Did Postmedia attempt to smear the NDP in the @vikileaks30 affair?

After a most momentous week in Canadian politics — namely, one in which a government with an absolute majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate was at least momentarily thwarted in its efforts to pass Bill C-30 — the @vikileaks30 twitter account has been retired. It simply no longer exists. However it has had one hell of an effect, and the way in which it was reported about should definitely raise a lot of eyebrows.

For those who don’t know about this story, @vikileaks30 was an anonymous account launched on Wednesday which broadcasted certain salacious details about Vic Toews, including parts of affidavits from his 2007 divorce — largely his ex-wife’s testimony — and many interesting details of expense claims by Mr. Toews as a government minister.

Soon after the novelty twitter account appeared on the scene Ottawa Citizen tech news reporter Vito Pilieci came up with an interesting plan to figure out who was posting on it and came up with the idea to send the twitterer a web site link which was unique for that particular user. There’s nothing wrong with that technique, I’ve used it myself a couple of times, and twitter’s use of URL shorteners makes that technique discoverable only with some difficulty. The IP address which was used to visit the link turned out to have been one connected with the Parliament buildings. That much can be reliably established.

What I find a little more difficult to understand is the way that the story was reported both by Pilieci himself and Postmedia flagship paper the National Post. Starting with the title, which was surely written by a higher-up: “Vikileaks Twitter account on Vic Toews linked to ‘pro-NDP’ address in House of Commons”. Indeed the original Ottawa Citizen story used the considerably less “inciteful” (if you will) “Vikileaks30 linked to House of Commons IP address”. But this is only the start of the smear. In the story itself we see this paragraph:

Aside from being used to administer the Vikileaks30 Twitter feed, the address has been used frequently to update Wikipedia articles — often giving them what appears to be a pro-NDP bias, actions that have attracted the attention of numerous Internet observers in recent months.

I’ve taken the liberty here to put in bold type the second instance of the smear. Note the use of “weasel language” here — the author (almost undoubtedly Pilieci himself) double-qualifies the statement so as to obviate the necessity of backing that statement with actual evidence, which he indeed does not provide.

So, that’s interesting. Without any more specifics this certainly looks like an attempt to smear the party that currently holds the position of Official Opposition in the House of Commons. Now why would someone do that and be this specific about it?

Well, the Ottawa Citizen, which currently employs Pilieci, is owned by the Postmedia Network, which is a group encompassing several newspapers, including my hometown’s The Gazette newspaper and Canada’s second national daily, the National Post (which should be no surprise to you as the link shown above goes to a NatPo story). The National Post, pretty much since its inception, is regularly accused of running a pro-Conservative slant on the political stories it covers, which clearly explains why they chose to edit Pilieci’s story  from the rather more neutral “Vikileaks Twitter account traced to House of Commons” (the title of the story on Thursday) to the, well, deliberately less equivocal title they chose to run on Friday. Am I supposed to think that this is just some kind of “oversight” or absent-minded error? Maybe others can think so, but I’m not that gullible. The smear is clear and deliberate.

OK, so maybe you think, this is a one-off thing… well, no. On Friday the Citizen ran this Stephen Maher editorial, this time with a neutral, toned-down title: “Maher: Toews made himself Twitter target with ‘pornographers’ crack” about how the @vikileaks30 story started. Read the story, though, and the ugly smear rears its head again in connection with the IP address:

That IP address also was linked to some Wikipedia pages where someone had written pro-NDP comments, which the Citizen reported.

Actually I do wish that Postmedia hired better editors because what Maher is saying now is not quite the same as what Pilieci was saying earlier, but this seems to me little but a barely-disguised attempt at repeating the smear. And then not content with doing it once, Maher pipes up again soon after:

It may be that that person is a secret NDP supporter, and enemy of Vic Toews, or it may be that there is some confusion over the IP address.

Does Maher think we’re all blind here?.. this is getting pretty blatant. Again, note the use of the weasel phrase “it may be”. Overall the article is pretty weak stuff by a national  Postmedia correspondent. In Canadian print journalism this is as senior as it gets without getting bumped up to a position involving more management duties, this isn’t the young guy who writes the computer column (that would be Pilieci, who is a staff member at the Ottawa Citizen and not really staff with the Postmedia “mothership”).

But that article isn’t what really rang a bell for me on the smear question — rather, what made me see the big picture was the follow-up by Pilieci following the @vikileaks30 poster’s announcement that the account was now retired. See if you can spot the difference from the (youthful?) exhuberance of his former column:

A further look into the IP address associated with Vikileaks30 found the address had been used in a range of online activities, including to edit several entries on the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia ranging on topics from the history of ice hockey to a biography of Whitney Houston, as well as to alter content on a variety of politically charged topics that span the political spectrum. It does not appear the poster was targeting any specific political party or affiliation.

This went to publishing after it was clear that the NDP slur had failed to gain any traction in the House of Commons or indeed with public sentiment. What a difference a day makes, I say.

It still remains a good question as to whether there was a concerted effort by the Tory-friendly Postmedia to deliberately steer hostility towards the NDP at a time when the Conservative Party was in a bit of a crisis. The coverage in the first story mentioned actually lead to quite a few angry words in the House of Commons, mostly coming (as the second story reports) from rather easily-influenced Tory attack dog John Baird:

“Not only have they stooped to the lowest of the lows, but they have been running this nasty Internet dirty-trick campaign with taxpayers’ money,” he said.

That’s the head of Canadian diplomacy shooting himself in the foot there, taking Pilieci’s story as gospel truth (his was the main story that included the smear). Oh dear.

I for one will be following further developments regarding this aspect of the C-30 story, and I certainly hope that others will start asking questions about the possibility of spin or even possible fabrications by the newspaper conglomerate that bills itself as “the largest publisher by circulation of paid English-language daily newspapers in Canada”.

Either that, or they need to take a serious look at who they keep on staff.

Note: in order to avoid any confusion if any of the three aforementioned stories should be edited or somehow deleted, I have taken screen captures of all 4:

  1. The original IP address story as it appeared on the National Post web site on 2/16
  2. The same story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site
  3. The Stephen Maher story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17
  4. The later story by Pilieci as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17
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