Ezra Levant takes on Jennifer Ditchburn over new Canadians story

While Quebecor declined to comment in a story yesterday that stated federal bureaucrats had posed as “new Canadians” during a reaffirmation ceremony broadcast by its own Sun TV, it was only a matter of time before someone at the news organization spoke up.

While Quebecor declined to comment in a story yesterday that stated federal bureaucrats had posed as “new Canadians” during a reaffirmation ceremony broadcast by its own Sun TV, it was only a matter of time before someone at the news organization spoke up.

Sun News network spokesperson Luc Lavoie gave comment to Toronto Sun’s David Akin yesterday, and government officials issued an apology to the network addressing the story, but not surprisingly, the Sun News personality whose reaction is getting the most attention is Ezra Levant.

In yesterday’s story, Jennifer Ditchburn of the Canadian Press reported that documents obtained via Access to Information requests contained an email from one Sun Media staff member — whose name was redacted — stating they should “fake the Oath” that was to be aired on Sun TV. Further emails obtained in the request showed that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s office instead proposed to conduct a citizenship reaffirmation ceremony rather than “fake” an official citizenship ceremony. However, Kenney’s employees had difficulty finding new citizens to participate in the short amount of time they were given, and Ditchburn reported that the Minister’s office resorted to having six federal bureaucrats to pose as new Canadians for the ceremony in order to fill out the numbers when confirmed participants failed to show up on the day of the ceremony.

Lavoie told Akin that Sun News was unaware the participants were not new Canadians. “We were surprised Thursday to learn that some of the people participating in the citizenship affirmation ceremony broadcast on October 18th were in fact citizenship and immigration Canada employees,” Lavoie was reported as saying.

Akin reported that the Sun employee who suggested the faking of the oath was Dayna Gourley, who was the producer of the show at that time. Gourley has since left Sun News for CBC, Akin says.

And of course, in light of the ongoing CBC-Quebecor saga, this is where things get interesting.

Levant and Ditchburn engaged in a very public discussion regarding the story last night on Twitter (Storified below.) Levant relentlessly questioned Ditchburn on why she did not make the connection and disclose that Gourley – whose name shows up elsewhere in the 100-plus-page ATI document – was the one who sent the name-redacted oath-faking email the way Akin had. He implies that the omission is related to the fact that Gourley is now at CBC and that because Ditchburn is a panelist on CBC’s Power and Politics, Levant says that puts her in a conflict.

(For someone who so often vehemently critiques the broadcaster, Levant has appeared on that same CBC program himself on more than one occasion in recent years. Here and here are two examples.)

Sun News has not shied away from using the term “state broadcaster” when referring to CBC in recent years, so when The National’s Peter Mansbridge sent out a tweet yesterday saying “The real ‘state broadcaster’ stands up,” — implying the title belonged to Sun News in light of Ditchburn’s story — Levant was quick to respond in a segment on Sun TV.

“Look Peter, we’re not a state broadcaster, you are.” Levant said. “You’re owned and operated by the government. You’re paid by the government. You’re in the pocket of the government.

“Or maybe it’s the other way around – sometimes it’s hard to tell where the government ends and the CBC begins,” Levant asserts, citing Heritage Minister James Moore’s support for CBC, before getting to his point: “Government and media don’t mix.”

As it stands independently, Levant's point is spot on: Media should not be influenced by the government. Organizations such as Journalists for Human Rights and Reporters Without Borders work toward media openness every day. However, the habit of using a loaded term such as “state broadcaster” has dangerous connotations that go beyond “owned and operated by the government,” as Levant asserts. Canadian media is ranked 10th in the world in Reporters Without Borders' most recent press freedom index – the highest of all countries in the Americas, and only behind the likes of Norway, Sweden, Estonia and a handful of other Scandinavian countries.  One of the detriments to Canada’s media ranking, according to the report, is the difficulty in accessing information here – there is no mention in the independent report of Canada’s publicly-funded broadcaster being “in the pocket of the government.”

In fact, The Globe and Mail's television critic John Doyle wrote a column in November with the headline, "Money can't buy love: Why every government hates the CBC," in which he explained that governments expect the public broadcaster not to scrutinize them, but then it does, so they threaten it with cuts. The Liberals slashed CBC's funding even before Harper's Conservatives, he notes, and Mulroney's Conservatives did so even before that.

CBC receives roughly $1.1 billion in federal funding per year, and during this media war with Quebecor, reported that the Sun News parent had received $500 million in direct and indirect government subsidies over the last three years. However, in that same Sun TV segment, Levant says while theorizing what would happen if it had indeed been the Sun who did wrong in this instance of the bureaucrat props (though the Minister’s office has taken full responsibility): “We’re a private company; there are no tax dollars here,” adding that holding on to viewers and advertisers is what keeps them responsible.

CBC has been in a legal battle recently with Sun News parent company Quebecor over their unwillingness to disclose employee salaries in the face of Access to Information requests. Levant has been a staunch critic of CBC for this and took part in another Twitter fight with the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor over salary disclosure for journalists back in November.

Regardless of the accusations flung between Quebecor and CBC, Ditchburn is employed by the Canadian Press, and reported the story for the Canadian Press – not CBC. During their Twitter fight, she told Levant that she had no collaboration with the CBC while working on the story. Furthermore is the fact Gourley did not work for the CBC when the incident took place. She worked for Sun News.

All in all, the story really has very little to do with CBC.

If CBC and Sun News are going to be compared on this issue, it should be based on their coverage of Citizenship Week itself. CBC broadcasted a 75-minute official citizenship ceremony from Parkdale in Toronto, which they had since the summer to prepare for. Sun News and Kenney's office were given a mere few weeks and hosted a reaffirmation ceremony at the request of the government, whose officials pulled a fast one on the show's hosts and its network by having employee props participate instead of legitimate new Canadians.