By Scott Taylor
Last week the Globe and Mail broke the story about Irving Shipbuilding being allowed to claim a CAD$40 million industrial benefit for a French fry factory as part of a contract to build navy ships. As odd as this might sound, that was not the bizarre part of this news story.
Shortly after the Globe and Mail had asked the government to confirm the investment in an Alberta French fry plant was considered an allowable industrial offset for the navy contract, a lawyer from Irving contacted the newspaper. The message was that the shipbuilder was prepared to take legal action if necessary.
This was the second time in recent weeks that Irving resorted to the tactic of libel chill in the form of threatening reporters with lawsuits over potentially damaging stories.
Back in March my colleague David Pugliese from the Ottawa Citizen made an inquiry to the media liaison desk at the Department of National Defence as well as to Public Services and Procurement Canada. Sources had told Pugliese that there was some alleged welding problems with one of the newly built Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) and he was seeking to confirm the story.
Just hours later, Pugliese was surprised to receive a phone call from none other than Kevin McCoy, the President of Irving Shipbuilding. According to Pugliese, McCoy threatened to sue the Ottawa Citizen if they published a story, which contained false information.
What the Citizen did publish instead was the story of how the government had shared not only the question about welding problems, but also the identity of the reporter working on the story.
In this more recent case of the Globe and Mail French fry story, it was the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development that breached the privacy of the reporter by providing the information to Irving. The fact that Irving did not learn from their earlier public relations fiasco with the Citizen makes me question the competence of their communications department.
In defending the decision to threaten lawsuits, Irving Shipbuilding spokesman Sean Lewis told reporters “We did advise reporters that we would pursue legal action because we knew the reporters had highly inaccurate information that would cause our company, and the reputation of our hard working employees considerable reputational damage.”
Fair enough, a company should have the right to protect its public image. The problem is that in both cases, the reporter’s information was not “highly inaccurate”. Irving did indeed receive a $40 million credit towards its industrial benefit obligations on a navy shipbuilding contract, from a $425 million investment in the Cavendish Farms frozen potato-processing plant in Lethbridge, Alberta. Nobody has ever alleged that there was any misconduct on the part of any of the parties involved.
The crux of the matter is the way in which the AOPS contracts are structured on this major crown shipbuilding project – valued at over $2.4 billion that allows for investment in french fry jobs to offset re-investment obligations. If there are any questions about how that is the case, then it is the government of Canada that has the explaining to do, not Irving.
In the case of the alleged welding problems with the AOPS, DND did subsequently admit there were indeed some minor problems. In other words, without the threatening call from McCoy, which revealed a breach of privacy on the part of DND, there would likely have been no story.
In both instances, suffice to say that Irving overreacted and behaved like a schoolyard bully. Had they simply provided the requested information to their client – the government of Canada, who in turn would respond to the media, they would have avoided controversy.
However, it is also true that had DND, Procurement Services, and the Department of Science, Innovation, and Economic Development simply safeguarded the identity of the journalists as per the existing guidelines under the Privacy Act, Irving would not have known whom to threaten.
The Canadian Surface Combatant project has only just begun and there are bound to be countless more media requests made regarding Irving in the coming decade of production. Let’s hope that government officials have learned from these two lessons that Irving is unrepentantly self-protective.
Public Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough tried to deflect the blame on to Irving when she told reporters that their threat of a lawsuit was “certainly not a behaviour I would engage in, and I wish there was respect shown to journalists for doing their jobs.”
I’m sorry Carla, but that respect would start with government officials not turning over the names of media requests to industry.