A former top aide to Conservative leader Stephen Harper tried and failed to stop Sun Media from suggesting a former colleague brought a Liberal bias to the CBC’s controversial VoteCompass political preference tool.
The Sun papers scored what seemed like a scoop by reporting that one of the VoteCompass creators, University of Toronto political scientist Peter Loewen, had worked with Michael Ignatieff in 2006. Tory bloggers went apoplectic… more Liberal bias, why are our tax dollars paying for this, etc., etc.
Indeed, Flanagan told Sun Media before the story was published that, “I have no doubts about his objectivity.”
An affiliation with one of the founding minds of the Reform Party movement might have mitigated the perception that Loewen is a Liberal stooge willing to skew VoteCompass to favour his former keepers.
Certainly his quote about Loewen’s objectivity would be germane to the story that suggests bias.
(My former boss, Andrew Potter of Maclean’s, explores this in some detail on his blog today.)
An email trail shows that, the day before his story ran in the Sun, Flanagan emailed Sun Media Ottawa bureau chief David Akin:
On 11-03-31 4:47 PM, “Tom Flanagan”<firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
David, Peter Loewen is one of the brightest young political scientists
in Canada. He’s into data, not partisanship. His interest in Iggy’s
leadership race was to conduct an experiment testing the efficacy of
direct mail. The model on CBC’s website may or may not have problems; I
don’t know anything about it. But Peter Loewen wouldn’t be involved in
etting up some partisan trick on the CBC website. Tom
Then the response from Akin:
On 3/31/2011 2:49 PM, David Akin wrote:
Thanks for volunteering this, Tom. Brian Lilley has been covering this. Is
it ok if I forward this on to him and may he quote you? (I believe Peter has
indicated to Brian that he worked with you.)
From: Tom Flanagan <email@example.com>
To: David Akin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Yes, you can forward this to Brian. Peter didn’t work for me in the
sense of being a paid employee, but I shared data and discussed things
with him. I have no doubts about his objectivity. I’d hate to see a
promising young guy like him become roadkill on the media highway.
Whether Brian Lilley ever got the message is unclear. But the following day, his story appeared in the Ottawa Sun under the headline, “Quiz creator worked for Iggy: Professor behind CBC’s VoteCompass was policy adviser in 2006.” It makes no mention of Flanagan.
I asked David about this and he declined to comment, saying he doesn’t discuss sources of a story.
No response from Brian Lilley yet.
UPDATE: Lilley and Akin have both responded. Lilley addressed some of the points raised above in a blog rebuttal of Andrew Potter’s column. Once you skim past the easy mocking of Potter’s academic work and the title of his critically-acclaimed book — elitist! elitist! — Lilley offers an explanation of why he didn’t include Flanagan’s comments about Loewen. I find the logic a bit convoluted and difficult to paraphrase, so I won’t try. Read it for yourself.
Akin rattled off a series of tweets this morning (Thursday) in further response, which I include here:
Note 2 @glen_mcgregor: #CBC Compass tool annoyed the *left* http://bit.ly/hXV7Y6 and other non-Liberals. Inconvenient fact for you?
Note to @glen_mcgregor: Journos in YOW have bought sportscars with the cas[h] #CBC gives pundits like Flanagans. Inconvenient fact for you?
Note to @glen_mcgregor: Flanagan-Loewen relationship academic, not partisan. Flanagan says so: http://bit.ly/evTS9z. Inconvenient fact?
Note to @glen_mcgregor: Loewen-Ignatieff relationship not academic, but partisan. Inconvenient fact?
Suffice to say, we are now long into the extra innings of inside baseball on the VoteCompass story. I don’t mean to pick on either David or Brian. I have worked with them for many years and like them both. David is a prolific and skilled reporter, a National Newspaper Award winner, and a champion of the use of social media in journalism. I have never detected any sign of bias in his work. Brian is a fearless interviewer, especially in scrums, and has a keen eye for hypocrisy. He’s also a funny guy.
I also dearly hope their TV venture is successful. A company hiring journalists is always a good thing, whatever its ultimate objective.
That said, I find Sun Media’s fixation with the CBC bizarre. Even though it is suspiciously congruent with QMI’s corporate interests, I fully support holding a taxpayer-funded organization to account, even through unrelenting filing of Access to Information requests. But the incessant campaign alleging Liberal bias against CBC is off base and insulting to Brian’s and David’s colleagues who do good journalism there every day. It’s the kind of “MSM” bunk that bloggers hurl at reporters all the time and David, at least, should know better.
(For the record, I’ve never taken a dime from the CBC, nor have I ever applied for a job with the corporation. I have been paid a couple of hundred bucks over the years for appearing on shows hosted by Mark Sutcliffe on CFRA and CPAC. And I get paid by the Citizen every week.)
If either David or Brian wants to debate this further, I suggest a one-on-one format at Massey Hall. Sun TV News can carry it live.