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Why following the journalism is important

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So Stephen Harper does not follow the news.

At least that is what you have to think if you also believe his repeated assertions in the House of Commons that he first learned that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally paid back the dubious expenses filed by Senator Mike Duffy on the morning of May 15th.

Problem is, the story was a major national news story on May 14th.

And following the trail of journalism in this case shows why there are many more questions to be answered.

Bob Fife, a veteran, excellent Ottawa reporter, broke the story on the CTV National News the night of May 14th. The show first aired at 10 p.m. Ottawa time. A version of it was on the CTV website a minute later. The newscast was repeated at 11 p.m. local time across the country. More than a million Canadians viewed the report. It spread immediately on social media.

One of viewers, apparently, was not Stephen Harper, the person whose office was at the centre of the scandal.

"Until the morning of May 15, when Mr. Wright informed me that he had written a personal cheque to Mr. Duffy so that he could repay his expenses, it had been my understanding that Mr. Duffy had paid from his own personal resources," Harper said.

With his somber assertions in the Commons, Harper is counting on sending a message to a lot of Canadians who do not know much about how journalists or the prime minister’s office work.

It’s quite possible that Harper did not watch Fife’s report. But if he was in the dark on subject the next morning, then there was a massive failure in his office, which is staffed by people whose main job is to make sure the boss knows what he needs to know.

And the prime minister needs to know when a national story is going to break, or is breaking, involving a scandal in his office.

Fife's report did not come as a surprise to people in Harper’s office. Fife had contacted staff there before the story ran. The PMO had even issued a statement to Fife saying that no taxpayers resources were used in paying back Duffy’s expenses. All on May 14th.

These kinds of statements are not issued independently by low-level communications staff. A statement on such a hot topic would have to be cleared by the highest levels of the PMO, which would mean the prime minister’s chief of staff, who would know immediately what the story was about because he was at the centre of it. You can bet that top officials were watching to see what Fife aired.

And you have to ask why Nigel Wright, whose main job was to protect the reputation of the prime minister, would not have already contacted Harper to advise him of the storm about to hit.

Fife’s piece included reaction from NDP and Liberal spokespeople. The Duffy payment put the PMO squarely in the middle of the Senate expense scandal. The first rule of working in the PMO is never leave your boss exposed, and not knowing about Fife’s story would leave Harper wide open to attack from opponents.

Of course, maybe Harper has been very careful in his Commons statements. The wiggle room here is that he could say, well, he knew about the Fife story, but had no confirmation until Wright told him directly the next morning what all the details were. Or maybe Harper was deliberately kept in the dark, to make sure he could later honestly deny knowing about the Duffy payment.

One way or the other, the trail of journalism still leaves many questions to be answered.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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