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What makes a scandal scandalous?

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Issue: 31 Section: Media Analysis Haiti Topics: media, Pettigrew

November 8, 2005

What makes a scandal scandalous?

The media and Pierre Pettigrew's apartment on rue Aristide Bruant

by Dru Oja Jay

Pierre Pettigrew is presented with the University of Miami report on human rights violations by Canadian-trained police in Haiti in February. In June, Pettigrew called the report "absolutely propaganda, which is absolutely not interesting". photo: Dru Oja Jay
Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew has been under fire in the press in recent months for his alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars. The allegations, which include spending too much time in Paris and bringing his chauffeur on overseas trips, are apparently serious enough that one report cited "whispers from within government that he will be shuffled out of the job".

While expense reports make for gripping reading material, what is perhaps more interesting about the recent "scandals" that have plagued Pettigrew's office is that they present an opportunity to examine what the media consider to be career-ending missteps. Conversely, it allows us to take note of what is, according to the media, not scandalous at all.

How do the media decide what is and isn't scandalous? This question is not easy to answer, but an examination of the resulting reporting renders a sense of the priorities of Canadian journalism.

On September 4, the Ottawa Citizen published a 1200 word examination of Pettigrew's propensity for spending time in Paris penned by Glen McGregor. A reporter was sent to Pettigrew's apartment in the district of Montmartre, finding it occupied by a timber industry lobbyist and former Pettigrew staffer. The report ended by speculating that Pettigrew might soon be spirited away to a diplomatic post, to be replaced by Stéphane Dion.

A week later, Pettigrew was under fire for taking his chauffeur Bruno Labonté on trips to Europe and South America at a cost to taxpayers of $10,000. This merited a front page article in the Globe and Mail and an interview on CTV's Canada AM, among others.

On September 20, Maclean's continued the narrative with a report by Louise Elliott and Paul Wells. They wrote that Pettigrew, once "the Federal Liberals' fair-haired boy, hand-picked for cabinet," had become "the most harshly criticized member of the government". Pettigrew's various missteps were subjected to a fine-grained examination in the remainder of the article.

The journalistic resources dedicated to examining Pettigrew's recent movements--sending a reporter to Paris, interviewing dozens of unnamed government sources, and combing through expense reports--indicates something beyond your run-of-the-mill journalistic tenacity.

Such close examination of a top-level cabinet minister is not random. It likely represents a political fight or realignment inside the Liberal party--the ostensive source of the "whispers" cited under the Globe's page A1 headline.

While charges of slacking off in Paris while occupying a key cabinet post and misusing taxpayer funds to take staff members on expensive excursions are serious, seriousness of charges alone is not enough to spur such a spirited inquiry into the minutiae of a minister's comings and goings. Further motivation is needed.

In a case where a minister's responsibilities seemed to be directly compromised, however, one might imagine that the press would not need further motivation.

What if, for example, Pettigrew had denied knowing of reports that police trained and vetted by the RCMP under the auspices of his department had slaughtered unarmed peaceful protesters? What if Pettigrew had dismissed a fifty page human rights report as propaganda? For example.

Surely a lack of basic understanding about a project he was responsible for is at best a symptom of incompetence, and an outright lie at worst. Surely denying knowledge of facts that had been reported by Reuters, the Associated Press, and even the CBC would set off a few warning bells among Canada's watchdogs of democracy. And one might further think that incompetence that affects the very substance of policy in matters of life and death would be treated more gravely than a few questionable trips abroad.

In fact, warning bells didn't go off, the substance wasn't treated with gravity, and as the reader has undoubtedly guessed, the situation is not at all hypothetical.

At a June 20th press conference in Montréal, the Dominion asked Pettigrew if Canada bore any responsibility for multiple instances where the Haitian National Police--trained, vetted, and ultimately accountable to the RCMP--had shot and killed unarmed, peaceful protesters who were demanding the return of Jean Bertrand Aristide - the elected president who was removed in a military coup financed and led by the US, Canada and France.

Pettigrew responded: "I think the Haitian police are doing their very best in extremely difficult circumstances, and obviously, obviously, Canada would never condone any activity [which] would not respect the rule of law."

The Dominion followed up, asking about reports of police violence in the Associated Press and Reuters. Pettigrew responded: "if they did, I have not heard of that." He followed up by blasting the human rights report conducted by a team from the University of Miami--which concluded that a massive campaign of political repression was being undertaken by the Canadian-trained Haitian Police--saying, "I absolutely think that it is propaganda which is absolutely not interesting."

The last comment alone merits at least a mention, as it represents a significant contesting of well-established facts. But Pettigrew's ignorance of news reports verges on the unbelievable.

A few samples. The Miami Herald, March 1: "Haitian police opened fire on peaceful protesters Monday, killing two..." Associated Press, April 7: "Police fired on protesters demanding the release of detainees... killing at least five demonstrators." Reuters, June 5: "As many as 25 people were killed in police raids..." Reports cited "witnesses and UN officials". Amazingly, the top UN official, Juan Valdez, was standing next to Pettigrew as he claimed ignorance of what the UN had confirmed.

The room was full of journalists, but not a single report in the newspapers or broadcast reports of the press conference mentioned Pettigrew's claims.

There could concievably be an explanation for Pettigrew's claims, however unlikely that might be. But the total lack of interest among the press for finding out what that explanation is--or if it exists--suggests that when it comes to lying and incompetent behaviour, some scandals are more worthy than others.

Individual indiscretions and misappropriation of funds are worthy of attention--especially when they are on the losing end of a political infight--but when it comes to the effects of policy, incompetence or lying are not considered career-threatening acts.

If this wasn't the case, journalists investigating Pettigrew's apartment in Paris might have noticed the irony in the name of its location: on rue Aristide Bruant.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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