By Davide Mastracci, Passage, March 23, 2023
The articles by Sam Cooper rely on anonymous CSIS sources and fail to confirm allegations or even address inconsistencies.
Yesterday, Global News published an article by Sam Cooper alleging that in February 2021, Liberal MP Han Dong advised a Chinese diplomat that the government should hold back on freeing Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from prison. Dong denies doing so, claiming he actually pushed for their release, and has left the Liberal caucus until an investigation is completed.
The story, which is developing as I write, is the latest entry in a series of articles published by Global News since November that focuses on alleged Chinese interference in multiple Canadian elections.
The nature of this past reporting plus the specifics of the latest article from Cooper lead me to have little trust in Global News, which, given the nature of their sources, is what these articles rely on. To explain my case, I’ll first review their past reporting, and then move on to yesterday’s article.
On Nov. 7, 2022, Global published an article containing allegations from anonymous CSIS sources that China funded a “clandestine network of at least 11 federal candidates running in the 2019 election.” According to Global’s sources, China used a proxy group to pass on about $250,000 in total to intermediaries as well as the candidates and their staffers. The story added that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was briefed about this matter in January 2022. On Dec. 21, 2022, The Globe and Mail published a story based on claims made by two unnamed CSIS sources. These sources contradicted some important details in Global’s story, claiming that CSIS director David Vigneault briefed Trudeau in the fall (not January) and told him there was no evidence any “covert funding” was given by China to these candidates nor that any of the candidates were “compromised” by China. Vigneault also told a parliamentary committee: “We have not seen money going to 11 candidates, period.”
The initial story from Global didn’t name any of the 11 federal candidates alleged to have benefitted from Chinese interference. On February 25, Global published an article naming Dong as one of them, further adding allegations from multiple sources that Dong is a “witting affiliate in China’s election interference networks.” The sources also claim that CSIS “warned” Trudeau about Dong three weeks prior to the 2019 election, and “urged” him to drop Dong as a candidate 48 hours or so before the nomination deadline. Dong, who was first elected as MP for Don Valley North in 2019 and re-elected in 2021, denied the allegations. Global explicitly states that they haven’t confirmed the allegations.
The story CSIS sources offered to Global was that the Chinese consulate wasn’t “pleased” with the “performance” of Liberal Don Valley North MP Geng Tan, who was elected in 2015. The article doesn’t offer any proof that this was the case, or explain why it may have been (the closest it gets is alleging that Tan had to think about an invitation to visit Taiwan before being convinced by Dong and others to reject it). Instead, it simply states that China preferred Dong, and that Dong “was considered a close friend of the Toronto Consulate.”
Global presents this alleged relationship as something scandalous on its own, which ignores innocent explanations (such as that Dong was formerly an MPP in Toronto for a riding that included Chinatown, a significant Chinese population and the consulate itself, making this relationship potentially useful for constituents) and enforces a standard that would never be applied to many other communities. For example, it’s hard to imagine Global ever using a Jewish MP’s relationship with the Israeli consulate to smear them as a fifth columnist.
The story proceeds on from the claim that Dong was favoured by the Chinese consulate as if the real competition to become the Liberal candidate for Don Valley North in the 2019 election was between him and Tan. Shockingly, Global takes until the 69th paragraph in the story to mention that Tan had actually announced in June 2019 that he would no longer seek re-election amid allegations that, as the National Post wrote at the time, he “hired his girlfriend as a constituency assistant, then fired her at his wife’s behest and refused to provide child support to their daughter.” (Tan claims he merely acted as a sperm donor and didn’t promise to support the child.)
When Global does mention this important fact, it refers to it simply as an “extra-marital affair” and notes it was “published on WeChat, a Chinese state-controlled messaging app,” and then covered in a “second Chinese media article.” This both downplays the severity of the accusations and suggests they are somehow linked to China. In fact, the article even claims that Michael Chan, another former Liberal MPP CSIS was allegedly watching, may have “influenced these reports,” without describing how. It also fails to mention that the National Post’s report was in part based on letters sent from the woman’s lawyer to Tan in 2017 and 2018, and that the letters alleged Tan’s wife had admitted to being responsible for getting the woman fired from her job.
It’s also only in this last section of the article that Global mentions Tan had actually been re-nominated by the Liberals in December 2018, had appeared at party events all the way through to April 2019 and was set to run in the next election until the news broke. The Global article does acknowledge here that this scandal made Tan “a potential liability for Trudeau in an overwhelmingly Liberal riding where a nomination is equivalent to an election win.”
Global failed to mention that one of the other prominent potential candidates for the nomination, ex-Ontario health minister David Caplan, died in the midst of it. It doesn’t name any other candidates that came forward for the nomination that might have been selected over Dong. Instead, it merely alleges that Dong was chosen because he was considered close to the Chinese consulate and was supported by Chan.
Most readers would not make it to the end of a story of the length Global published (about 2,400 words). This isn’t an assumption, as analytics programs give news outlets very clear (and often depressing) stats on how long readers spend on each page. As such, burying the crucial information about Tan’s choice not to run again so deep in the article in effect ensures that the vast majority of readers won’t have the full picture. As a result, many more may have come away from the article assuming that Dong was guilty of the accusations made by CSIS agents. This brings us to yesterday.
Yesterday’s article by Cooper starts off with two significant claims from its CSIS sources in the first four paragraphs. I will quote both in full here.
- “Dong allegedly suggested to Han Tao, China’s consul general in Toronto, that if Beijing released the ‘Two Michaels,’ whom China accused of espionage, the Opposition Conservatives would benefit.”
- “Dong also allegedly recommended that Beijing show some progress in the Kovrig and Spavor cases, the two sources said. Such a move would help the ruling Liberal Party, which was facing an uproar over China’s inhumane treatment of Kovrig and Spavor.”
There are a couple of things to note.
First, these claims are seemingly contradictory. If Dong thought the Michaels being imprisoned was hurting the Liberal Party, why would he think releasing them would help the Conservatives?
The claim that releasing the Michaels would help the Liberals is a straightforward one. The government was being constantly attacked for supposedly not being “tough” on China in its response to the imprisonment of the Michaels. Getting the Michaels out would largely blunt these attacks, as well as give Trudeau the chance to take credit for their release. This wouldn’t necessarily harm the Conservatives, but it would be a boost for the Liberals.
The claim that releasing the Michaels would help the Conservatives, however, is one I have yet to hear anyone explain. Cooper doesn’t attempt to do so in his article, even though it’s a contradiction put on display from the beginning and which any curious reader or reporter should ask about.
Second, a close look at the quotes in question makes it clear that Dong actually “recommended” to Tao that China take steps toward freeing the Michaels, which is what you would expect of any Canadian MP. But Global merely asserts that Dong “suggested” releasing the Michaels would benefit the Conservatives. Apart from the suggestion making no discernible political sense, Global’s quote doesn’t actually state that Dong told Tao not to release the Michaels, despite what the article’s headline declares.
There are many other issues.
Cooper writes that the “conversation between Dong and Consul General Han illustrates how political interference is not just affecting institutions but also has an impact on people – in this case, with two lives at stake, one of the two national security sources said.” And yet, the article doesn’t even claim, much less offer proof, that Dong’s alleged suggestion impacted China’s decision at all. (The Michaels were eventually released a few days after the Liberals won the 2021 election, a time that would be of little electoral benefit to them.)
Cooper adds, “Looking at the timing of Dong’s alleged communication with the Toronto Consulate and the announcement of Chinese court proceedings in mid-March, CSIS investigators considered whether Dong’s alleged recommendation to Consul General Han had indeed influenced Beijing to show some progression in the case, the national security official said.” Global doesn’t say CSIS concluded Dong had any influence, nor would it make sense that a move that only furthered anger against the Liberals would have been done at their behest.
Moreover, Global seems to have no interest in asking why these accusations are coming out now as opposed to at the time, or even at any point prior to the 2021 election. Cooper writes, “It remains unclear whether or not CSIS has ever conveyed [these accusations] to the Prime Minister’s Office or anyone else in the federal government.” The Prime Minister’s Office told Global this was the first time they had heard of the conversation between Dong and Tao. If CSIS truly did believe Dong had been trying to keep the Michaels locked up, wouldn’t it have told the government, particularly given it had already allegedly spoken to Trudeau about Dong? Global also notes that there was some deliberation at CSIS as to whether Dong had done anything wrong, or was merely acting within “appropriate diplomatic channels” and doing what he thought was “within his purview as an MP to find solutions.”
Cooper appears to have no interest in whether Dong’s phone was being bugged, and what justification CSIS may have had to do so. In the February article mentioned above, Cooper notes that CSIS started “tracking” Dong in June 2019, the month he declared he’d be running as a Liberal candidate. Has this tracking continued throughout the entirety of his time as an MP thus far? Cooper also writes that Global’s stories raise “questions of whether CSIS and the RCMP can investigate Canadian politicians, intelligence and political sources said.” They certainly do raise questions, but Cooper appears at this stage to be uninterested in answering or even addressing any of them.
Cooper’s reporting also relies almost completely on a couple of anonymous CSIS sources. There seems to be close to zero consideration offered as to why these sources may be leaking these claims, and why now. Readers are just expected to trust them, and to trust the vetting Cooper and Global has presumably done of them. I don’t. Cooper’s lack of any apparent effort to address natural questions his reporting would bring up doesn’t help this concern, either.
As a whole, Cooper’s reporting is unconvincing. It relies almost entirely on anonymous CSIS sources. It fails to confirm many of the allegations these sources make. It doesn’t attempt to address any of the inconsistencies in their stories. It has no interest in interrogating why they may be making the claims. And its past treatment of Dong was misleading.
Of course, this doesn’t mean it will all end up being false. It may be true. Cooper and Global just simply haven’t done enough to prove that’s the case, nor have they done enough to win my trust. I hope they will be met with skepticism unless and until more information is revealed.
Davide Mastracci is the managing editor of Passage. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his work through his website.
PostedApril 8, 2023