“Exclusive interview,” the headline blared. The Rebel was letting us know that Conservative leaders were talking to it again, officially. Erin O’Toole had done an interview with the far-right media website.
Or maybe he hadn’t. Or maybe he had. Both, actually.
And in that little riddle lies the sticky little problem that Mr. O’Toole and his Conservative Party have with The Rebel and its ilk: They can’t quit it. And they can’t not quit it.
You will recall that Mr. O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer, declared he would do no more interviews with The Rebel after one of its most prominent (and subsequently fired) personalities, Faith Goldy, went to cover white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Her coverage amounted to cheering it on, and she also appeared on a podcast hosted by neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. It took Mr. Scheer several days to announce he was cutting off The Rebel, but he got there. From then on, the leader did no interviews with the site.
So Mr. O’Toole’s “interview” is a change. He was willing to engage with The Rebel.
And then – go figure – it got weird.
Mr. O’Toole’s director of communications, Melanie Paradis, took to Twitter to insist Mr. O’Toole had not done an interview, exclusive or otherwise. His press secretary had just sent him an e-mail.
The Rebel’s owner, Ezra Levant, called her a liar.
It turned out that Mr. Levant had asked for an interview on Skype, but was told he would have to send his questions by e-mail. He did, in late December, and Mr. O’Toole’s press secretary, Chelsea Tucker, sent answers. But she told him the answers could be attributed to Mr. O’Toole.
Now, as a practice, journalists don’t consider that kind of exchange an “interview.” But when a spokesman sends a list of answers that are supposedly from the mouth of the party leader, it’s a party leader answering your organization’s questions.
Why does it matter? Ms. Paradis insisted it wasn’t an interview and said Mr. O’Toole won’t do one with The Rebel in the future. The answers were mostly stuff the Conservative Leader has said before about China.
But it just reopens a can of worms that keeps the Conservatives squirming time and again because they are so slow to draw bright lines between their base and unacceptable extremes. And it comes at a time when we’ve just had an object lesson from Donald Trump about how dangerous that can be.
Mr. O’Toole is no Mr. Trump, but he has had his own flirtations with meme-centred campaign materials that hint at conspiracies. His leadership campaign worked with another conservative site, The Post Millennial, that shaped its stories to favour Mr. O’Toole and attack his rival, Peter MacKay.
But that’s not the same kettle of fish as The Rebel, the site that used to feature Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, led cheers for white supremacists and furthered stolen-election conspiracy theories.
Once again, the Conservatives are allowing people to wonder if they can’t decide to quit a site that is both influential with some on the right and pariah to many Canadians.
Last week, The Rebel’s Keean Bexte was at the Capitol in Washington tweeting that the U.S. election was stolen, and that “all these people wanted was to have their voices heard, that is all.” This week, Mr. O’Toole was touted on the site.
For Conservatives, it’s one more round of reputational damage, and Mr. O’Toole’s Tories are feeling a bit like it’s all raining on their heads at just the wrong time.
Ms. Tucker’s e-mail to Mr. Levant was sent before Christmas, but it looked worse when it came out after last week’s events. So did the widely circulated shots of Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen sporting a borrowed MAGA hat. Mr. O’Toole faced social-media complaints for having an account on Parler, the right-wing alternative to Twitter, which is no crime in itself, but completely irrelevant because, according to his staff, it was a fake account opened by someone else. And a two-year-old Conservative ad attacking the Liberals for passing a law that would “rig” elections was dredged up misleadingly to accuse the party of Trumpism.
Yes, some of that isn’t fair. But then Mr. O’Toole’s best defence, and his duty, is to draw a red line for everyone to see.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column said The Rebel sent Faith Goldy to cover the white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va. In fact, The Rebel says it did not send her, but that she went on her own initiative.