Transcript: Holly Doan
My interview with the Ottawa journalist and publisher of Blacklock's Reporter
This month at Lean Out, I’ve been speaking with journalists that I admire — and having conversations about the state of the mainstream media, and the rise of the independent press.
Today’s guest runs an independent outlet in Ottawa, and she joins me to talk through some of the year’s biggest stories.
Holly Doan is an award-winning journalist, and the publisher and owner of Blacklock’s Reporter.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the full episode for free here.
Lean Out requested comment from the Parliamentary Press Gallery on the recent eviction of Blacklock’s Tom Korski. Please scroll down to read the full statement.
TH: Holly, welcome to Lean Out.
HD: It’s lovely to be here, Tara. Thank you for inviting me.
TH: So nice to have you on. I’ve been wanting to speak with you for a while, so it’s great to get the opportunity. I want to start today with the story of Tom Blacklock, former president of the Ottawa Press Gallery, for whom your site is named. Tell us about him, and the journalistic ethos that he embodied.
HD: Well, Tom Blacklock is a real guy. He was born in Halton County, in Ontario, in the 1870s. He went west to make his fortune. He was the first mayor of Weyburn in Saskatchewan. He worked for a number of newspapers, and then returned to Ottawa as a war correspondent for the Montreal Gazette. We first saw his unsmiling, high-collared picture on the wall of the Parliamentary Press Gallery hot room, where he was president in 1922. We did political history documentaries for a while, so we saw Tom Blacklock’s correspondence in the archives with his friend, Prime Minister Arthur Meighen. They had a warm and frank conversation about things like conscription. And one of Tom Blacklock’s famous lines was, “That ain’t the way I heard it.” To us — in that irreverence, or suggestion of knowledge that you possess that others don’t — we thought that this was the guy, the brand that we want for our product, when we launched in 2012.
TH: Blacklock’s is a reporter-owned and reporter-operated newsroom in Ottawa, and you specialize in the kind of time intensive reporting that a lot of places don’t do anymore. Filing freedom of information requests, looking in-depth at bills and regulations, reporting on committees and federal court records. This work takes both resources and deep journalistic experience. How have you made this business model work in the current climate?
HD: I would say that you nailed it when you said “experience.” Together, the editor and co-founder and I each have been in this business over 40 years. And have been to Ottawa once before, and then left and came back. Also, over the 10 years that we’ve been doing this work, we have taught ourselves how to document searches. We have taught ourselves where to find documents that are mandated that they must be posted online by authorities. But they don’t make them easy to find. It’s like a systemic check. If you were a cub reporter in a local newsroom, what’s the first thing you did every morning? You checked with the cops, you checked the competition. So we have a series of checks, where documents are deposited, that we have taught ourselves. And it’s been a goldmine.
In doing this kind of work — and particularly you mentioned the committee coverage — what we have learned is that the public, particularly with committees, have responded to those. We found out that Canadians were surprised that there seemed to be these congressional-like, continuous hearings happening in Ottawa. Well, this is just the process of how bills become law. But then we asked ourselves: If Canadians don’t know how their parliamentary democracy works, because reporters no longer cover those things, how is our democracy damaged? And we understood that by noodling down even tighter on the fine details of how we are governed, we would have a business model. And eureka, Blacklock’s was born.
TH: You have been in the news this past week. Your co-founder, reporter Tom Korski, was escorted out of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. As far as I can tell, the allegations amount to him being impolite. Walk me through your account of what happened.
HD: Well, this matter is going to litigation. So it’s going to be limited in what I’m going to say, at this point. But we have reported it. And the Press Gallery has also put out their side in a press release. [Ed note: please scroll down for Press Gallery statement.] There’s a few inaccuracies and parsing of words. Mr. Korksi was not escorted out. That’s not what we said. We said that the Gallery president was accompanied by an armed cop while the eviction notice was read. He was there. Tom saw him, gun on hip. So that’s not in question. The “escorted out” was something that got away on everybody — Twitter’s interpretation. You know how that can happen.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been a member of a volunteer board, either at your condo association or something, but there are frequently axe-grinders, people who want to use the authority to seek reprisal, for some reason or other. Some of that has happened here.
Blacklock’s covers the public Labour Relations and Employment Board. This is a quasi-judicial body that arbitrates disputes between the federal employer and its employees. So, we’ve learned a lot about process. And some of the things we’ve learned we saw happening in this case. It is not reasonable to think that any complaint — whatever it is — about another member would be withheld. The complaint was withheld from Blacklock’s. That meetings would be held in secret. That Blacklock’s would ask three times to speak to the Board, virtually or in-person, to try to work this out, to make recommendations. We were refused. They wanted only something in writing. That they would threaten to terminate our membership entirely. “Terminate,” said the letter. This happened before any of this process took place.
There was a mediator, which we cooperated fully with. We were denied a right to see the mediator’s report until we wrote about it. So whether this is merely shenanigans, political shenanigans by a volunteer board, or whether there is something darker at play, we believe sincerely that when these matters go to a proper third party, that it no longer is evaluated in the realm of feelings. That we will deal with facts. And that’s a really good thing for both sides — when we deal in facts and examine what the documents say. So we are committed to that process, and we are happy to live with it no matter the outcome.
TH: You had previously reported on access to information requests, about 35 unnamed publishers meeting with the Canada Revenue Agency, discussing distribution of 595 million in subsidies. Do you contend that the eviction and the issue with Tom Korski is related to your reporting on press subsidies in this country?
HD: We believe that some of our reporting underpins the distaste that some have towards Blacklock’s. There has been various skirmishes over the years that were settled in one way or the other. We don’t understand why it’s come to this now. Why in a 35-foot room with 90 percent empty desks, that there would not be some resolution of this matter — either a reconfiguration of this newsroom to separate people, or installations of TVs on individual desks. I mean, if the Parliamentary Press Gallery contends there’s a noise bylaw, or there’s a swearing bylaw, then we will evaluate that. We do believe — and you don’t have to accept my side of it, this will be presented — that our reporting underpins this. But let’s find out. Let’s go to cross-examination, and discovery, and subpoena of documents, and let’s find out.
TH: The Canadian media has been criticized for accepting government subsidies. Most recently by British journalist Douglas Murray, during the prestigious Munk Debate on whether the public should trust the mainstream media. Blacklock’s Reporter does not accept government subsidies. Walk me through your thinking on that.
HD: In 2017, the former Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly famously said to a group of journalists, “It will not be our policy to support failed business models.” The Department of Heritage itself, policy analysts had written about the losses in the media, jobs in the media industry, and about the likelihood that the wolf is at the door for several organizations. I don’t know whether those were the failed ones that Madame Joly was talking about a year later. After a significant lobby campaign, that involved the president of News Media Canada ex-president Bob Cox and Liberal lobbyist Isabel Metcalfe — voila, their position was reversed. And the new Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, was talking about subsidizing media as a method to save democracy.
At that moment, my editor and I looked at each other and said, “No, we can’t take money. We can’t. That’s going to destroy our business. That is going to destroy trust in what we’re trying to do.” As a small media organization struggling to realize a profit in our business model, to convince Canadians in this time of uber-skepticism and fake news that we weren’t some sort of on bad online actor, that we were 40-year career journalists — to take the federal money would be to destroy our own business model. Because we believe then, as now, that the newsrooms cannot accept government handouts and be free of government influence or interference at the same time. We believed it then and we believe it even more firmly now.
TH: I want to spend a moment on one of the big stories this year, the trucker convoy crisis and the Public Order Emergency Commission, which has just wrapped up. You have a story out this morning about how the RCMP privately mocked Mark Carney’s claims in The Global and Mail that the convoy was sedition. I’m curious, for someone who’s watched this closely, what do you see as one development to come out of POEC that really surprised you?
HD: I don’t know if it surprised us, but there was very little evidence that the government met the test to invoke the Emergencies Act. We really thought that cabinet was going to come up with some fireworks. They didn’t. We didn’t really learn anything new about the legitimate reasons for declaring the Act that we didn’t know beforehand. We had reaffirmed by police and others that, for instance, there were no guns. There was no arson fire attached to the convoy. That the police did not tell the Minister of Safety that they needed the Emergencies Act. We saw miscommunication, we saw spin.
I guess the interesting part about the Public Order Emergency Commission — that we are confounded by — is that the real evidence of whether or not there was grounds to invoke came not so much in the testimony that reporters seemed to be focused on, as they were tweeting from the Commission room, but in the documents that were filed. And, by the way, they still continue to file documents and to have meetings with interest groups. It’s not really quite over. On the Friday that the Public Order Emergency Commission wrapped up, they deposited five thousand documents. And we’ve been feeding off them ever since, still reporting as to what happened. We would be very surprised if Justice Rouleau can find that the government made the test.
TH: When you look at the mainstream media coverage of the convoy crisis, what do you think the legacy press got the most wrong on that story? From a factual perspective.
HD: I think there was a general hysteria. I think that it could not have been pleasant for reporters to be on the ground in February at minus 30, fighting with truckers. Blacklock’s, by the way, never interviewed a trucker, never went out into the convoy — other than to walk home at night. Our focus is one hundred percent, 24/7 on government accountability. We are not the trucker accountability website. We are the government accountability website.
It has been suggested to me, and I’m still wondering if this is the case, that some of the media distortions in covering the convoy encouraged the government that disorder and sedition were rampant, and that they had grounds for the Emergencies Act. I think the media played an enormous role. But we also think that the convoy, former CSIS director Ward Elcock said this, that the implications — maybe like the War Measures Act — the implications of invoking the Emergencies Act will be with us for years to come, no matter what Justice Rouleau says. Whether he sanctions it, or whether he criticizes the government for using it.
TH: Such a serious point in our history.
HD: It’s the story of the year. There’s no question. If we had a Time Magazine Canada, it would be the story of the year. It’s the convoy.
TH: Yes. You have been a journalist for decades. I’m curious about your perspective about journalism right now, and where you think we are at as a profession — and what has changed during the time that you’ve been practicing this profession.
HD: I’ve been asked to give a number of talks on this subject to different groups. Some private think tanks recently. Everyone has the same question: “What the hell is wrong with media? Tell us, Holly, what’s wrong with media? Are they lazy? Are they stupid? Are they woke? Is it all narratives? Is it activist journalism? What happened?”
I actually have a perspective that’s a little bit different.
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