If you don't read either the Canadian press or (in the past week or so) certain conservative American weblogs, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Briefly, the sponsorship scandal involved the diversion of more than $100 million of federal money from its intended purpose (promoting Canadian nationalism in Quebec) into the pockets of the Liberal Party and its supporters, via several pro-Liberal advertising agencies. The scandal has been a hot issue since February of 2004, and the continuing investigation caused problems for the Liberals in the June 2004 elections.
What's happened lately? The official investigative body for the scandal, the Gomery Commission, has been hearing testimony from one of the implicated advertising executives, Jean Brault. Because Brault is also facing a criminal trial for fraud, Justice Gomery placed his testimony under a "publication ban," a rarely-used Canadian legal procedure which attempts to prevent the contamination of potential jurors by forbidding the media to publish or broadcast information about the case before trial. Weirdly - or at least it seems weird to me - the proceedings themselves weren't secret. The press was allowed into the hearings, as was the public. Pretty much everyone in Parliament reportedly knew all the details of the testimony. But until the ban was lifted yesterday, no one was allowed to print articles or commentary about it - including, according to the commission, bloggers.
Last weekend, Brault's testimony was leaked to a conservative American blogger by an unnamed "Deep Throat" figure who appears to have been directly connected to someone in the hearing room. Subsequently, a few Canadian websites linked to the American blogger and CTV mentioned the name of his blog. Since then,
Mr. Morrissey saw the traffic on his website increase tenfold as Canadians clicked on to read the testimony from Quebec ad executive Jean Brault.So the case was a real windfall for Morrissey (a.k.a. "Captain Ed"), in terms of vastly increased blog traffic, blogosphere influence, and interviews with the traditional media. But it was also a windfall for Conservative Party interests in Canada. Until the publication ban was lifted, just about the only coverage of the banned testimony occurred in conservative U.S. weblogs. The mainstream Canadian media, of course, respected the publication ban. Liberal and left-wing blogs in the U.S. have been largely silent - other than a brief mention by Kos in which he misses the point completely by casting the story as attempted government suppression of "citizen media." (In fact, this is a case in which the "citizen media" was treated in precisely the same way as the professional media.) So a strongly conservative slant dominated the only coverage Canadians saw. If Morrissey's "Deep Throat" is a Canadian Conservative, as seems likely, then leaking the testimony to him was a brilliant political ploy.
By midday, 131,000 people had visited the site. In just one hour before lunchtime, he had 26,000 hits and by the end of the day he estimated he was on track for about 300,000 hits, many from Canadians. He averages 22,000 visits a day.
U.S. conservative commentary on the scandal has involved two primary threads. Unsurprisingly, there's plenty of American First Amendment triumphalism:
The fact of the matter is that while Western Canada has close similarities to the rugged individualism of the American West, Canada, as a whole, is a smarmy country filled with spineless liberals who allow a corrupt government to clamp down on freedom.(An even more ludicrous example of this argument can be found here.) Yes indeed, America is a country in which the press can say whatever it wants about governmental and judicial activity - which is why we all know exactly what's been happening in the Valerie Plame case and what the grand jury testimony has been. ("But that's different," because... um, because it's conservatives who have been accused of wrongdoing, as far as I can tell.) Even Howard Kurtz got into the act:
We in the United States have the First Amendment to protect our freedom of speech and freedom for churches to take moral stands. Canada has no such protection and Canada's Queen has long since abdicated any responsibility she has for her subjects to the hands of a corrupt government.
You often hear about dictatorships cracking down on Internet news to maintain censorship as tightly as possible. These are generally the kind of regimes that not only try to choke off free expression but are fighting a losing battle against technology in the process.There are two problems with this line of reasoning, not counting its inaccurate portrayal of America's perfect First Amendment freedom. In order to cast the Gomery publication ban as the oppressive quashing of political criticism by a banana republic-style totalitarian government, one has to ignore the fact that the ban was not put in place by the Liberal government, but by an independent judicial commission charged with rooting out corruption in the Liberal government. As the Canadian blogger Kevin Brennan says at Tilting at Windmills:
And the latest offender is . . . Canada?
I'm becoming increasingly annoyed by the weird partisanship displayed by some in this case. People are talking like Gomery is an agent of the government all of a sudden. Funny, I don't remember many of those people making that claim before, say, Monday. If Gomery cannot be trusted to fully investigate this matter then we have a much bigger problem than the publication ban, and that's what we need to be talking about. [...] The publication ban was not requested by the federal government or by the Liberal Party. It was requested by individuals who are facing criminal charges who are concerned that it could affect their trials.The obfuscation regarding just who imposed the ban is helped along, perhaps intentionally, by the fact that the word "government" means something quite different to Canadians and Americans. In the U.S., the word "government" typically applies to all three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judiciary. Using this definition, it makes sense for an American blogger to say that the "Canadian government" imposed the publication ban. However, in Canada, "government" is a much narrower term applying to the prime minister and the cabinet of the ruling party - in this case, the Liberals. A Canadian reading U.S. weblog commentary might therefore come away with the impression that the Liberal Party is directly responsible for the publication ban. Thus, the fact that the story was broken by U.S. commentators using U.S.-centric terms strongly increased the appearance of corruption underlying the ban.
In order to portray the ban as an effort to cover up government corruption, one also has to ignore the fact that the ban was clearly defined as temporary, intended to last only until Mr. Brault went on trial in May. (It has now been mostly lifted because Justice Gomery ruled that Brault's testimony was unlikely to affect his fraud trial.) Members of the opposition parties heard the banned testimony. The press heard the banned testimony. There was simply no way for it to be permanently suppressed - nor was there any indication that it would be. It was a temporary secrecy measure, much as the secrecy surrounding grand jury deliberations in the U.S. is temporary, or the Pentagon-imposed embargo of certain information known to the press (for example, embedded reporters) during wartime.
So the need to whip up a froth of outrage about the publication ban despite its temporary nature led to the other main thread of U.S. blogger commentary: the suggestion that the Liberal Party would deviously attempt to hold a "snap election" to further their hold on government power before the Gomery Commission released Brault's testimony. So, for example, Captain Ed: "The potential damage of their testimony has so unnerved the Liberal Party that they have reportedly started working towards a snap election so that they will not have to face the voters once the facts surface from the record."
Let's try to imagine how that might have worked. It was widely known throughout Canada that Brault's testimony to the Gomery commission was going to involve very bad things about the Liberal Party. No one knew the details, but it was clear from the commentary surrounding the hearings that Brault's testimony was expected to be very damaging indeed. Here's Canadian blogger James Bow:
As expected, the testimony delivered by these individuals has been explosive. How explosive? Explosive enough that the Liberal Party has sought (and received) official standing at the commission to cross-examine the witnesses. Explosive enough that the Conservatives are seriously considering tossing out the government and running the next election on an anti-corruption platform.Can anyone really look at that situation - besides, apparently, Captain Ed and his fellow U.S. conservative bloggers - and think, "Gee, what a perfect political situation for the Liberals! Boy, I wish I could stand for election under a cloud of racy and unspecified accusations!"? In fact, the only cited evidence that the Liberals wanted an election appears to involve the fact that the Liberals, like the other three Canadian parties, were beginning to prepare for an election - as you would expect them to do, given declarations by the Conservatives that the government should be brought down.
Thing is, we can’t tell you what the witnesses have said because of the publication ban. When Canadians look to the opposition parties, all they get is: “we’re thinking of throwing out the government.” / “Why?” / “Because of recent testimony at the Gomery inquiry” / “Why? How big were the revelations?” / “Big.” / “How big?” / “Trust us: BIG!”
In the post cited above, Bow went on to suggest that the Brault testimony would be most damaging to the Liberals under the ban, when rumor and innuendo could drive the coverage: "How disappointed are people going to be when the publication bans lapse and the Canadian public just shrugs its shoulders? That’s what’s going to happen, folks. For a number of reasons; not the least of which is that all the speculation over the fall of the government has raised expectations over just how bad the revelations are going to be." That seems about right to me - the greatest Conservative Party advantage was during the period of time that the Brault testimony was banned from legitimate news media commentary, and yet widely discussed in coverage driven by U.S. conservatives.
Honestly, although the right-wing blogosphere seems to see this story as one more example of mighty blogs triumphing over corrupt mainstream institutions, from my cynical viewpoint it looks a lot more like U.S. conservative bloggers were used, via Captain Ed's "Deep Throat," to further the political agenda of the Canadian Conservative Party. What made a bunch of American conservatives - including Michelle Malkin , for Lord's sake - sudden experts on Canadian politics? I suspect that they didn't just get fed Brault's testimony - they got fed background and interpretation as well. In many cases, their ignorance of Canadian politics (for example, on the exact nature of the publication ban) served Conservative interests much better than the facts would have. All I'm saying is: both the ban and its violation by Americans have worked out very conveniently indeed for the Conservative Party.