Greg Weston’s phone rang after 10 p.m. A top official from a senior minister’s office was on the line. He had a problem, he told Weston. Justice department lawyers were hounding a single mother who had made a harassment complaint. They were trying to wear her down with legal bills. And the official couldn’t get it to stop. Was Weston interested in the story?
You bet he was.
The next day, Weston, who spent decades on Parliament Hill as an investigative reporter and columnist, picked up two thick brown envelopes from an agreed-upon location. He checked out the story, did his research then wrote it up. The fallout was huge. The bad press eventually led the federal government to overhaul the way it handled harassment complaints. And it all started with a leak.
For Weston, that’s how Ottawa functions, when it functions best. The official had a problem he couldn’t fix internally. So he leaked it. Weston wrote about it. Outrage ensued, and the problem was solved. “Leaks are the fuel of the whole Ottawa communications engine,” said Weston, who is now a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a lobbying and communications firm. “It’s part of how this town works.”
On Wednesday, the Crown stayed a single charge of breach of trust against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, formerly the second-ranking officer in the Canadian Forces. The decision brought an end to a remarkable — and to many in Ottawa, puzzling — chapter in Canadian political history.
Leaks are the fuel of the whole Ottawa communications engine
In Ottawa, leaks are everywhere. They “are just an essential and regular tool,” Weston said. If they were liquid, they would fill the Rideau Canal. If they were gas, they’d be Jupiter.
Leaks come in all forms. There are calculated leaks. Bitter leaks. Leaks of good conscience. Lobbyists leak to help clients. Staffers leak to feel big. Flacks leak to plant stories, goose coverage and manipulate reporters eager for a scoop.
For years Weston had an entire column at the Ottawa Citizen dedicated to leaks. About half of them, he said, came from disgruntled bureaucrats who wanted to embarrass someone or point out some particularly egregious form of government waste. “If you look at all the major stories in this town,” he said, “I would be shocked if most of them didn’t start as a leak of some kind.”
Mike Duffy, who spent more than 30 years as a journalist on Parliament Hill, preferred the social leak. In the 1970s, he kept a regular Thursday dinner date with a minor cabinet minister from PEI. One Thursday, over a steak on Elgin St., the minister let slip that Pierre Trudeau planned to impose wage and price controls the following Friday, a huge reversal of a campaign pledge.
Duffy ducked out to the bathroom, found a payphone and let his desk know. “I wrote down all the notes I could out of sight — I didn’t want to appear rude,” said Duffy, who was appointed to the Senate in 2009. “I said, ‘I gotta go,’ ran out the door to the Hill and got it on the 10 o’clock news.”
The most popular leak in Ottawa is probably the planned leak. The government or the opposition will give something to a particular reporter on an exclusive basis hoping that by doing so they’ll to receive better play.
“Government is in the business of getting coverage in a world where political and policy coverage is not highly prized. So they trade on or leverage the media’s weakness for exclusivity,” said Elly Alboim, a long-time political strategist and former parliamentary bureau chief for the CBC. “Sometimes it’s even organized on the level where the reporter has to agree not to seek out opposition for a day. So they accept the handcuffs.”
Duffy saw this from both sides after the joining the Conservative caucus as a senator. (He now sits as an independent.) “The big revelation to me after going to the inside was that they actually sit down in meetings and discuss who they’re going to give which story to,” he said. “The political people hold the media in contempt. They’re just using us. We’re a bunch of monkeys and they’re feeding us a banana every now and then and we do what they want.”
A variation on the planned leak is the lobbying leak, where a lobbyist will make part of a contract dispute public in hopes of turning a fight their client’s way. (Some believe that’s what happened in the Norman case.)
Then there’s the leak of social capital, where a staffer or bureaucrat leaks something to impress someone or improve their own standing. “There are a lot of people who leak information simply to establish they’re players,” Alboim said.
The most famous recent example of that was the case of Russell Ullyatt. Tory MP Kelly Block fired Ullyatt after he admitted to sending a confidential pre-budget report to five lobbying firms in 2010. Ullyatt later admitted that he had applied for work at all five firms. (None of them offered him a job.)
All governments try to quash leaks, at least the ones that aren’t deliberate. “It’s been a cat and mouse game for the 40 years I’ve been in Ottawa,” said Alboim. Sometimes the war on leaks descends into farce. In 2000, the Liberal government had the women’s washroom next the their caucus room blocked off during meetings because officials were worried that someone was listening in through the porous walls.
There are a lot of people who leak information simply to establish they’re players
But those examples are few and very far between, for good reason. There are simply too many leaks in too many forms from too many people to make a police case out of every one of them. In one document filed with the court, Norman’s defence team listed 11 separate stories, just from this government term, that appeared to rely on leaked cabinet information. “Cabinet confidences appear to be currency in Ottawa,” the defence team wrote. And Norman, they continued, “appeared to be the first person in Canadian history to be criminally prosecuted” for allegedly violating them.
That remains the great outstanding question in the Norman affair. Why him? In a city awash in leaks, where everyone knows everyone and everyone leaks to everyone else, why was he singled out? If only someone would leak the answer to that.
Of course, there’s another reason most leaks go un-prosecuted. It’s usually bad PR. “The average voter out there is not the least bit concerned about leaks,” said Weston. In fact, if anything, they tend to be on the leaker’s side.
— with files from Brian Platt
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