The PMO, the journalists and the whole off-the-record thing
The Barrie Advance has a story "outing" the PMO as the source of documents circulated to multiple news outlets yesterday, attempting to sow controversy over Justin Trudeau's speaking engagements in 2006 and 2007.
The Star was among those recipients. And why didn't we say where the documents came from? Well, because the PMO official asked first. This seems to be the big difference between how the PMO approached national and local media yesterday. Before I was sent the documents, there was a conversation about the conditions surrounding their release.
For the record, it was a real conversation. I asked repeatedly why the PMO, and not the Conservative party, was making this offer. Though the distinction may seem technical to many, it's an important one. The Prime Minister's Office is supposed to represent all Canadians, including ones the Conservatives don't like. This is why the staffers get paid their public salaries -- ie, by you and me. This is why they get extra-special security clearance; so they can be trusted with sensitive information -- not available to other opposition parties, or, we presume, the Conservative party. The official told me that the PMO was simply "contrasting" leaders, as is its job. I wondered to myself if this would include going through, say, tax records of other leaders, but I decided that was a question for another day.
I did ask whether public money had been spent researching the documents they sent. No, I was emphatically told. I asked again, late in the day, if the replies they were sending to my queries were also off the record. Yes, that was the deal, I was told.
Was I comfortable with all this? No. As I reminded my colleagues yesterday, the Chretien PMO had tried this with me once back in the 1990s, sending me some information to discredit then-Conservative leader Jean Charest. The news to me was that the PMO was worried about Charest, so I reported it that way, and it got on the front page of The Globe (where I then worked). The PMO official called me the next day and said: "That's not the way it's supposed to work. If that's what you're going to do, I won't do that again." I said I was fine with that arrangement.
Back in my first weeks in Ottawa, when I was young and naive, a Liberal MP called me with a tip about some Conservative misdeed or another. I walked into my boss's office and said: "I'm worried they're trying to manipulate me." His reply is seared into my memory: "This is Ottawa. Of course you're going to be manipulated. You only have to make sure that YOU decide how much." That answer was front-of-mind for me yesterday too.
So yes, we agreed yesterday to respect the conditions on which the documents were offered. We are a newspaper, after all, and there was a reasonable chance that the documents included something of interest/relevance to our readers. Upon inspection, they did not. They were details of speaking engagements that Trudeau did before he was elected as a member of Parliament. One of them was at the University of Guelph -- I did manage to talk to the university yesterday and they had no reservations or qualms about the fee. The only news in these documents was that the PMO was sending them out far and wide. But by then, we had agreed to the conditions.
As a coda to this, I can say that last night, after our story was online, the PMO sent yet another message, asking me to include quotes from Conservatives in the story and that they would be awaiting my "update."
I said I most certainly would not; that I didn't take dictation on how to write my stories and that they'd already pushed the boundaries about as far as they could with the Star that day. They seemed fine with that. For the record.