Media Watch

Is Ottawa's Airbus case nuts, or what?

Journalists seem to have a knack of turning up at the centre of Brian Mulroney's suit against the government

George Bain September 23 1996
Media Watch

Is Ottawa's Airbus case nuts, or what?

Journalists seem to have a knack of turning up at the centre of Brian Mulroney's suit against the government

George Bain September 23 1996

Is Ottawa's Airbus case nuts, or what?

Media Watch

Journalists seem to have a knack of turning up at the centre of Brian Mulroney's suit against the government

George Bain

From the day it was announced, Brian Mulroney’s suit for libel against the Canadian government has been freely referred to as historic, a term for which today’s criterion might be any story likely to linger in the public mind longer than the time between haircuts.

Truly historic or not, the so-called Airbus story and the ensuing lawsuit contain bits undeniably worth at least an asterisk in anyone’s history of politics and the law in Canada in the last years of the 20th century.

The first of these is to be found in the identities of plaintiff and defendant—a recent prime minister of the country claiming defamation of character and, on the other side of the fence, not some raffish scandal-mongering tabloid or the like, but the successor government.

Reinforcing bits include the impressive $50 million sought in damages; the fact that the wrongdoing alleged against the plaintiff had already been investigated once and dropped for lack of evidence; and, not least, that the media, no strangers to libel suits, should be part of the story at every turn without having to return to their usual unhappy—i.e. expensive—role in court cases, as defendants.

A media influence in the play of events was perhaps to be seen in the recently published conjecture that the government’s defence will use a proposition first advanced on CBC TV news immediately the suit was announced. It is, in effect, that the former prime minister himself, or through agents, may have leaked the document containing the material he now says libels him. In other words, he may have libelled himself.

That alone would seem to constitute a world-class oddity sufficient to warrant the case being called historic.

And then there are the various informers and leakers. Allan Rock, shortly after his appointment as justice minister in November, 1993, learned from two journalists, he has said, something about something corrupt in the Mulroney years. He passed the information on to the RCMP, not to suggest they do anything about it, but because he felt a moral obligation to do so.

Rock has portrayed himself in the same light since—as having been wholly hands-off concerning the Airbus affair. He solicited no information, did not ask for it around town. In the celebrated matter of the justice depar tment-RCMP letter to Swiss authorities seeking help with the RCMP investigation, he insulated himself against getting any.

The Globe and Mail itself identified Susan Delacourt, a member of its Ottawa bureau, as one of the journalists who spoke to Rock. The chat occurred over dinner in an Ottawa restaurant in late 1993— who invited whom, unstated.

The newspaper quoted Delacourt saying: “He raised the subject of allegations he had heard from journalists and asked me if I had heard anything.” She also said Airbus was never mentioned but that he “mused”—whatever musing implies—about asking the RCMP to look into allegations about an offshore account (unidentified).

She also told him the only allegations she knew of, she got from Stevie Cameron, who was then at work on her book On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years, 487 pages of journalistic scorched earth.

None of this fits tidily with the minister’s picture of himself as having maintained a deliberate and principled uninterest in the affair from the moment he took office. If, however, his musing to Delacourt revealed a more politicianly desire to hear the dirt on an opponent, he should have taken the tip and invited Cameron to dinner. Cameron is Canada’s unchallenged specialist in allegations against Brian Mulroney. However, she says that if anyone thinks she’s Allan Rock’s second journalist source—I did—they can think again. She says she has never met the man, and doesn’t think she knows anyone who works for him.

The Mounties, then, as informers or leakers? Never. They do not even comment on current investigations, according to a spokesman. However, a look at just some of the reporting that preceded The Financial Posts blowing the lid off the letter-to-Switzerland episode, tells a different story. On Nov. 13, 1995, The Canadian Press reported that the Swiss television network DSR carried a story, picked up by the French news service Agence France-Press. It said Canadian authorities suspected that part of a $20-million payoff related to Air Canada’s purchase of 34 Airbus A-320s “went into numbered Swiss bank accounts for Canadian politicians.” Some secret letter; that was part of it.

On Nov. 15, Paul Koring reported in The Globe and Mail that requests to another government for assistance in a criminal investigation customarily require names. He quoted Sgt. Fraser Fiegenwald of the RCMP’s commercial crime section: “If you can’t name him [the alleged offender], you better have darn good evidence to justify the request.”

Another story, by Edison Stewart in The Toronto Star, also on Nov. 15, coincidentally gave readers reason to wonder just how darn good the justice department-RCMP evidence was. Stewart quoted the same Sgt. Fiegenwald to the effect that the investigation was still at a very early stage, and that “a full investigation will only be launched if it appears justified after police hear from Swiss authorities.” In other words, in seeking help in gathering sufficient evidence to make a case, it is necessary to demonstrate to another party that the evidence is already in hand, after which the full investigation will begin. Is this nuts or what?