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Kanada’s Kickback King

Canadian Politics

First, a confession. Whenever I come across Brian Mulroney’s photograph in the newspaper, I amuse myself by blackening his teeth. It’s therapeutic. I tell myself: Somebody’s got to do it – for all the life-threatening wounds the man inflicted on this country, its media has never raised a hand to him. Not until November of 2007, that is.

That’s when his shady pal, Karlheinz Schreiber, blew such a shrill whistle on the boy from Baie-Comeau that attention finally had to be paid. Desperate to avoid extradition to a German jail, Schreiber finally let fly that Mulroney had accepted the first of three payments of $100,000 while he was still prime minister of Canada.

Allegations that Mulroney had accepted Airbus kickbacks – which would make $300,000 look like Sunday School money – surfaced in 1989, but accusations of any kind against Mulroney did not remain in the public eye. Quite the opposite: According to Canada’s elite media, Mulroney was always on the cusp of a comeback, edging nearer to the glory he truly deserved.

Suddenly, members of Canada’s press corps were waving their hands like kids in nursery school. Barely able to stifle cries of “Me! Me!” their questions were everywhere. The Post’s Diane Francis, for one, wanted to know whether the bills were twenties, fifties, or hundreds.

Canadian Dimension is betting that the most urgent question won’t make the cut: Where was Canada’s media for more than a decade when less than a handful of honest journalists were struggling to expose unprecedented corruption at the highest levels of Canadian politics?

Excuses have been offered. Some say it was libel chill, the fear of spending money on legal defences, which kept the lid on Mulroney. Maritime journalist Steven Kimber blames the media oligarchy for simple bad habits – specifically refusing to follow stories broken by their competition.

But it’s much deeper than that. Mulroney is the enduring icon of the fallibility of the corporate-run, for-profit press, which not only forgives, but celebrates his venality and entitlement to power. Mulroney is the place where media and citizens part company.

All the information Canadian voters ever needed about Mulroney was produced by writer Stevie Cameron in On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years (1994) and again in The Last Amigo: Karlheinz Schreiber and the Anatomy of a Scandal (2001). Cameron and her researchers exposed a record number of scandals and cabinet resignations in the Mulroney era between 1984 and 1993. The litigious Mr. Mulroney has never sued her.

Anyone remember “Tuna Gate,” which cost about 400 StarKist workers their jobs? How about the sorry parade of disgraced Mulroney cronies and appointees: Robert Coates, Andre Bissonette, Roch LaSalle, Michel Cote, Bernard Valcourt, Michel Gravel, Michel Cogger – to name a few? In spite of all this and more, Mulroney has been allowed to posture publicly that he actually has a reputation to defend.

The nadir of Mulroney denial occurred in 2003, when Schreiber’s cash payments to Mulroney forced their way (very briefly) into the national newspapers. The Globe turned that story into a witchhunt, claiming that Stevie Cameron was a police informer – a death sentence for a journalist – and therefore unfit to practice journalism. It was a tortured and transparent effort to erase her work and to vindicate Mulroney. It worked – for a while.

That was then. Now, in the great Mulroney game, his corporate champions may be – at last – out of moves.

This article appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension (Big Media).

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