Wednesday, February 23, 2005
All The Gomery Inquiry's A Stage
From The Montreal Gazette May 23, 2005: 'Character Studies' - The 'players' try various tactics to save face.
Watching Gomery inquiry characters manipulate the news media - or at least try to - has become an intriguing sideshow in the sponsorship scandal drama. Some leak documents and tips to specific reporters. Others orchestrate strategic interviews or carefully craft their testimony. A few, like Joseph Morselli, an enigmatic figure who is expected to take the stand this week, have said little or nothing until they reach the witness stand.
Reviews of their performances are mixed. Here is how six Gomery cast members have played the media and how two experts - crisis management trainer Allan Bonner and pollster Jean-Marc Leger - rate their widely divergent tactics.
The former prime minister, who spawned the sponsorship program, rarely speaks to the media about the scandal. But when Chretien testified at the inquiry in February, he played to the cameras. He denied wrongdoing and said that even if mistakes were made, his goal was noble: saving Canada. He tried to discredit his inquisitor, Justice John Gomery, using golf balls as props, a move that garnered laughs and headlines and distracted from allegations of Liberal misconduct. To Bonner, a Toronto consultant and media coach to politicians and executives, the performance was a "tour de force." Chretien managed to boil a scandal involving an "incomprehensible amount of money" - $250 million - to "a question to which there's only one answer: 'Do you want to keep Quebec in Canada?' " Bonner said.
Then there were Chretien's golf balls, signed by U.S. presidents. The stunt was a shot at Gomery, who had described as "small-town cheap" the signed balls Chretien gave out as PM. "The golf balls are what people were talking about the next day at the water cooler - they weren't talking about the hundreds of millions of dollars," Bonner said. Chretien's strategy might have impressed many Canadians, but in Quebec he came across as arrogant and flippant, said Leger, president of Leger Marketing, a major Canadian polling firm. "He played a dangerous game - you cannot play with public opinion," Leger said. "People want the truth. And sooner or later, they will have the truth." Still, many Quebecers have long loathed Chretien and are more scandalized by the Liberals' dirty tricks than other Canadians, so wowing them would have been impossible, Leger said.
The Quebec Superior Court judge running the inquiry took the unusual step of granting media interviews in December. They came back to haunt him. Among other things, he said the sponsorship program was run in a "catastrophically bad way" and promised "juicy stuff" to come. He described one witness as a "charming scamp" and took the golf-ball dig at Chretien. Not the kind of talk you expect from an impartial adjudicator. Behind the bench, Gomery has at times played to the cameras, asking cheeky questions and making sarcastic cracks. His inquiry is a hit reality TV show in Quebec, drawing big audiences. Interviews during a case are a no-no for judges, Bonner said. "I don't see why it was necessary," he added. "What was he trying to accomplish? It was imprudent." In a way, though, allegations of Liberal misdeeds that emerged after the interviews vindicated him. "The focus now isn't on his objectivity, but on what's coming out," Leger said. "We learned a lot from his commission."
As for Gomery's apparent showboating, Bonner said, being on camera can be "enticing and intoxicating. All people are fundamentally flattered by the possibility of being on TV and think it is a validation process." TV attention, he said, "is very addictive and very dangerous."
As former public works minister, he was responsible for the sponsorship program but denies any wrongdoing. Gagliano makes himself widely available to the media, always ready to answer questions about the inquiry's twists and turns. But being too available to the media can backfire, said Bonner, who has worked with the subjects of other public inquiries. "You have to decide what weapons you have and when are they are best deployed," he said. "Do you let it all build up and then dispel it all, or do you comment as it's running?" In most cases, the latter is unwise. "One of the dangers of being accessible at all times is reporters stop accessing you. 'You can get a quote any time from this guy, so why bother now?' So when you need media access, you don't have it. You're seen as just providing a running commentary as opposed to thoughtful, considered commentary."
The prime minister sounds like a broken record on the scandal. His message: he didn't know about sponsorship shenanigans, he's sorry he wasn't more vigilant and voters should wait for Gomery's report before judging. When an avalanche of damning evidence surfaced at Gomery, he bypassed the media, taking the extraordinary step of going on national TV, a move usually reserved for national crises. Soon after he replaced Chretien, Martin, eager to be appear clean, repeatedly and harshly condemned the scandal. That was a mistake, Bonner said, because the public and the media focused on the negative. "Don't use negatives," he advises his clients. "The words 'no, not, never, nothing, none' are absolutes. They are indefensible, for the most part, and should not be used. Martin came on the scene and spread the news about the scandal. He said things were not correct, he used negatives and drew a lot of attention to it." After "muddling through all this (negativity), Martin comes on TV and again draws massive attention to this." It is "absolutely beyond me why he has engaged in this strategy."
A better option would have been to make "serious, real and cosmetic changes in government procurement and spending and maybe to the ethics commissioner," Bonner said. "He could have said: 'Look, this is a new regime. That was then, this is now.' " On the other hand, despite all the muck the Gomery inquiry has dredged up, Martin has managed to distance himself from the scandal, Leger noted. "He represents the credibility of the Liberals and is the only one who could," he said. "People don't believe him when he says he didn't know, but they believe that he was not directly implicated in the scandal." The "Liberal brand is tarnished," he added. "People want to punish the Liberals, but not necessarily Martin."
A former top Liberal, he went public - selectively - after hiring flamboyant, media-savvy lawyer Guy Bertrand. After Gomery witnesses implicated him but before he testified, Corbeil embarked on a carefully planned media offensive, giving exclusive interviews to three media outlets. That guaranteed intense coverage on Day 1 and lots of follow-up by other media. He spoke to La Presse, covering French Quebec; the Globe and Mail, covering English Canada; and Radio-Canada, covering TV and radio in French and English across the country. His charges - among them that lawyers who worked on Liberal campaigns were rewarded with judgeships - made a huge splash, particularly in Quebec. "It clearly had an impact - afterward, his testimony was highly anticipated," Leger said. But in the end, "it's one piece of news - a drop in the ocean. Over the last three or four months, a lot of people have said a lot of things, so it's difficult for the public to understand exactly whether he's right or not."
A close Gagliano friend, he is a former caterer and Liberal fundraiser accused by some witnesses of being involved in off-the-books cash payments in return for federal contracts. Morselli has kept a low profile. He briefly resurfaced two weeks ago, after former Liberal executive Daniel Dezainde said he feared for his safety because Morselli had once threatened him with "war." In a brief TV interview, Morselli denied the threat, then added a comment that, considering the context, raised some eyebrows: "I don't care if Daniel Dezainde drops dead." On Friday, he spoke publicly again, but only to repeat the denial of that and other allegations, and to say the public should wait for his testimony. Generally, though, Morselli has taken the advice he is said to have given ad executive Jean Brault when federal auditor-general Sheila Fraser started investigating three of Brault's questionable federal contracts.
Brault told the inquiry that Morselli offered him these words of wisdom: "Drop the sails, play dead, take a vacation, let the storm blow over, and things will get back to normal."