Mar 132012
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A "source guy" and a "info geek" worked together to uncover the story.

by John Gordon Miller, Ryerson University

"McMaher," the unlikely team of journalists whose hard work uncovered what might become Canada's Watergate, first met in the Parliamentary Press Gallery's Hot Room, a large office space for news agencies from across the country on the third floor of Centre Block.

They worked for different news organizations. Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor had been covering Parliament since 1998. Stephen Maher came to Ottawa representing the Halifax Chronicle Herald in 2003. For two such competitive colleagues to team up, McGregor says, is "pretty rare" in Canadian journalism.

It happened because Maher, for the Chronicle Herald, had been analysing Nova Scotia ridings to track the federal government's Economic Action Plan spending. As McGregor recounted in this story in the Hill Times, "we had a conversation saying it'd be cool to do it for the whole country." Maher contributed his extensive sources and McGregor, a self-styled info geek, knew sophisticated computer techniques like web-scraping and electronic mapping. Once their editors agreed to let them work together, they produced an explosive story which earned them a Canadian Association of Journalists award for computer-assisted reporting in 2009.

But that story pales in comparison to their latest scoop.

Maher, 46, joined Postmedia News last summer, meaning he and McGregor, also 46, at last belonged to the same news organization. Last month they teamed up to reveal that Elections Canada, aided by the RCMP, was investigating fraudulent phone calls, or "robocalls," made during last fall's federal election that misled voters.

The story has since exploded onto the front pages, and Elections Canada's investigation has grown to include an astounding 31,000 complaints from across the country, including — most chillingly — evidence that rogue phone calls directed hundreds of voters to non-existent polling stations. The scandal has the potential to be a political nightmare for Prime Minister Stephen Harper if the trail leads, as many suspect it could, to some of his campaign workers.

The story started during last May's election campaign when Maher was told about a supporter for Egmont, PEI Liberal candidate Guy Gallant, who had received a call asking if he supported Gallant's campaign. But the voice on the phone sparked suspicion because the caller pronounced Gallant's name in a way that no Atlantic Canadian would.

"The idea of someone making mischief in this way and purposefully trying to confuse and deceive voters in order to dissuade people from voting, it sort of stuck in my craw, the idea that someone would get up to that," Maher toldThe Hill Times.

Though they scoff at Watergate comparisons, the reporters’ work is an outstanding example of public service reporting.

He turned again to McGregor, who happened to be looking into harassing phone calls being made in another riding, held by long-time Liberal Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Que).

Though both reporters scoff at Watergate comparisons, their dogged work in uncovering evidence of vote-rigging and "dirty tricks" is an outstanding example of public service reporting. Given the sorry state of the Canadian news media, with corporate downsizing shrinking the ranks of those who regularly cover federal politics, they are a shining example of what can redeem mainstream journalism in an era of political blogging and spin-doctoring:

  • Investigative journalism.
  • Dogged, experienced reporters who can find out who benefits and editors who allow them time to follow the trail.
  • News organizations who believe in holding the Prime Minister to the same standards of truth-telling as any other source.

Bravo McMaher and Postmedia News. Keep working on this story.


About John Gordon Miller

John Gordon Miller has been an award-winning reporter, a senior news executive, chair of a journalism school, an author, a teacher, a researcher and a consultant. He's been professor of journalism at Ryerson for 21 years, following a 20-year career as an editor and reporter. Most of that was spent at the Toronto Star, where he was foreign editor, founding editor of the Sunday Star, weekend editor, deputy managing editor, and acting managing editor. He is author of Yesterday's News, a critique of daily newspapers in Canada. He is active as an expert witness in legal cases involving journalism.

© Copyright 2012 John Gordon Miller, All rights Reserved. Written For:

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