EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park
Ontario MPP Vincent Ke is accusing Global News of fanning “the flames of anti-Asian sentiments” in a defamation lawsuit against the broadcaster and its journalists.
He is also challenging the foundation of the broadcaster’s explosive reporting, claiming Global’s sources are not, as reported, senior intelligence officials who have detailed knowledge of investigations into Chinese interference in Canadian politics.
The allegations in the statement of claim have not been proven, and Global has not yet filed its statement of defence.
Ke, the MPP for Don Valley North, sat with the government caucus until March, when Global published a story citing intelligence sources and documents alleging he was an operative in Chinese government interference with the 2019 federal election and that he received funds as part of that scheme. He is now an independent MPP.
He’s denying being “part of any scheme by the Chinese government or anyone else to interfere with Canadian election or politics,” and says he has “never received any illicit funds from any foreign sources or otherwise.”
He’s also broadly denying the implications he says can be drawn from the reporting, including that he is “not loyal” to his country and is “a foreign agent and works to subvert and undermine the best interest of his constituents, Canadian citizens and Canada.”
“The baseless and sensational allegations of his involvement in an election interference scheme … on behalf of the government of China to harm the Canadian public is false and fans the flames of anti-Asian sentiments,” the statement of claim says.
Ke, represented by Lax O'Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb, named Global, its editor-in-chief Sonia Verma, and journalists Sam Cooper, Andrew Russell, and Colin D’Mello in the suit. He is seeking a declaration from Global that he was defamed, $5.5 million in damages, and court orders concerning the removal and further publication of defamatory material.
In a statement, Global acknowledged receiving the claim from Ke’s counsel and declined further comment.
Cooper, who has led the broadcaster’s coverage of Chinese interference, left Global this week to found The Bureau, an online investigative startup. He offered no comment except to confirm his former employer is covering and defending the lawsuits related to his reporting.
Cooper and Global are also facing lawsuits from Han Dong, a former MPP who is now a Liberal MP, and Michael Chan, a former Ontario cabinet minister who is now the deputy mayor of Markham, over further reporting alleging their involvement in Chinese interference in Canadian politics that also cites intelligence sources.
Uproar in Ottawa
Reporting on Chinese interference by Global and The Globe and Mail has caused an uproar in Ottawa, resulting in committee hearings where top intelligence and political actors have testified publicly, disputing some aspects of Global’s reporting.
It also prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint former governor general David Johnston as the special rapporteur on China's election interference. Johnson was given access to intelligence documents and sources and released a report in May that was highly critical of Global’s reporting on the issue.
Ke draws on both in his claim.
For instance, he quotes testimony from Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff, who testified that there’s “a gap and (an) inaccuracy in the reporting” on the alleged interference scheme and “a number of things that don't add up.”
He also cites the special rapporteur’s conclusion that “there is no basis to conclude” that there is a “network” of 11 federal election candidates who are witting affiliates of the Chinese government.
However, the statement of claim erroneously says Johnston’s report does not mention Ke at all — it does, but not by name.
“It appears from limited intelligence that the PRC intended for funds to be sent to seven Liberal and four Conservative federal candidates through a community organization, political staff and (possibly unwittingly) a Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario MPP,” Johnston wrote in his report.
“There is uncertainty about whether there was money, if it actually went to staff or the provincial MPP, and there is no intelligence suggesting any federal candidates received these funds.”
Hilary Young, a defamation expert and professor at the University of New Brunswick law school, said that if the case ends up going to trial, it could hang on whether or not Global was responsible and diligent in its journalism.
One of its options is bringing what’s known as an anti-SLAPP motion, which would allow it to argue the issue relates to a matter of public interest and could force Ke to have to prove that Global has no defence.
Doing so “would put quite an onus on the plaintiff to show all their cards,” she said.
Global, she said, would likely rely on the “responsible communication” defence available to media organizations reporting on matters of public interest.
“The gist of the defence is that you don't need to prove that what you said was true, you need to prove that you got all your ducks in a row, that you took appropriate steps to verify the truth in the circumstances, and those circumstances are quite broad: they relate to the need to report on things fairly quickly, but obviously not recklessly,” she said.
The case comes down to whether they were diligent in using traditional journalistic methods to verify the sources and their information.
That could be easier than proving the report was true, she said, adding that there’s a “long-standing and well-understood problem with journalism and libel,” where journalists cannot provide the truth of their reporting when their sources are confidential.
In his statement of claim, Ke makes many claims challenging the legitimacy of Global’s sources and the broadcaster’s efforts to verify their information.
“Contrary to their broadcast statements and publications, the defendants knew that the source of the information they published (was) not ‘senior officials,’” it says. “Contrary to their broadcast statements and publications, the defendants knew that their so-called sources did not have ‘detailed knowledge of the investigations.’”
While it sounds like Ke is suggesting some kind of knowledge of the sources, she also offered a caution: “Read the content of a statement of claim with a grain of salt.”