How I got the story: Jennifer Ditchburn on the fake new Canadians story

This article was originally published by The Hill Times on Feb. 6, 2012. Re-published with permission from writer Bea  Vongdouangchanh.


This article was originally published by The Hill Times on Feb. 6, 2012. Re-published with permission from writer Bea  Vongdouangchanh.


When Canadian Press Hill reporter Jennifer Ditchburn woke up Feb. 2 at 7 a.m., there were already 200 comments on The Globe and Mail’s website in reaction to the story she broke about six Citizenship and Immigration bureaucrats standing in as ‘new Canadians’ in order for Sun News TV to broadcast a citizenship reaffirmation oath ceremony from its Toronto studios last October. The story subsequently took political Ottawa by storm and was talked about in the House, on the Hill, on political talks shows, in cabs, and on Twitter.

The Huffington Post posted the story at 4 a.m. the same day, setting the Twitterverse on fire with the news that a Sun News representative told a CIC bureaucrat: “Let’s do it. We can fake the Oath.”

When two MPs asked about the incident in Question Period that afternoon, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney (Calgary Southeast, Alta.) was on his feet over it. The opposition parties and media had a field day with it. The Associated Press picked it up and by late afternoon, it was posted on The Washington Post, ABC News, and Fox News websites.

More than a day later, by Friday afternoon, it was still the “most discussed” story on The Globe’s website with 2,649 comments.

“I knew it sort of had interesting elements, it was unusual, it was televised, and there was an element of the bizarre and unusual which always makes for interesting news, but no, I didn’t anticipate that it was going to explode like it did,” Ms. Ditchburn told The Hill Times Feb. 3.

Ms. Ditchburn, who’s been reporting on the Hill for 15 years, said she saw the original Sun News broadcast of the oath and that it struck her as “interesting.” She decided to make an access to information request about it the same week.

“I was just sort of fishing to see if there was anything interesting that would come up and something did,” she said.

She asked Citizenship and Immigration for "all records, including emails, handwritten notes, invoices, Message Event Proposals, talking points, Twitter activity, Question Period notes, briefing materials, on the subject of citizenship renewal ceremonies taking place at television studios on Oct. 19, 2011.”

Ms. Ditchburn received her access to information package file—a 157-page document of emails between Citizenship and Immigration Canada bureaucrats, staffers in the minister’s office and Sun News employees about organizing an event in the Sun studios during citizenship week Oct. 17-23—at the end of January. It took her three days to go through the documents, call people and write the story.

The CP story reported that Sun TV wanted to broadcast a citizenship ceremony during citizenship week in October, but only wanted to show new Canadians taking the oath. Bureaucrats at Citizenship and Immigration felt it would “short change” the new Canadians because it should be “special” and they may want to have their family friends attend, something that Sun News could not accommodate. After failing to get Sun News to broadcast from one of 13 other scheduled ceremonies, a Sun News employee suggested that a reaffirmation ceremony could be presented instead, with Canadians who already took the oath restating their citizenship. The department had difficulty tracking down people who wanted to participate in the event, and only three people showed up. A bureaucrat then rounded up seven colleagues to join in the ceremony.

“The show went on—featuring at least six federal bureaucrats. Three of those who took the oath wore identical T-shirts with a citizenship logo on it,” Ms. Ditchburn reported.

“‘Ten new Canadians are taking their oath right now, here at our Sun News studio here in Toronto,’ Sun News host Alex Pierson said before Judge Aris Babikian began the ceremony.

“Co-host Pat Bolland said they were ‘among 4,700 people who actually enjoy the special honour of becoming Canadians’ during citizenship week.

“Judge Babikian mentioned more than once that the people were there to ‘reaffirm’ their citizenship, but that point seemed to be lost on the Sun News Network hosts,” Ms. Ditchburn wrote.

Quebecor, which owns Sun News, declined to comment on the story, and Ms. Pierson said she did not know about the bureaucrats and was shocked to learn about it when contacted by CP.

When it hit the wire, comments poured in from a number of social media sites and news websites that carried the story.

Postmedia News columnist Andrew Coyne noted it on his Twitter feed. He said, “‘Let’s do it. We can fake the ______.’ is going to be my new catch phrase.” And that’s what he did in subsequent responses to other tweeters.

In response to NDP principal secretary Brad Lavigne’s tweet “#NDP OAS Motion cont: Debate today starting at 10am ET w/ vote Monday,” Mr. Coyne tweeted: “Let’s do it. We can fake the outrage.”

In response to National Newswatch’s tweet on a story by Sun Media, about Radio Canada’s new online television venture and “a show entitled Hard that has scenes of soft core pornography,” Mr. Coyne tweeted: “Let’s do it. We can fake the orgasm.”

The Twitterverse comments ranged from not so serious poking fun (The Toronto Star’s Antonia Zerbisias: “Fake lake. Fake crimes. Fake #OAS crisis. Fake news. Fake government.” Maclean’s Andrew Potter: “9:15. Off to fake a news meeting.” The National Post’s Chris Selley: “From now on, I’m going to use ‘fake the Oath’ as the Cdn media equivalent of ‘jump the shark,’” which the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner “seconded.” The Toronto Star’s Robert Benzie: “Are fake ‘new Canadians’ allowed to wear burkas or hijabs while reading the oath of citizenship?” to which Crestview lobbyist Rob Silver tweeted “@robertbenzie has me worried that fake ‘New Canadians’ might wear burkas to their fake ceremony. Save us from this fake threat Jason Kenney!”) to comments by others attacking Ms. Ditchburn personally.

Krista Erickson, a former CBC reporter, and Brian Lilley took to the Sun News Network show Prime Time to say that the CP story is “what could only be characterized as a drive-by smear.”

“I want our viewers to know Brian, that this story is extremely misleading. It contains erroneous reporting…I hope those in Ottawa watching have flak jackets on them,” Ms. Erickson said.

Sun Media bureau chief David Akin then wrote on his blog that the producer who asked to broadcast the event was Dayna Gourley, who also previously worked at Global and City TV. “On Nov. 9, we were saddened to hear that she was leaving us for CBC, where she works today,” Mr. Akin wrote.

This set off a Twitter exchange between Ms. Ditchburn and Sun News host Ezra Levant, who accused her of collaborating with Ms. Gourley because Ms. Ditchburn is a weekly panelist on CBC’s Power and Politics show.

Mr. Levant tweeted to Ms. Ditchburn: “Yes/no question: did you collaborate w CBC at all in your story?”

Ms. Ditchburn replied: “It’s a fairness miracle!!! U actually asked me to comment! Answer: No. Is that the best you’ve got?”

Mr. Levant: “How about my other questions? Will u write that she’s your CBC colleague? How come you ‘didn’t find’ it in the ATIP, etc.?”

Ms. Ditchburn: “Name is blacked out. I haven’t worked at CBC in 6 years. Individual more a colleague to Rod Love and Don Cherry than to me.”

Mr. Levant: “Don’t lie. You get paid to be on the CBC weekly. Your lie implies u know it’s a conflict.”

Ms. Ditchburn: “You broke the Caramilk secret, the Davinci Code!!! I appear weekly on @PnP_CBC as a contributor. What else u got?”

Mr. Levant: “Not true. Censors missed it twice. Or did u not read the ATI? Are u relying on the CBC’s “research”?”

Ms. Ditchburn: “I’m supposed to make the leap that a blacked out name is the same as another listed in 100+ pages? What legal advice do u get?”

Mr. Levant: “Come on my show to make your case. I’ll give you the last word. But sorry, unlike the govt broadcaster, we can’t pay you.”

Ms. Ditchburn: “It’s been a slice Ezra! Keep on rockin’ in the free world.”

Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner tweeted: “Oh, snap! Anyone else following @jenditchburn vs. Voldemort? I’ve got a hundred bucks on the lady.”

Ms. Ditchburn told The Hill Times that she rarely responds to negative attacks so publicly.

“They attacked me for months about my coverage of a committee but at some point, I think people have to be called out for going out publicly and saying misleading things and attacking someone’s professionalism and integrity with actually no basis for doing so,” she said. “I honestly don’t think that some of the figures at Sun News actually read my story through. They did not also give me the same professional courtesy that I’ve extended to them and the hosts of their shows for comment. So, I think ultimately if you look through my story in its entirety, you’ll see that it’s rock solid.”

When NDP MP Don Davies (Vancouver Kingsway, B.C.) asked about the incident during Question Period last Thursday, Mr. Kenney said he only heard about it the same day.

“The department organizes dozens of special citizenship and reaffirmation ceremonies every year, which are a great way of highlighting the value of Canadian citizenship. It turns out that in the ceremony in question for reaffirmation, some of the people invited did not arrive. I think the response to that was poorly handled,” he said. “I regret that, but we should not allow it to undermine the important value of these special citizenship and reaffirmation ceremonies.”

Ms. Ditchburn said while this is one of the biggest stories she’s broken with the most reaction, it’s not her biggest scoop. Ms. Ditchburn worked on a series of stories around the government eliminating the mandatory long-form census with fellow CP reporter Heather Scoffield for which they won a National Newspaper Award last year.

“I think that had a bigger impact on more people and will continue to have,” she said.

As for whether this story will die down anytime soon, Ms. Ditchburn said there are still some questions the government should answer.

“I think there are some sort of lingering questions about why it was so imperative to organize an event like this at Sun News and why the minister’s office insisted on it. I don’t think there’s a real answer to that question but you know, I think they can count on us continuing to look for these kinds of stories,” she said.

This article was originally published by The Hill Times on Feb. 6, 2012. Re-published with permission from writer Bea  Vongdouangchanh.