as traffickers in “hearsay, innuendo, and guilt by association” – repeatedly, over many months. Other media were slow to pick up the story. Public opinion largely sided with Mr. Nixon, who was re-elected in a landslide a month after the “massive campaign of political spying” story appeared.
Worse, they got some things wrong: famously, in the case of whether a White House aide-turned-whistleblower, Hugh Sloan, had made a particular allegation before a grand jury or not. But in the broad strokes they were right. Did they rely on unnamed sources? Did they accuse people of wrongdoing? Yes, but what they reported was true. That, in the end, is what mattered.
Why am I going over all of this ancient history? Because something similar is under way now, on another story of political malfeasance: China’s attempts to interfere with our elections, what help it might have received from domestic enablers, and what the Trudeau government did or did not know about it. I don’t mean it’s as big a story (although it’s big enough). And we don’t know yet what all the facts are.
But in the basics – reporters alleging wrongdoing by public officials, based on evidence provided by unnamed sources, who feared the story might otherwise be suppressed – it raises many of the same issues. Only this time it’s not only the flop-sweating spokespeople for the accused who are denouncing the reporters for their use of unnamed sources. It’s much of the Canadian establishment.
That the Liberals have been actively encouraging this sentiment – poke through the agonized online cries of “my God what is this country coming to” and “this has all the earmarks of a coup,” and you find a heavy concentration of Liberal partisans – is undoubted. But it also has other, less cynical adherents.
It all sounds terribly well-meaning, until you stop to ask: What exactly are they saying? Let us suppose for the moment that the stories are true. It is plainly in the public interest to know by what means China attempted to tilt our elections, for what reasons, with what success, and with what assistance – witting or unwitting, by commission or omission – from domestic sources.
So their position can’t possibly be that this sort of thing just shouldn’t be reported – even if true. Is it, then, that a reporter who is given evidence of this should refuse to report it unless their sources publicly identify themselves? But that, in the circumstances, amounts to saying it should not be reported: It is not just career-ending but illegal for intelligence officials to leak classified information. Unnamed sources are a critical part of investigative reporting, and were long before Watergate.
That does expose reporters to greater risk – risk that their sources have it wrong, risk that they are getting played, risk that they have misinterpreted their sources. And the risks are especially great where the story involves accusations of wrongdoing, where not only the reputation and livelihood of the subject of the story are on the line – so, potentially, are the reporters’.
But that is a risk for the reporters and their editors to assess. It does not and cannot automatically mean the story should not be reported. The test, in the end, is not “does this story rely on unnamed sources” or “does it injure someone’s reputation,” but “is it true?” Or at least – since perfect certainty is not given to us on this Earth – has every reasonable effort been made to verify it is true?
That’s the legal standard, but if the reporter has it wrong he will pay the price regardless of how diligent he was. And if he has it right? Then all the bluster about unnamed sources and damaged reputations will be so much wasted breath. If the stories are true, reputations deserve to be damaged.
So: Let’s find out, shall we? Rather than instantly accept or unquestioningly dismiss the allegations, as some have done, why don’t we focus on weighing them against the evidence? In the particular case of the allegations against Ontario MP Han Dong, the truth or falsehood of them may soon be tested in court. As to the rest, that is the work of the various inquiries now under way – to which a public inquiry is an essential addition – none of which would have been launched had the stories never been reported.
The only purpose served by these operatic swoons “that such things could even be reported” is to fit a broader Liberal narrative of victimhood – at the hands of the notoriously Liberal-hating media – in which any and all allegations can be depicted, not as a sign that something is amiss with Liberal ethics, but that the press are out to get us.
Thus legitimate concerns about whether the independent special rapporteur on the China interference matter, David Johnston, was in a conflict of interest, by virtue of his long personal and professional association with the Prime Minister, are converted into “these vicious attacks on that good man.”
And thus the mounting questions about the management and directors of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation are dismissed, as were previous concerns about the management of the WE Charity organization, as “attempts to destroy these wonderful charities.” The truth or falsehood of the allegations is, apparently, immaterial: only their effect on Liberal amour propre.
These are magnificent deflections. In the case of the Johnston appointment – one of several in quick succession to have raised conflict-of-interest issues – his “unimpeachable integrity,” as I have written before, is irrelevant. There is no exemption in the conflict-of-interest rules for people of good character. The rule is not: Avoid conflicts of interest, unless you are a very good man. The rule is: Avoid conflicts of interest.
As for the Trudeau Foundation, earlier concerns over its acceptance, in 2016, of a $200,000 donation from a Chinese billionaire – later reported by The Globe and Mail to have been reimbursed by the Chinese government – have been supplemented by concerns over what it did with it afterward, after the sudden resignation this week of eight members of the current board, along with four members of senior management and six “mentors.” (Disclosure: My cousin once removed, the daughter of Pierre Trudeau, is one of those now-resigned board members.)
According to a story in La Presse, board members belatedly discovered that the money had not been returned, as had been promised after the story broke, apparently because the cheque that was to return the funds was made out to a different name than that of the real donor. Directors who had been on the board at the time of the donation were apparently asked to recuse themselves from any investigation, and allegedly refused.
“An independent investigation,” one director said, “would have determined who the donor was, if there were conditions attached to these sums, and the relationships behind all this.” As it is, said another, “we have lost confidence in the organization’s ability to handle this file with transparency, integrity and accountability.”
That’s not the jackal press talking. That’s not the scandal-happy opposition. Those are (former) members of the board of the foundation itself. Perhaps they have their own agenda. Maybe they have their own questions to answer. Again, that’s what an investigation is for.
But it’s a bit much to present the directors’ mass resignation, as the foundation attempted to do in the immediate aftermath, as a response to the “politicization” of its work (“a bunch of lies,” one of the departed directors told La Presse), or to dismiss the whole controversy, as the Prime Minister did on Tuesday, as merely a reflection of “the level of toxicity and political polarization” in the air these days.
That sort of response won’t wash any more, or shouldn’t. Sooner or later, the truth will out. It’s time to stop deflecting, and start answering.