Last week, I published an article explaining why I don’t trust Global News reports that MP Han Dong is allegedly a “witting affiliate in China’s election interference networks” who implicitly suggested to a Chinese diplomat that the country should keep Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig imprisoned.
If you have a few minutes and haven’t read that piece yet, I’d suggest doing so now. There are many relevant details in it. In summary, I argued that, “As a whole, [Global News reporter Sam] Cooper’s reporting is unconvincing. It relies almost entirely on anonymous CSIS sources. It fails to confirm many of the allegations these sources make. It doesn’t attempt to address any of the inconsistencies in their stories. It has no interest in interrogating why they may be making the claims. And its past treatment of Dong was misleading [due to burying very important details in a story].”
The events of the past few days have made me feel more justified in expressing skepticism.
On March 23, one day after Global News released the report on Dong, The Globe and Mail published an article by Robert Fife and Steven Chase containing some crucial details.
Dong told the Globe that he intends to launch a defamation lawsuit against Global News, stating, “This is for my family’s honour. The allegations are very serious. They are untrue.” Someone launching a defamation lawsuit doesn’t mean that what they’re being accused of is incorrect or that they even necessarily think it’s wrong or unfair. Spurious lawsuits are launched all the time (leading to the introduction of anti-SLAPP laws). However, these lawsuits can also lead to more attention being given to the allegations as well as unflattering information coming up through the discovery process, meaning it can always be a risk for the plaintiff.
More importantly, however, is that we learned some details about what was going on behind the scenes in the leadup to Global News publishing its report.
- The Globe reveals that it knew of the allegation made against Dong at least six weeks before Global News published its story, noting that it reached out to him on February 10 to ask about the conversation with the Chinese diplomat.
Shortly after Global News’ story was published, I heard rumours from multiple people that the outlet wasn’t the only, and perhaps not even the first, publication to have been contacted by unnamed sources regarding Dong’s conversation with the Chinese diplomat. This story from the Globe confirms that.
- The Globe reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s press secretary told the publication that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had only heard about Dong’s call after being contacted by Globe reporters on March 3.
This may or may not be true. What it does reveal, however, is that Global News wasn’t the first outlet to get in touch with the PMO about the allegations. I assumed Global News had been the first to do so, but looking back at their March 22 article now, I can see this is never stated.
If this claim is true, it reveals that CSIS never informed the PMO about Dong’s call with the Chinese diplomat, indicating they didn’t think he had done anything wrong, or at least wrong enough to warrant getting in touch (and on such a critical matter, I assume the bar would be lower than normal).
- The Globe claims they decided not to publish the allegations against Dong because they weren’t able to review a transcript or tape recording of his call with the Chinese diplomat.
One publication deciding not to go forward with a story doesn’t necessarily mean another doing so is wrong. What it does make clear, though, is that if both publications had access to the same evidence, then they have different standards of proof to which they hold stories.
Global News doesn’t state or even suggest in their March 22 article that they reviewed a tape or transcript of Dong’s call with the diplomat. If they had reviewed this call, I assume they would have made this explicit. The fact that they didn’t probably means that, like the Globe, they were unable to review the call, but that unlike the Globe, they went forward anyway. This bolsters the critique I made last week that Global News appears to be relying almost entirely on their unnamed sources.
- The Globe reported that a senior government source told them the PMO and its National Security Office reached out to CSIS requesting a transcript of the call after hearing from Globe reporters.
We don’t know exactly when the PMO allegedly reached out to CSIS, but given it was contacted by the Globe on March 3 and the matter would be of critical importance, I feel safe assuming that it would have done so before the Global News story was published on March 22.
- The Globe reported that their source told them the PMO received the transcript from CSIS, reviewed it and came to the conclusion that there was no “actionable evidence” against Dong.
This is a major development in the story, for obvious reasons: the PMO allegedly didn’t find Dong’s call to be proof that he had done something wrong. That brings the PMO in line with what it seems like CSIS determined as an organization (unless the PMO is lying).
But this is also crucial to the story behind the story. As I mentioned, we don’t know when the PMO reached out to CSIS for the transcript. We also don’t know when the PMO received it or how long it took for them to come to their determination on the call. (I reached out to the PMO asking all three of these questions, but they told me “CSIS would be best placed” to answer them, which, frankly, makes little sense.) Given that this story was released on March 23 and the Globe reached out on March 3, we know the maximum time this took was about 20 days. However, given the importance of this information, I feel confident assuming this process took less time.
If that is the case, then we know this determination by the PMO had been made before Global News published its story. Global News’ story didn’t include this determination. The only quotes it included from the PMO about the allegation were the one mentioned earlier in this story and the claim that they hadn’t used Dong as a back channel to China.
The choice to include these comments could have made it appear to some at the time of publication that the PMO was being caught by surprise and hadn’t looked into the allegations. There’s now reason to believe, due to the Globe’s reporting, that this almost certainly wasn’t true given that the Globe had reached out prior to Global News and that the PMO’s office had almost certainly sprung into action at that point. Of course, we can’t be sure unless we know all of the dates in question. (I reached out to Fife and Chase yesterday to ask them if they received their tip before Global News published its story, but I have yet to hear back from them. If I do, I will update this piece.)
I was skeptical of Global News’ reporting to begin with, but many others weren’t. Imagine how much differently Cooper’s March 22 story would have read and been received if it had included the detail that the PMO had reviewed Dong’s call with the diplomat and found no “actionable evidence” against him. Given the revelation of this detail and how crucial the PMO’s assessment is to the story (even though other parties could come to a different one), we must ask: Why did Global News not mention this detail in their report?
One explanation is that they simply didn’t know about it. This means that they didn’t do enough work to find it out, which is no excuse (particularly given how serious this story is and that there was no real deadline or urgency for them to publish it). Global should have waited and pressed the PMO and any sources they had in it for more details.
The other explanation is that they did know about the PMO’s assessment and decided not to include it in the story. This would be complete journalistic malpractice.
I reached out to Cooper yesterday to ask him why this detail wasn’t included in his story, but I haven’t heard back yet. I will update this piece if he does respond.
Regardless of what the reason ends up being, if the Globe’s source’s tip is true, then Global News’ omission is inexcusable.