The Globe and Blatchford

In 20 years in journalism I have never seen anything resembling the systematic and sustained repudiation to which Christie Blatchford, the Globe and Mail‘s marquee columnist, is being subjected by her own newspaper. There is room in any good paper for disagreements among colleagues, and frankly there should, for a long time now, have been room for more of that at the Globe. But this goes further. This is breathtakingly methodical. And I believe it was needed.

The story begins, more or less, on Saturday, Nov. 28, when Blatchford published the first of two columns on the Richard Colvin testimony and emails about allegations of detainee abuse in Kandahar. That column took the readable bits of “heavily redacted” emails as Blatchford’s proof that Colvin, whom she portrayed as a cloistered dilettante, had not found much to complain about when the alleged abuse was actually happening. By her second column, two days later, she had relegated Colvin to the category of a “so-called whistleblower” who  “spun himself into a hyperbolic fury,” not over anything he actually saw or heard on the job, but over the Globe’s own coverage of those allegations in 2006 and 2007.

Taken together, Blatchford’s arguments suffered from glaring flaws of fact and logic. As Parker Donham pointed out immediately, her articles of indictment against Colvin were mutually contradictory: “In other words, there was no torture; everyone knew there was torture. Colvin never complained about torture; Colvin was hysterical about torture. Colvin only discovered the torture problem in April 2007; by April 2007, everyone and his dog knew there was a torture problem.”

The second column, recall, ran on a Monday, a day when senior newsroom management figures are frequently spotted returning to work after weekends off. The very next day, on Tuesday, the pushback began. Paul Koring had a front-page story describing the government’s extravagant resort to redaction of memos even when the recipients of those memos were to be members of the Military Police Complaints Commission with the highest level of security clearance. Koring’s story quotes Stuart Hendin, a legal expert, saying: “I’m not sure ‘cover-up’ is the right word but someone is going to considerable lengths not to disclose what was known… It’s almost impossible for any independent authority to conduct a meaningful inquiry.”

The next day, Wednesday, it was reporters Steven Chase and Campbell Clark who revealed that Colvin removed parts of his warnings and scaled back his distribution list at the request of then-ambassador to Kabul Arif Lalani. On Thursday it was the editorial board that weighed in, with a toughly-worded editorial saying the government “continues to respond with contempt to reasonable, serious questions” and calling its behaviour “troubling,” “disturbing,” “farcical,” and “increasingly implausible.” When questions arise, the editorialists wrote, the goverment “throws up a smokescreen, forestalls disclosure and attacks the questioner. None of this inspires much confidence for those who seek the truth.”

By Friday, when the Globe ran a niggling, inaccurate correction to the first of Blatchford’s two Colvin columns, it was still possible to wonder just what the paper’s management made of its columnist’s work. I actually had a discussion with colleagues from other news organizations about that question on Friday evening. They saw the extraordinarily weasel-worded correction as proof that the paper was still trying to protect Blatchford. I said Globe corrections, like corrections at many other organizations, are always weasel-worded and that, in the context of the paper’s continuing coverage, it looked like the paper was more or less in the full-time business of repudiating its columnist. But on Friday, that remained an open subject for debate.

But the Globe has kept going. On Monday Koring introduced what the paper calls “proof of detainee abuse,” in contradiction of Peter MacKay’s repeated denials. And this morning, another editorial:

The record speaks for itself on what the Canadian government knows, or should have known, about the torture of Afghan detainees. It speaks far louder than the falsehoods from the government that have by now become routine. If these falsehoods are offered unintentionally, one wonders how senior government ministers can be so ignorant of the contents of such an important file.

Obviously the Globe‘s main target is, properly, the Government of Canada, whose signal failure to step up to its responsibility on a file that brings it perilously close to contravention of international law makes it a great big legitimate object of criticism. I don’t think hanging Blatchford out to dry has been the Globe‘s goal here. But because she wrote what she did, and Globe reporters keep finding what they do, hanging her out to dry has become necessary to the larger task.

A little context is relevant here. In 2008 Globe reporters Koring and Graeme Smith, shared, with Michèle Ouimet of La Presse, a Michener Award for public-service journalism for their coverage of the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan. The Michener is just about the most prestigious award you can get in this business in Canada;  anyone, in-house or out, who cavalierly dismisses the allegations at the heart of Koring’s and Smith’s work would be seen as attacking a source of the paper’s pride in itself. (In fact, parts of Blatchford’s second column could arguably be read as an attempt to reconcile her criticism of Colvin with the fact that much of what he alleges was first reported by her colleagues.) It would be normal to expect the paper to fight back, once provoked, with more of what won it the Michener in the first place: energetic, factually accurate reporting.

That’s the second thing worth mentioning. When John Stackhouse became the Globe’s editor earlier this year, and again when he named John Ibbitson as the new Ottawa bureau chief, the mood in some corners of the Prime Minister’s Office was nothing short of jubilant. Stackhouse was seen by Conservatives as friendlier than Edward Greenspon, and Ibbitson, who wrote two very good books about the triumph of the Harris Conservatives in Ontario, looked like a bonus. But the government’s clumsy and disingenuous handling of the detainee-abuse issue, echoed in the Globe‘s own pages by Blatchford, has consummated a nasty divorce between the government and the Toronto newspaper. It’s now abundantly clear that when the Conservatives are in trouble they cannot expect Stackhouse to give them port from the storm.

One last thing. Blatchford had a source, who clearly thought she would be a strong defender of the government and military once they came under fire. This was a reasonable assumption. Part of her extraordinary  value as a writer is her eagerness to act as the soldier’s tribune, a quality she sometimes indulges to excess. In 2008 when Rick Hillier retired, he compared the experience of leaving his career so he could write his memoir and give some speeches to “a sucking chest wound.” Blatchford was quick to pass along, without criticism, Hillier’s disgusting metaphor. So a year and a half later, someone decided she’d be an excellent conduit for a contradictory viewpoint on the detainee file. But her two columns have now been followed by a full week of brutal coverage for the government and military. I don’t know who Blatchford’s source was. But he or she had better not be in the military, because on the evidence at hand the person is an appalling tactician.