This week, a video that was plainly designed to go viral achieved its purpose, when a clip of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre sparring with a reporter in an apple orchard blew through international conservative circles like catnip.
In the video, a journalist asks Mr. Poilievre about his populist approach, but each time he tries to get a foothold on the question, Mr. Poilievre sails in with a cross-check: What does populism mean? Who says I’m taking a page out of Donald Trump’s book? And which page, anyway?
He does all of this while eating an apple like a theatrically bored horse, just in case there was any doubt about his contempt for the person he’s talking to.
The Daily Mail’s headline was typical of right-leaning glee, describing how Mr. Poilievre “calmly tears apart reporter.” Many outlets and people who lapped it up described the journalist in the clip – Don Urquhart, editor of the Times Chronicle in British Columbia wine country – as a “lefty” or “woke.”
I found another instance of Mr. Poilievre attempting to dismantle a journalist. Here is that exchange, lightly edited for length:
Reporter: Are you at all worried about a sorcerer’s apprentice effect? There’s a lot of anger in society right now, and if you say things that certain people like or it excites them, what if you can’t control how they react? What if you mobilize people and something ugly happens that you would never have wanted?
Poilievre: No. Because I have not said anything that would provoke something like that. And by the way, the guy who has done more to provoke division and stoke anger across this country is Justin Trudeau.
I would also add that your colleagues were vigorously criticizing me for the Fair Elections Act back in 2014. I had death threats at my house, delivered to my mailbox. Do you think Steve Maher [the journalist who covered the issue] should take personal responsibility for that because he was criticizing me at the time?
Reporter: Right, so ... Well, anyway, let’s leave that.
Poilievre: No, I think you should ask yourself that question.
Reporter: Well, what I’m asking ...
Poilievre: What you seem to be suggesting is that I shouldn’t be criticizing the government because someone else might get angry about that, and do something that I don’t want them to do. But if that’s the logic, well then, Steve Maher should take personal responsibility for death threats delivered to my house.
Reporter: I was talking more about the explicitly populist language, the us-versus-them, the elites are coming for you. I take your point about the divisiveness of Trudeau – but that doesn’t mean it’s good thing to do on the other side. It doesn’t mean that it might not have really negative spin-off effects, if we set up this idea that there’s me and there’s you, and we’re on opposing teams, and you’re out to get me.
Poilievre: I don’t think that accurately characterizes what I’m saying.
I remembered this exchange, because that journalist fumbling their way back to the point they were sure they had before Mr. Poilievre revved up his rhetorical pea-shooter was me.
At the time, in February of 2022, the convoy had been in Ottawa for almost two weeks, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole had just been turfed, and I was more than a month into working on a hefty profile of Mr. Poilievre, the instant front-runner to replace him.
What had been scheduled as a 15-minute phone interview stretched to an hour, so it can’t have been just me who found it a good and useful conversation that helped me understand him and his view of the world better.
The couple of times we got mired in a testy, go-nowhere exchange, it seemed like Mr. Poilievre retreated to debate-club fisticuffs because he couldn’t or refused to respond to the underlying question. I think that’s what was going on with Mr. Urquhart, too, only with an added layer of performative apple-crunching disdain.
But now we see, with the virality of that clip, that this kind of thing can serve a much juicier purpose if you have a videographer on staff. Just deke shamelessly around a reporter, and they become your punching bag or – even better – the mascot of some media cabal. Either way: You win, and you don’t have to answer the question. Heck, the question isn’t even a real question, it’s a conspiracy.
Sure, Mr. Urquhart’s question was muddled – though show me a journalist who says they’ve never framed a question badly, especially when nervous, overworked or out of their element, and I’ll show you someone with their pants on fire. It’s perfectly clear what he was getting at. Mr. Poilievre is free to reject the premise of the question and deploy all of his considerable rhetorical talents to dispute it, because that’s the way this works.
But kicking a journalist in the shins over and over to throw them off balance so you can run away, then turning the exchange into a social-media flex is telling on yourself.
In order for this scenario to be the delicious come-uppance its fans believe it to be, you have to see Mr. Poilievre – leader of a major political party, a lifelong politician and, if the polls are right, the next prime minister – as the underdog here, not the overworked local reporter just trying to ask a guy from Ottawa a couple of questions in an apple orchard.
I requested an interview with Mr. Urquhart because I wanted to know what he thought, but he’s not ready to talk. I can’t imagine he’s had a good week, becoming an accidental main character in someone else’s revenge fantasy.
I hope he’ll find a way to tell his own side of the story, but he might be a little busy. Since he interviewed Mr. Poilievre, he’s written seven other news stories, on everything from emergency hospital closings to restaurant and theatre reviews, which means he’s probably worked harder this week and done more to illuminate his corner of the world than all the rest of us.