The Times Colonist's coverage of Richard Atwell

By David Broadland, February 2015

In their coverage of two stories, was the local daily concocting a case for an overturn of November’s election in Saanich?

Bill Cleverley, municipal affairs reporter for the Times Colonist, described his “favourite news story of 2014” in a December 20 piece called A gotcha moment on April Fool’s Day: “Working with Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard and Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, we concocted a story about them approaching the Province to rename the University of Victoria to the University of Saanich Oak Bay—USOB—to better reflect where the campus is located.” 

Two weeks later, Cleverley wrote a short story that, like his April Fool’s joke with Leonard and Jensen, was a thin concoction of inaccurate information and imagined public interest. This time, though, the laughs were on newly-elected Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell, whose private life Cleverley exposed to public ridicule, from coast to coast to coast.

That public shaming began with Cleverley's January 5 piece titled, “Police called after Saanich mayor involved in altercation.” Cleverley’s complete description of the actual events went like this: “Saanich police were called to an altercation involving newly elected Mayor Richard Atwell, who is the chairman of the police board, in December. Sources say that police were called to the home of an Atwell campaign supporter about 11 pm on December 11. Atwell, who had been sworn in as mayor 10 days earlier, had apparently been in the home with the woman when her fiancé arrived. Sources say an altercation between Atwell and the man ensued and police were called.”

Cleverley’s story then quoted Saanich police spokesperson Sgt Steve Eassie as saying, “I know that our relationship from the past is one that I would normally be able to share details with you, but I’m not able to share anything.”

The way most people would understand that story is something like this: Atwell and a woman were in the woman’s home late at night; the woman’s partner came home, caught Atwell and the woman in a compromising situation, and a fight ensued between the two men. The fight might have attracted the attention of neighbours, or a passerby on the street, because police were called. Later, police were unexpectedly constrained about talking to Cleverley about the case by someone—possibly the new chair of the police board, Mayor Atwell.

The story clearly had prurient interest, but it’s not news that politicians have private lives. What was it that made this incident important to report on and not just another opportunity for scandal-mongering?

Before I consider that question, let’s look at how the TC dealt with another opportunity for exploiting a prurient-interest story involving a mayor of Saanich.

In June of 2009, Frank Leonard’s divorce from Elaine Leonard was finalized. About the same time, Leonard and former Saanich Councillor Jackie Ngai conceived a child. Back then, rumours of an affair between Ngai and Leonard had circulated for some time. During that time, the Times Colonist didn’t publish any stories about the Leonards’ divorce, Frank Leonard’s marriage to Ngai, the birth of their child or how the two politicians had become a couple in the first place. There were no questions raised about whether Ngai’s and Leonard’s relationship had conflicted in any way with their duties as elected officials. That is to say, in Leonard’s case, what happened behind closed doors was off limits. That was fine with everybody. So why was the December 11 incident different?

The difference is that the Atwell affair involved a 911 call, but whether that fact alone makes this a public matter depends entirely on the exact circumstances of that call.

In the January 5 story, the only rationale provided for why the paper was exposing Atwell’s private life to public ridicule were comments from Integrity BC’s Dermod Travis. Cleverley quoted Travis who said Atwell’s role as chairman of the Saanich Police Board “puts him in a very difficult position and it also, frankly, puts the police in a very difficult position because, in the future, it could raise questions going both ways.” Travis’ comments in the story read more as advice to Atwell that he ought to contain the damage rather than a reasoned explanation of a significant public interest at stake. The paper offered no other explanation for why this was any different than the Leonard-Ngai affair.

Noteworthy is that Travis articulated no case for a “conflict of interest.” He has since confirmed to me that he never used the term “conflict of interest” in talking with media about the Atwell incident.

Two days after Cleverley’s story was published, Atwell provided information about the incident that differed substantially from the sparse details in Cleverley’s 80-word account of what had happened that winter night. Atwell said he was invited to the home and both the man and woman were present when he arrived. After deciding he wasn’t welcome at the home, Atwell started to leave but the man pushed him and then grabbed him from behind. Atwell recently told me he didn’t hit back, he left the house, and once on the street—out of concern for the safety of everyone in the house—he called 911. It was around 8 pm. (Not 11pm as the TC story had it.)

There are two troubling problems with Cleverley’s January 5 story. The first problem is that Cleverley didn’t mention that Atwell placed the call to police. This is such a primary piece of the story that if Cleverley was aware Atwell had placed the call, he had a journalistic duty to include that information in the story. Atwell placing the call puts a completely different flavour on the story: he had nothing to hide. On the other hand, if Cleverley knew Atwell had placed the call but intentionally kept that out of the story, Cleverley would have been hiding from readers an important fact about what happened. Why would he do that?

Giving Cleverley the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume the story was published without anyone at the paper knowing that Atwell himself had placed the call to police. We then collide with the second troubling problem: the paper’s sole rationale, offered after the fact, for publishing the story in the first place.

The day after Atwell gave his first account of what happened, a TC editorial explained why the paper published Cleverley’s January 5 story. An unidentified editorial writer stated: “What happened in a private residence in Saanich on the evening of December 11 was none of the public’s business—until the police were called. At that point, it became a public matter, especially given that the chairman of the police board was involved in the incident.” The writer went on to restate that assertion in a slightly different way: “While we accept that what occurred was a minor incident, that isn’t the issue. Politicians’ private lives are by and large ignored by the media, but that changes once those private lives overlap with public duties. When the head of the police board calls his police department to resolve a dispute, there’s an obvious potential for conflict.”

Let me distill that down a bit. The paper’s position now was that whatever went on in that house was no one’s business until Atwell called the police “to resolve a dispute.” Then it became the public’s business. I’ll address the validity of that argument in a moment, but first let me draw your attention to a serious inconsistency in the only rationale the paper has offered for publishing the story. As mentioned earlier, the paper’s January 5 story contained no mention that Atwell called police, yet it ran the story anyway. Only after Atwell revealed that he had called police did the paper make his placing of the call the reason why it had published the story two days before. 

Let’s consider the paper’s claim that because Atwell called police to the house that evening “to resolve a dispute, an obvious potential for conflict” arose. To be clear, it’s Atwell’s position as chairman of the Saanich Police Board that makes his case special, in the paper’s opinion, but the paper didn’t describe any mechanism by which Atwell’s phone call to police could create a “conflict.” Atwell, however, says that he called 911 out of concern for the safety of those in the home, not “to resolve a dispute.”

Two days later, TC Editor-in-Chief Dave Obee made another attempt at justifying why the paper had published the January 5 story. Obee wrote, “Atwell’s private life became public news because a line was crossed. When private matters might affect an elected person’s ability to do the job, the public has a right to known.” Again, the TC’s read on this is questionable. If a mayor gets the flu and has to remain at home for a few days, does the public need to know? Where does Obee draw the line on what private matters might affect performance?

If Obee seemed unable to clearly articulate exactly how “a line was crossed,” we might presume he meant it had something to do with a potential “conflict of interest” because his editorial included this line: “The key point: Atwell is the chairman of the Saanich police board. All of us, elected to public office or not, have to avoid any perception of conflict of interest in our careers. And yes, these considerations apply to the media as well.”

Obee then gave an example of a recent case of a conflict of interest involving a media personality in eastern Canada. Notably, he made no attempt to explain how a conflict of interest could arise from Atwell’s 911 call.

Obee’s concern for a perception of conflict of interest is at odds with his record of disinterest in the subject, especially in regards to mayors and police. Just before the November election, the Saanich Police Association endorsed Leonard, who, if re-elected as mayor, would have again served as chairman of the Saanich Police Board. Obee and Cleverley apparently missed the implication. Election endorsements from police associations have the appearance of a quid pro quo arrangement. In exchange for the endorsement—and presumably members’ electoral support—the Saanich Police Association expects something back from Leonard. Yet Cleverley and Obee overlooked that story entirely. Not one word. The same thing happened in the 2011 election: Saanich Police Association endorses Leonard, TC looks the other way.

I asked Dermod Travis about these endorsements; he called them “highly inappropriate.” I sent Travis the BC Police Board Handbook section on “Conflict of Interest” and asked him to comment on how Atwell’s 911 call and his position as Police Board chairman might constitute a conflict of interest. Travis declined to tackle that riddle. If Travis can’t make a connection, who can? Travis had been a frequent expert commenter in both the TC’s stories and the media frenzy that followed publication of Cleverley’s story.

Recently, I asked Obee by email what his thinking on this story had been. He had the ultimate say in whether the story was published or not and his decision to run that January 5 story has led to tremendous damage to Atwell’s reputation. Does Obee stand by the accuracy of the story? Obee didn’t answer that question directly. Instead, he said, “Mayor Richard Atwell gave a different account after the initial story ran. We have no reason to disbelieve him.”

I asked Obee why, if he knew Atwell had made the call to police on December 11, that fact had been left out of the first story. “We believed that information to be true, but could not confirm it,” Obee said. Does this ring true? Cleverley got other significant details wrong—the time and the circumstances. Next to nothing about Cleverley’s story was truly “confirmed,” but Obee okayed the story anyway.

If he was so concerned about conflicts of interest, why hadn’t Obee covered the Police Association’s endorsement of Leonard just before the election? “We were covering all the municipalities, and we had to be selective,” Obee said. “The endorsement did not seem that significant at the time. We mentioned it for the first time in an editorial after the Atwell incident became major news.”

Consider how different the coverage was by the Saanich News of both the political endorsement of Leonard by the Police Association and its handling of the 911 call story. In the case of the endorsement, reporter Daniel Palmer’s story included comment from the Police Association, Leonard and Atwell. His story was straightforward election reporting: accurate information fairly presented on the day it happened.

In a January 9 editorial the Saanich News explained why it had refrained from joining the media-mobbing that followed Cleverley’s January 5 story: “Greater Victoria media outlets were falling over one another this week chasing a story published by the Times Colonist that quoted sources as saying Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell was involved in a December 11 incident where police were called to a private residence…The News chose not to publish Tuesday’s story of a story because we received no confirmation of facts, no first-person accounts of the incident, no evidence nor a police report to independently corroborate the TC’s story. No one agreed to go on record. In short, it didn’t meet our basic requirements for publication.”

Cleverley’s use of unnamed “sources” for his story didn’t create a yellow flag for other media, though. Even though the information was inaccurate, most mainstream media ran with the TC’s story. That paper’s policy on using unnamed sources was explained to me by Obee: “We allow unnamed sources when careers or lives or family relationships might be put at risk if the identities are known. Even then, we need to know and trust the people involved, and we need confirmation from at least one other source.”

As any Journalism 101 textbook would confirm, that’s a very low bar for using unnamed sources. At the least the TC should have sought corroboration from two other sources and included an explanation in their story about why the source had sought anonymity. Was the source a Saanich politician with an axe to grind? Was it a member of the Saanich Police Association ticked off at the public’s repudiation of its candidate? Moreover, the use of unnamed sources ought to be confined to significant stories involving an important public interest—which is entirely different from a story that would interest the public because of its sensational innuendo. Cleverley and Obee didn’t demonstrate this story’s public-interest legitimacy; not in the story itself or in the shifting, defensive editorials that came later.

Cleverley’s use of unnamed “sources” figured prominently in another series of stories that also served to discredit Atwell: what’s come to be known as the Paul Murray affair.

 

ON DECEMBER 11, THE TC PUBLISHED A STORY by Cleverley titled, “Mayor tries to oust Saanich’s top bureaucrat.” Cleverley stated: “In a move that could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance, Saanich chief administrative officer Paul Murray is being pushed out the door by newly elected Mayor Richard Atwell, sources say. Atwell, elected on a platform of change, met Murray before being sworn in as mayor to tell the administrator he was done and to begin negotiating a ‘resignation package,’ the sources said.”

Cleverley went on to report that Atwell had not returned calls for comment. He noted, “If Murray leaves, it won’t be cheap. According to Saanich’s latest Statement of Financial Information, Murray was paid $199,881 and was reimbursed for $9,193 in expenses in 2013. Murray’s contract calls for a minimum payout of 18 months’ salary or about $300,000 for early departure. Benefits could push the cost into the $400,000 to $500,000 range.”

On December 17, a second story by Cleverley appeared: “Saanich mayor forces out CAO; council condemns action.” The story noted: “Actions taken by Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell to force chief administrator Paul Murray out the door have been condemned by his council and will cost the municipality $480,000.” Cleverley repeated a claim made in the earlier story: “Sources told the Times Colonist last week that prior to being sworn in, Atwell, accompanied by lawyer Troy DeSouza, who does not work for the municipality, met with Murray to tell him Atwell wanted him gone.” His story included paragraphs from a Saanich Council media release, including these: “‘The actions taken by Mayor Atwell left council with no viable options other than to proceed to end the employment relationship with Mr. Murray,’ the statement says. ‘Council is also concerned about the financial impact the mayor’s actions have had on the citizens of Saanich—a total payment of $476,611 [inclusive of accrued vacation of $55,448].’”

Most people would read those stories something like this: Atwell, for no good reason, and without consulting Saanich councillors, tried to fire CAO Paul Murray. His council attempted to intervene but Atwell prevailed and councillors were forced to go along with Atwell’s firing of Murray. Atwell’s actions cost taxpayers $476,611. He alone is responsible for that cost. Atwell wouldn’t respond to calls for comment.

Once again, the unnamed “sources” seem to have provided Cleverley with inaccurate, incomplete information.

Atwell recently described to me the chain of events that led to Saanich Council’s decision to terminate Murray’s employment contract. I asked him if the Times Colonist had ever made a serious attempt to get his side of the story. “No,” Atwell said. He recalled Cleverley leaving telephone messages asking for a single piece of information, but never an offer to have a dialogue. So let’s consider Atwell’s version of the events that led to Murray leaving Saanich.

After his election, but before he had been sworn in as mayor, Atwell had informal meetings with Saanich employees in order to familiarize himself with his new workplace. One manager he met told Atwell he had heard Murray say before the election that he (Murray) wouldn’t work with Atwell if he was elected. Atwell told me he has a written statement from the manager to this effect. The manager also told Atwell that other Saanich employees had told him that Murray had informed another meeting of Saanich employees that he (Murray) would not work with Atwell if he was elected.

At the same time, Atwell had been put in contact with lawyer Troy DeSouza as an advisor on local government. Amongst other subjects, Atwell and DeSouza discussed the information provided by the manager mentioned earlier. DeSouza advised Atwell that this was “essentially a vote of no confidence” on Murray’s part. DeSouza then contacted Saanich Municipal Solicitor Chris Nation to advise him that Atwell and he were going to have a meeting with Murray.

On November 26 or 27, Atwell told me, “I invited Paul into my office. I thanked him for his service and told him I thought I needed a new CAO to go forward and I asked him if he would be willing to take a dignified exit in line with his contract. He asked me if I was asking him to resign and I said ‘No.’ He asked me if I was recording the meeting and I said ‘No.’ He and DeSouza conversed about how this could be handled, then Paul went away to talk with his lawyer.”

“He seemed keen to leave [employment with Saanich] when we had this conversation,” Atwell said. Later, DeSouza informed Atwell that Murray had come back to him and said something like: I want to leave on December 1. Make it happen. 

At that point Atwell had not been sworn in as mayor and had no official capacity at Saanich Municipal Hall. “I wasn’t forcing him out; he really wanted to leave. And so it all seemed like there was going to be some kind of agreement and it could be done quickly. Whether council was going to approve it was still up to council.”

Atwell continued his account of what happened next: “Through the municipal solicitor, and working with the municipal clerk, I was trying to set up a council meeting to talk about Paul’s exit. Nothing had been negotiated and council had not authorized negotiation.”

At that time Atwell was also talking with councillors one-on-one about the Murray situation, including Councillors Vic Derman, Vicki Sanders and Judy Brownoff. But councillors were unable, or unwilling, to meet officially, Atwell said. “Most of the councillors had a heads-up on this and I was planning to go into the meeting [that Nation was organizing] with the rest of the councillors.”

At that point, Atwell said, “Nation decided he wasn’t going to be involved because Murray was a friend of his. DeSouza was then engaged by Nation to represent Saanich in this negotiation with Murray, who was to have his own lawyer. But [Councillor] Susan Brice had gone behind the scenes and she’d sent a letter to council…stating that DeSouza wasn’t the regular legal counsel that dealt with personnel issues, and that she was uncomfortable with this [arrangement of lawyers].”

Atwell feels Brice is still loyal to Leonard and noted that they had shared the same campaign office for many elections.

Regardless, as a result of the letter, Atwell says, DeSouza was “kicked out” of an in camera council meeting held on December 8. “By the time council met on December 8, they had put themselves in a position where Mr Murray could have sued for constructive dismissal,” Atwell said.

As Cleverley pointed out in one of his stories, Atwell had no legal authority to dismiss Murray; that required a vote of at least two-thirds of councillors, and as Atwell told me, councillors could have chosen to give Murray a vote of confidence and invite him to stay. They didn’t do that and Murray didn’t want to stay.

This was, obviously, a much more complex story than “Saanich mayor forces out CAO; council condemns action.” Atwell was willing to tell what he could to Cleverley, but says he was not given the chance.

Another aspect of this story that never made it into Cleverley’s brief stories was a comparison of the terms of Murray’s contract with the contracts of other recently-departed top municipal officials. As noted in Cleverley’s first story on the Murray affair, his contract stipulated “a minimum payout of 18 months’ salary.” Murray had been CAO for 2.5 years and was paid $199,881 annually.

Former Victoria City Manager Gail Stephens received $240,346 in the last full year of her employment (2012). Her employment contract stipulated “12 months written notice or payment of salary and benefits in lieu thereof” in case she was terminated without cause. She had been City Manager since 2009 and her contract had been renewed through to 2017 with the same “12 months” stipulated for severance. Stephens resigned in 2013, receiving no severance.

The City of Victoria’s second in command, Operations General Manager Peter Sparanese, was terminated without cause a month later. His severance agreement, obtained by FOI, provided payment of “10 months salary plus 13 percent in lieu of benefits.” He had received $217,965 in salary in 2012. His payout was $205,249.

Murray, who was paid $18,000 a year less than Sparanese, received $421,163. Even if Murray had accepted the contract-stipulated minimum, he still would have got $100,000 more than the more highly-paid Sparanese. Where did Murray get such a sweetheart deal?

The terms were negotiated and approved by the previous Frank-Leonard-led council, which included Councillors Brice, Derman, Sanders, Brownoff, Dean Murdock and Leif Wergeland—all of whom, according to Cleverley, had “condemned” and “censured” Atwell for the payout. The councillors even blamed Atwell for Murray’s accrued vacation pay—all $55,448 worth—even though this was owed to Murray regardless of whether he left or stayed.

I asked Obee why the Times Colonist had used those exact words—“condemned” and “censured.” The actual wording from Saanich councillors on their expression of distaste for having to follow through on the contract they had previously approved was “does not support.”  Obee said, “The words we used were fair and accurate.”

In the TC’s coverage of this story, it portrayed Atwell as a danger to the public purse carelessly overstepping the boundaries of his office. The paper made no serious attempt to get Atwell’s side of the story; they provided no context for the reader to understand fully why Murray was eligible for the generous payout he received, and how that compared with other recent local cases. Cleverley’s use of unnamed sources—who likely were one or more councillors breaching their public oath of confidentiality—is in itself dangerous to the public interest. When a politician with an axe to grind provides the TC with selective, confidential information that politician wants the public to know, isn’t there an expectation of a favour in return? The resulting news story might be biased in the direction of that informant’s position, in the hope there would be more prohibited information available later on. That bias is evident in the TC’s coverage of the Murray affair. By practising this form of journalism, Cleverley and Obee are, in fact, in a conflict of interest. Their primary responsibility is to their readers, not to the hidden agenda of some politician or policeman with an axe to grind.

 

IN BOTH THESE STORIES, the Times Colonist seemed to be treating Atwell unfairly. The stories lacked context, used loaded language, included erroneous information while leaving out factual information, and were published without including Atwell’s side of the story. In the case of the 911 call story, the paper has provided no believable rationale for why Atwell’s private life should be exposed to public ridicule. It applied clearly different standards to Atwell’s privacy than it did in the case of the previous mayor. Critically, the stories relied on information from people who would not go on the record, leaving the stories vulnerable to the criticism that they were driven by hidden agendas. In doing this, the paper has severely damaged Atwell’s reputation in this community. When I challenged Editor-in-Chief Obee on these issues, he responded: “If you had simply asked if the Times Colonist had some motivation other than accurate news coverage, I would have said no. We strive to give readers information they should have. We don’t have an agenda.”

The “agenda” that many people fear is at work, and is being aided by the Times Colonist’s biased coverage, is perhaps best represented by a line from one of Cleverley’s stories, which quoted Councillor Wergeland: “All I can say is: ‘Who is going to be leading council in Saanich? The jury is still out.’ But someone will lead.”

The “jury is still out”? Didn't the real jury deliver its decision on this question in November?

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.