The Dead Candidate’s Report: A Memoir tells the story of a celebrated journalist who decided she wanted to be a member of Canada’s Parliament, only to have her candidacy cancelled by her leader without notice, as she was preparing to launch her campaign. In fact, her political obituary was written and distributed to the news media even before the candidate herself was informed. The decision to remove her from the Liberal Party roster in the 2008 federal election was prompted by a complaint from an anonymous blogger who claimed that an article she had written years before was anti-Semitic.
The candidate is Lesley Hughes, for decades a journalist at CBC radio, and one whose voice and views were familiar to the legions that tuned into her popular Winnipeg Information Radio morning program. She’s a broadcaster and a columnist whom I have long admired and who has become a friend and occasional colleague in recent years. As well, Lesley was, for many years, Canadian Dimension’s media critic. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Paul S. Graham: So maybe we can set the scene, or you can set the scene by beginning to describe that fateful morning when you learn that the Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, had revoked your candidacy.
Lesley Hughes: I deal with this in my book in the chapter called “Your Execution May be Televised” because that’s how I felt. My crew and I were just filming a little video for my website, showing the various places in Winnipeg that had helped to form my values as a candidate. And we were just setting up outside the CBC building because a national public broadcaster was very important to me. And, as we were setting up a group of my former colleagues came thrashing out, lugging all their awkward equipment in one tearing hurry, kind of like they were afraid the story might vanish, you know. And so I was very surprised. And then they wanted me to react to the fact that I had been dismissed as a candidate, which was something that I didn’t know. They were waving a press release at me, which claimed that Mr. Dion had done this. Well, he hadn’t done it. Nobody had done it, but it didn’t matter because the television footage really did it, if you can follow me. So that’s how I found out that I was dismissed. And I was, I was shocked. I felt betrayed and confused. And it was the beginning of a long ordeal. It was a life-changing event. That’s how I found out.
PG: That whole story says so much about the way in which politics or politicians and the media and the news cycle interact that they couldn’t take the time to say, Lesley you’re about to be disappeared. There was no apparent courtesy.
PG: You were alleged to be anti-Semitic, and this was based as far as I can see on one sentence in an article that you wrote in 2002 that challenged the official narratives around the 9/11 attacks and argued that Canadian soldiers should not be sent to fight in Afghanistan. Can you tell us a bit about the article and why you think your critics chose to call it anti-Semitic?
LH: It was called “Get the Truth.” It was published in May, following the attacks in New York. And yes, the point, the focus of the column was that Canadians should know and should agree if our country was going to support the Americans in the invasion of Afghanistan. And of course, there were rumbles of the coming invasion of Iraq as well. I think the problem wasn’t so much one sentence as the whole idea of challenging the official story. I had never seen the media behave in quite the way they did after 9/11. Media everywhere became kind of a Greek chorus, basically repeating what George Bush had to say—in spite of the fact that all journalists are taught that the last thing you believe is the official story—the last thing you believe and the first thing you challenge. So, I was angry and I was embarrassed, and I had reported the claim that Mossad had made that they had informed the Americans well before the attack that such a thing might be coming, and this was interpreted, certainly by the blogger who initiated the whole ordeal, as meaning that the Israelis knew and didn’t tell the other tenants in the building. And so this was considered to be a very offensive, basically anti-Semitically motivated idea. So that was a big part of the problem.
The other part of the problem was that the Conservatives were arguing aggressively for my dismissal. And Steven Harper had got out in front of the story before I even knew about it, saying that I had said that Israel was behind the attacks in New York, and that I refused to apologize and that he thought was a very serious thing—at the same time admitting he hadn’t read what I wrote. But of course, you know, once that happened, it didn’t matter what I wrote. What mattered was the theme that had been established.
So, I think basically that was the problem. The very idea of raising the topic is like, you know, there’s a target on your forehead, but it, it had to be done. It had to be done, you know. You just know when something needs to be done.
PG: And so, the fact that you had not said that Israel was behind the attack wasn’t a problem for people who just kept parroting that line.
LH: It was great copy. Absolutely great copy. It was everywhere by the elite media who claimed to serve politically astute Canadians. It all went out the window. Right. And I was left for dead, which explains the title of my book, The Dead Candidate’s Report.
PG: So, this affair not only cost you your Liberal candidacy, but more generally it cost you your reputation and your ability to work as a journalist. Do you want to elaborate on that?
LH: Well, the thing is that basically all a journalist has to offer is credibility and these charges destroyed mine. It made me look as if I had been pretending to be one person, you know, progressive and interested in human rights. And I had fooled everybody up until this point. That was the breaking news, according to the blogger. And then of course you have to remember that nobody wants to hang with an anti-Semite. It is rightfully a loathsome ideology. And so of course people would naturally just take their distance from me. And I understood that a lot of people who could have spoken up for me didn’t actually do that because they felt compromised. And of course, my sources dried up because who wants to appear in a story written by the now famous anti-Semite and by the way, a 9/11 conspiracy nut—that was an additional focus of the claims. So I think that apart entirely from the internal trauma that you feel that people could believe this about you after a career in which it was unthinkable. Apart from that, the end was nigh. It was there, as I say, left for dead. And now what to do?
PG: Despite all of that, though, you did have quite a number of supporters. I was one of them, actually, even before I had met you. And I remember blogging about this particular issue on a couple of occasions and in one blog that I posted, and unfortunately the original link to the Winnipeg Free Press story no longer exists, but it was September 27, 2008. And there was an online readers’ poll that asked the question, “Do you think Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was right to turf Lesley Hughes over 9/11 conspiracy writings?” And, at that point, 2,469 readers had responded and 73 percent of them said “No.” So, you know, clearly, amongst readers of the Winnipeg Free Press, there were a vast majority that weren’t willing to accept the official narrative of the Liberal Party, that you were some dastardly anti-Semite. What about other people who would have given you support back in those days? Can you talk a bit about that?
LH: Well, you know, I was very touched by that poll. That was a huge number of respondents for that kind of poll. And it, as you say, it was very supportive, and I appreciated it. And however helpful it was, it’s comparatively easy to express your support in that kind of forum. You don’t have to answer for it. It’s an entirely different thing to identify yourself and take some kind of action and make some kind of connection with whoever it is that needs that support. Much more difficult to do in person.
And of course, most people, when they don’t know what to do, or they don’t know what to say, quite reasonably, don’t say anything, don’t do anything. And that was the case for me, some friends in the Jewish community who knew that it was nonsense were not able to speak up. And some friends that were very, I would say, close friends didn’t know how to respond. So that balance was very, very difficult, but where it ended was that it was a very, very, very lonely time, ultimately a lonely time, something I would never want to revisit.
PG: However, you decided to take action at some point. After reflecting on your situation you decided to take legal action to clear your name and to reclaim your reputation. Can you tell us about this?
LH: Well, believe me, Paul, I did not want to do it. I had friends in the legal community who told me many, many times that, essentially, if you look for a legal remedy, it’s like volunteering to appear in front of a firing squad after you’ve already been killed, right. This is not an appealing idea. I understood it—expensive, lengthy, heartbreaking, no guarantees, but I just couldn’t live with the idea of me apparently lending my support to anti-Semitism or anything related to it. I just couldn’t do it. I really didn’t think I had any choice and there wasn’t any other way to approach a solution. So, I had a hard time finding a lawyer who wanted to represent me, but I did. I had no money, but I mortgaged my house for a retainer, twice. And, you know what, I don’t regret it for all that it was kind of a heartbreaking journey, the legal thing in court—I didn’t get my day in court ultimately, because the charges were retracted and I was cleared—and I felt differently because initially I felt that I had been used to give anti-Semitism a new energy, and used to induce fear in a community that didn’t need any more fear of this kind. So, I bit that bullet, that firing squad, I went through with it and eventually I won. At least legally I won.
PG: So, do you feel that you obtained all of the objectives you set for yourself when you reached this out of court settlement? And remind us again, who you were settling with. Who were the objects of the lawsuit?
LH: Well, my lawyers had informed me that defamation laws in Canada had become significantly less powerful in the last few years. And so alas, they eliminated the idea of holding the media responsible for their, you know, wholesale slaughter of my reputation and my character and what they decided to do was, in their words, pursue the most extreme defamers, I guess, is the correct word. And so the lawsuit was against B’Nai Brith National, against what was then called the Canadian Jewish Congress and against the honourable Peter Kent, who was a candidate in the same election, in a heavily Jewish writing. And really, you know, was able to use this much to his advantage. So those, those were the objects of the lawsuit. People said, are you insane? People said, are you nuts? What makes you think, you know, that you’re going to do anything but bounce, like a pebble off these really powerful well-resourced experienced people, but oh, no, I had to do it.
PG: And in the end they settled out of court. Can you provide any details about the nature of that settlement?
LH: No. Legally I cannot discuss that. They withdrew the charges; they offered a retraction. An apology was out of the question. It’s interesting to note that in all of this, from the beginning, until this very conversation, nobody ever apologized. No one ever apologized for what happened. When I think about that, I can scarcely believe it. But in any case, my lawyer said, “Hey, the public. They forget everything, but they will remember that you went to court and that you won, and that’s what you want.” My legal team was very happy, very happy. They felt this was a good outcome. And I think, you know, realistically, practically speaking, they were correct.
PG: I’ve long thought that the attack on you was motivated by two objectives. One, and I think you mentioned this earlier, to weaken the Liberal campaign by removing a candidate when it was too late to replace her. But, but also more fundamentally, I think there was a desire to squelch mainstream journalistic dissent around the origins of the invasion of Afghanistan and Canada’s participation in that. And you were one of the very few established journalists who chose to take a critical approach. And as we’ve discussed, you’ve paid quite a high price for thinking independently. Would you agree? Have I encapsulated it or is there more to be said about that?
LH: No, I think you nailed it Paul. I think you nailed it. I remember—you may remember as well—one of the celebrated stories in the wake of 9/11 was a September 13 column by Margaret Wente who wrote, “Yesterday, the American President made a declaration of war, and we supported him with all our hearts… this war is just and necessary, and not to fight it is unthinkable,” referring to the coming invasion of Afghanistan. And when I saw that, I said, no, we should not be aspiring to be Americans. We should be aspiring to find out, as the title of my troublesome column was—we should be trying to “get the truth,” get the truth before we make judgements and before we plan retaliation.
And we know what the results of the decisions to go into Afghanistan were. I mean, the results are just unfolding in front of us right now, but at the time I think what was revealed about media was the underlying and ever present fear of authority and by authority I mean the usual, the traditional—a fear maybe of the military, a fear of government, our own government’s response, and a fear also, of course, among corporate media owners, right, that the status quo could be disturbed. So, in my view, the whole thing did expose something that desperately needs repair. We need a new attitude, which doesn’t focus on fear, but actually does focus on the truth. Does that make sense to you?
PG: I’ve often thought that the official media does spend a lot of time cheerleading for whatever comes out of Ottawa or Washington. And I’m reminded, and I think you alluded to this earlier, that journalists have forgotten the first rule is that “don’t believe something until it’s been officially denied.” Anyway, I imagine the last 13 years, since this all went down, have been extremely challenging and reading your book, I had some sense of the ups and downs and the turbulence and the emotions, and the heartbreak and the fear and everything that must have been going on. How are you doing now?
LH: Well, I’m doing much better now that my book is in print. You know, this was a series of disappearances over this, more than a decade, right. Disappeared by the blogger, then disappeared by my party and then disappeared by the media. Then I went to court, I won and that victory was also disappeared because the media declined to print how the story had turned out, which was a great disappointment to me. So, my victory could be described as a thud. Boom!
And now what, how do I live with that? And it dawned on me very slowly that I really had to write a book about it, even though it was going to be a book in which nobody looked good. And probably for that reason, a lot of people wouldn’t want to read. I knew that, okay, if I practice my belief that the best journalism is preventive and liberating at the same time, then I had to write the book.
And I had to tell it, you know, exactly the way it was, with an understanding of human nature, human behavior, how it all came about. And so, I feel so much lighter now, now that this book is out because it was very hard; it was like defying the entire crowd all over again, you know, and again, the trepidation that comes with that, but I feel relieved. I feel as if I’ve practiced what I preach. And, I’m not responsible for the outcome now because I have done my part. And that feels really good, really good.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.