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Official enemies and the media’s double standard on anonymous sources

Journalistic scepticism is notably lacking among the corporate press

Canadian PoliticsMedia

The Globe and Mail Centre, Toronto. Photo by Henk Binnendijk/Flickr.

In two recent articles, the Globe and Mail unwittingly exposed its double standard on the use of anonymous sources. When anonymous sources level allegations against a Western government, the Globe evidently applies far more scepticism than it applies to allegations made by anonymous sources against an official enemy of the West, such as China or Russia.

The first of these articles concerned Seymour Hersh’s recent bombshell report on the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines.

Hersh is one of the most accomplished journalists alive today. His journalistic distinctions include the Pulitzer Prize, four George Polk Awards, the National Magazine Award, and more than a dozen other prizes for investigative reporting on the My Lai massacre, the CIA’s monstrous bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger’s wiretapping, the CIA’s subversion of Chile’s democratically elected President Salvador Allende, and the US military’s torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

On February 8, Hersh published a lengthy, detailed account of the Biden administration’s plan to destroy the Nord Stream pipelines. Hersh’s account rests largely, but by no means exclusively, on what Hersh describes as “the source with direct knowledge of the process.”

Hersh’s use of the definitive article “the” seems to imply that his investigative report relied on only one anonymous source, but anyone who consults publicly available information on Hersh’s illustrious career would know that that is not necessarily the case. As Mark Ames, another accomplished American journalist, noted recently, “nowhere does Hersh’s article say he ‘relied on one source.’” On the contrary, in his memoir, Hersh revealed that:

An inevitable fear for any reporter who is critical of his government’s policies is being fed a false story that is professionally catastrophic. I resolved early that I would never publish information from someone on the inside without verifying it elsewhere, even if a second source insisted that I had to pretend that he did not exist.


Moreover, Hersh’s central claim that the Biden administration ordered the destruction of the Nord Steam pipelines is highly plausible based on the administration’s own public statements.

As I noted in an article published in October of last year, Biden explicitly and publicly threatened, a few months before the destruction of Nord Stream, to “bring an end” to the pipelines if Russia invaded Ukraine. In December 2021, a similar threat was made publicly by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. Equally damning was the fact that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared, less than one week after the Nord Stream sabotage, that the pipelines’ destruction presented to the United States a “strategic” and “tremendous opportunity” to end Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.

The alternative and widely peddled hypothesis that Russia destroyed its own pipeline simply makes no sense. As I wrote last October:

Gazprom, a fossil fuels behemoth that is controlled by the Russian state, invested over US$5 billion in Nord Stream 2. Moreover, had Russia wanted to stop the flow of gas to Europe through Nord Stream, all it had to do was turn off the gas taps in Russia. There was no need for Russia to destroy those pipelines and jeopardize a state-owned entity’s multi-billion-dollar investment. As long as Nord Stream remained functional, the Russian government was able to offer an enticement to Germany to remove sanctions on Russia. As long as Nord Stream remains non-functional, Russia’s leverage over Germany is diminished considerably.


On February 10, 2023, shortly following Hersh’s explosive report, the Globe published an op-ed by its European Bureau Chief, Eric Reguly. The op-ed was entitled “White House denies report it was behind Nord Stream pipeline explosions. Only a proper investigation will reveal the truth.”

Although it is commendable that Reguly called for a proper investigation into Nord Stream’s destruction⁠—something which no Western government seems remotely interested in doing⁠—the headline of Reguly’s op-ed highlighted the US government’s denial that it was behind the the destruction of Nord Stream.

In the body of his op-ed, Reguly duly noted Hersh’s journalistic achievements, but also wrote:

The main criticism of Mr. Hersh’s work is that he is heavily reliant on anonymous sources, making it difficult⁠—or impossible⁠—to verify his reporting. And so it is with his article insisting that the CIA, with the help of US Navy divers and NATO ally Norway, took the two Nord Stream pipelines out of action: He cites a single source “with direct knowledge of the operational planning.”


Nowhere in his op-ed does Reguly refer to Hersh’s prior, public declaration that he would “never publish information from someone on the inside without verifying it elsewhere, even if a second source insisted that I had to pretend that he did not exist.”

Moreover, in a not-so-subtle attempt to diminish the gravity of the Biden administration’s crime, Reguly adds:

In an interview in Kyiv this week with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Ryzhenko [a recently retired Ukrainian navy captain] said major undersea pipelines anywhere on the planet are equipped with sonar devices to allow them to detect security risks. He believes the devices attached to the Nord Stream pipelines had a covert military use, allowing them to track NATO ship and submarine movements along virtually the entire length of the Baltic (the pipelines are 1,200 kilometres long). He admits, though, that he has no proof.


It’s instructive to compare Reguly’s op-ed to a subsequent Globe report on alleged Chinese government interference in Canadian elections. That report, authored by the Globe’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife and its Senior Parliamentary Reporter Steven Chase, was entitled “CSIS documents reveal Chinese strategy to influence Canada’s 2021 election.”

The Fife-Chase report opened with an ominous and unqualified allegation that:

China employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 federal election campaign as Chinese diplomats and their proxies backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals—but only to another minority government—and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.
The full extent of the Chinese interference operation is laid bare in both secret and top-secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents viewed by the Globe and Mail that cover the period before and after the September, 2021, election that returned the Liberals to office.


Nowhere in their article do Fife and Chase disclose how they obtained the CSIS documents or how (if at all) they authenticated them, nor do they disclose the sources upon which CSIS purportedly relied in compiling these documents. One cannot even glean from their report whether the CSIS documents identified any of the sources on which CSIS relied. In other words, the CSIS documents might consist of nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations by CSIS.

Moreover, the Globe did not publish the documents. Rather, the Fife-Chase report simply quotes selected extracts of them.

According to Fife and Chase, the CSIS documents attribute various statements to Chinese government officials. In particular, they report that “the classified reports viewed by the Globe reveal that China’s former Consul-General in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, boasted in 2021 about how she helped defeat two Conservative MPs.

How does CSIS know that Tong “boasted in 2021 about how she helped to defeat two Conservative MPs”? We simply cannot glean that information from the Fife-Chase article. Furthermore, how can we be sure that Tong was telling the truth? How do we know that she isn’t simply a boaster who exaggerated her ability to influence Canadian politics?

Fife and Chase also assert:

In early July, 2021—eight weeks before election day—one consular official at an unnamed Chinese diplomatic mission in Canada said Beijing “likes it when the parties in Parliament are fighting with each other, whereas if there is a majority, the party in power can easily implement policies that do not favour the PRC.”


Assuming that this unnamed consular official from an unnamed Chinese diplomatic mission in Canada actually made that statement, the fact that China’s government “likes” something does not prove that it caused that something to happen, or that it even attempted to make it happen.

Fife and Chase nonetheless assert that “the intelligence reports show that Beijing was determined that the Conservatives did not win” (my emphasis). However, in order for us to know whether those documents do indeed “show” that this was Beijing’s goal, we would need more information than Fife and Chase disclose. Among other things, we would need to know whether CSIS’s sources were both credible and positioned to know the information they disclosed to CSIS, and whether CSIS accurately and comprehensively reported what those sources told CSIS.

Fife and Chase also write that:

In early November, 2021, CSIS reported, Ms. Tong discussed the defeat of a Vancouver-area Conservative, whom she described as a “vocal distractor” of the Chinese government. A national-security source said the MP was Kenny Chiu. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source, who risks prosecution under the Security of Information Act.


Of course, there is nothing improper about the Globe’s reliance upon anonymous sources whom its reporters have determined to be credible, and it is entirely understandable that the Globe’s reporters would seek to protect from prosecution a source who discloses non-public information about matters of public interest. However, these considerations do not relieve journalists of their obligation to exercise professional scepticism.

Whereas Reguly’s op-ed highlighted the Biden administration’s denial that it was behind the destruction of Nord Stream, Fife and Chase do not tell us whether China’s government denies the CSIS allegations. Indeed, the Fife-Chase report does not even indicate whether they sought a response from the Chinese government to these allegations. When levelling accusations of so serious a nature against a foreign government, journalists should report, at a minimum, how the accused state actor responds to them. Failing to seek and report that response is strong evidence of journalistic bias.

Moreover, Fife and Chase seem oblivious to the possibility that CSIS might be motivated, for political or budgetary reasons, to deceive or mislead the Canadian public about the nature and extent of Chinese government interference in Canada’s election. Their article contains zero scepticism about CSIS. On the contrary, Fife and Chase simply assume that CSIS agents are apolitical actors whose singular commitment is to tell the truth.

As Matthew Behrens explained in a July 2020 article published by rabble:

Since the 1984 creation of Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), headlines have documented a history of abuse of power, racial and religious profiling, surveillance and disruption of Indigenous, labour, environmental, anti-war and student organizing, exaggerated threat assessments meant to promote bigger budgets, and complicity in torture.
… a starkly worded, formerly “top secret” decision released by Federal Court Judge Patrick Gleeson […] reveals that even the denizens of the nominally CSIS-rubber-stamping court have had enough with being lied to in secret warrant application hearings as part of investigations into “Islamist Terrorism” and “OTHER ENTITIES AND NAMES REDACTED FOR REASONS OF NATIONAL SECURITY.”


Finally, whereas Reguly relied on a Ukrainian source to advance a wholly unsubstantiated claim against Russia—a claim which was plainly designed to mitigate the gravity of the Biden administration’s crime—Fife and Chase never entertain the possibility that the Chinese government may have had legitimate reasons for fearing that a warmongering Conservative government would escalate tensions with China to a dangerous degree, nor do they mention anywhere in their article that Western governments routinely interfere in the domestic politics of other states—even to the point of orchestrating coups d’état where Western governments deem it in their interests to do so.

Ultimately, what the Reguly and Fife-Chase reports reveal is that the Globe and Mail—like all of Canada’s corporate media—applies a double standard to anonymous sources: journalistic scepticism and balance are warranted only when grave allegations are levelled by anonymous sources against a Western state. When allegations of that nature are levelled by anonymous sources against an official enemy of the West, scepticism and balance are tossed out the window.

Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer, human rights activist and former candidate for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. He is based in Montréal.

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