Q&A with Paul Watson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist, on why he just Resigned from the Toronto Star

Veteran photojournalist and reporter Paul Watson has resigned from the Toronto Star.

Veteran photojournalist and reporter Paul Watson has resigned from the Toronto Star. 

“Resigning,” Watson wrote yesterday on his blog, “is the only way I can resume that reporting, complete the work and fulfill my responsibilities as a journalist.”

CANADALAND reached him by phone this morning at his home in Vancouver. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Why did you resign from the Toronto Star?

Part of what got me to the place I finally arrived at yesterday was listening to your show and realizing that enough is enough.

I was ordered six weeks ago yesterday to stop reporting on what I believe is a story of significant public interest.

It basically deals with complaints from federal workers and others – experts in their field – who were looking for these lost Franklin ships, Erebus and Terror, which sank in the Arctic when Sir John Franklin and 128 men were trying to find the Northwest Passage way back in the middle of the 19th century.

Now, I realize that on the surface that doesn’t sound like much, but I came to realize it’s part of a broader problem. And you’ve spoken about it at length on your program and others are starting to speak about it. People are sick and tired of a government that is destroying our democracy by intimidating experts into silence so that the politically connected and the powerful can fill that information vacuum.

So that’s the story that I’m working on against the backdrop of the search for the Franklin ships.

Can you give us some context? People may only be aware of this feel-good story about a government project; this discovery of a shipwreck. What is the political aspect that you were trying to uncover?

Yes, you might have thought this was a simple feel-good story, an effort to answer a mystery the world has been following for the last 170 years.

But you’d be shocked at how much political sleaze that can generate. The people who’ve been looking for these ships, they’re really hardworking federal civil servants, archeologists and others who know the truth of how those ships were found and had every right to tell that truth themselves. But because of the country we live in, and because of the government we live under, that message could only come from Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself.

So there was a [media] blackout [after the discovery] of roughly two days, could’ve been three. Remember, I was on the lead vessel in this successful search last September, the Coast Guard icebreaker. I was living with and working beside the experts who were searching for these ships. And because of that blackout, a person who’s the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) – a former Globe and Mail Editorial Board Chief – a journalist – was able to step into that power vacuum and answer journalists’ questions in a way that I immediately saw people [involved with the effort] react to in a way that made them deeply angry because they believed that he was distorting facts, stating untruths and ruining the historical record that they were working so hard to create. And that was just a moment way back in September.

I told people then, “You know, this strikes me as a story. You need to help me by going on the record and being truthful about what you think and what you know.” They were too afraid. This is something that anyone who has visited our nation’s capital will not be surprised by. There is an open fear in our federal civil service and I’m sure it applies to other capitals across the country as this phenomenon grows and our democracy weakens. There is a fear among these civil servants that if they stand up and tell the truth, that they will lose their jobs because the politically connected have more power than the truth.

The reason I resigned was because I wanted to write that story. It took me all of those months to get the information I needed to write a story.

Within three hours, almost three hours precisely after I contacted John Geiger by email to properly ask for his response to serious accusations, I got an email from an editor in Toronto.

It was nighttime then. “What are you working on?” For reasons we can get into, I pushed back. I hadn’t spoken to John Geiger yet, and I didn’t want editors to know precisely what I was going to ask him, because I wasn’t certain that would be secure information. And any journalist will tell you, you don’t want the source of your inquiries to know your questions beforehand. So I did what any journalist would do when operating on a reasonable suspicion: I pushed back.

From that moment on, things got out of hand. Very soon thereafter, a senior editor imposed a reporting ban on me.

I’ve been in this business a long time. I used to work for the LA Times, and never has an editor told me to stop reporting on anything, including when I had top secret military documents on Afghanistan, and the United States government was threatening through my newspaper to bring me up on charges of violating national security. No editor said, “Stop!” They found a way to keep me reporting.

Let me make sure that I have this straight. We are talking about John Geiger, who is the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s CEO, is a former Globe and Mail Editorial Board Editor, and he’s very close to Stephen Harper.

I don’t know how close he is to Stephen Harper, but that is one of my lines of inquiry. I do know that he has access to the Prime Minister’s office. I do know that he’s been photographed in close situations around campfires in the Arctic with Stephen Harper. I do know that he has political connections.

And the press blackout when the Erebus was discovered – he was the mouthpiece for the expedition? He was the man that answered the media’s questions?

Immediately after the announcement, he was available to answer questions.

I don’t want to tell you too much because I’m now free to report on this, and I want to get this story nailed down from all corners before I offer it to someone else for publication – someone else meaning not the Toronto Star, my former employer – but I will tell you this because I want people to understand:

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society was only brought into the team of government and private partners in April 2014. That’s into the beginning of the 6 year search effort. And their role was only, and this is in a contract, which I have a copy of, another part of the story I’ll complete soon. A lengthy contract which explicitly says it’s legally enforceable, defined as public outreach, public relations, that sort of thing, to produce a film and a coffee table book. And it’s that film, when it aired on CBC’s The Nature of Things, an international gold standard program, that really got people so upset, I finally got traction on my reporting.

I’d like to clarify something you said earlier about your concern in telling your editor what you were working on. The implication that I took from what you said is that you were concerned that your editor was going to share that information with John Geiger and give him your questions in advance. Is that correct?

That’s my fear. I have no proof of that. I wouldn’t allege that had happened unless I had proof. But I did have reasonable suspicion. I stated that to them explicitly on several occasions. There are many reasons why I had that reasonable fear. Way back in October 2014, the same sources I was dealing with trying to get them to go on the record said, “Look, can you do this for us? There are so many distortions in what this man is saying publicly, can you at least inform your editors personally to make sure it doesn’t go in the Star?” Because the Toronto Star was leading on this story. We had the best coverage from the beginning because I just happened to be on that icebreaker and I had immediate access to the people who knew what really happened. So they were asking me to ask editors to protect what we had so that the public had a trustworthy source of information.

In that memo, I outlined the story I’m working on now. I sent that to four senior editors. Not a single one acknowledged receipt of the email, let alone replied to it. On other occasions, I was told in as many words that John Geiger is, “an old colleague of several of us here”. So for various reasons, I was concerned that editors might be sharing information. Again, I have no proof of anything. But a journalist acts on suspicion all of the time.

To be frank with you, after 20+ years as a war correspondent, I’m alive talking to you now because I regularly act on suspicion.

Do you believe that that initial inquiry from your Editor – “What are you working on?” – was based on John Geiger? You asked John Geiger for comment – do you believe that John Geiger then went to your editor and said, “What is this guy up to?” and then your Editor braced you?

My fear is that somebody went to somebody. I don’t know if it’s an editor or if it’s a Torstar board member. I don’t know who it is. But the timing was odd to me.

I’ve never been asked – you know, this email exchange went on until 10pm Toronto time on a Tuesday night asking me what I was going to file for the weekend. Editors don’t normally ask those questions late on a Tuesday night unless it’s a story that they know is juicy, and frankly, I don’t think that the editors that I know at the Toronto Star would be all that interested in what then looked like a simple pissing match over the search for two shipwrecks. It’s much more than that now, but at the time, I didn’t really know the extent of what I had.

What is the misinformation that you were trying to correct?

That was been laid out by Jim Balsillie who wrote it to the Environment Minister who’s responsible for Parks Canada, which is the lead agency on this search, and it was copied to the Prime Minister’s office. He hasn’t received a reply to that letter either.

You know, it seems that anything related to John Geiger and the RCGS has a very large wall built around it, which is my frustration in trying to cover this story. The complaints range from what would best be described in that film as distortions; visual suggestions. For instance, the Russian Flag vessel, which had a certain role in finding HMS Erebus. You can excuse that as a filmmaker for instance and say, “Well, that’s the only visual we had,” perhaps.

But there are far more serious problems: overt statements that were made to the media, videos that have appeared online in which things were said that are simply not true. Statements putting people in certain places at certain times, which is demonstrably false.

What, in your opinion, was the purpose of this misinformation?

I can only tell you what my sources are saying, and Balsillie in his letter. I’m happy to share it with you, because he’s given me permission to share it with anyone who wants to look at it. He reaches no conclusions because he doesn’t have hard evidence either. But judging from the extent of it and the fact that after several requests – Jim Balsillie is not a small person in this country – after several requests from other people, including him, it hasn’t stopped.

What’s more, I believe it’s sometime later today, Mr. Geiger is going to be one of four recipients of the First Polar Medal which will be awarded by the Governor General on behalf of the Queen. You know, I urge you and others to go and look at the four names who will receive this medal for their extraordinary service in finding HMS Erebus.

Three are obviously deserving medal recipients. One would have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what John Geiger did to justify winning a medal for the discover of HMS Erebus. His role as stated in a contract has nothing to do with finding shipwrecks. He’s not a skilled searcher, he doesn’t have archaeological background, etc.

He was brought on last April to handle public outreach.

This is all very intriguing and confusing. My familiarity with this goes back to when Blacklock’s Reporter revealed that Peter Mansbridge had worked with Parks Canada to instigate a CBC deal where Parks Canada paid the CBC $65,000 according to this contract, which an ATIP unearthed, seemingly in exchange for coverage on The National. Peter Mansbridge is part of a group with Jim Balsillie-

The Arctic Research Foundation.

This was arguably a cash for coverage deal that Parks Canada made with the CBC in order to get this shipwreck publicized. To this idea that it’s sort of a happy, feel good story – it’s all tied in with Harper’s claim of Arctic sovereignty in conflict with Putin, with Russia, over vast natural energy resources which are thought to lie underneath the ice. This is a matter of intense geopolitical tension.

Right. Now, I don’t want to fall into the trap of spinning conspiracy theories, so I’ll tell you what I know. I have read the contract between RCGS and Parks Canada, and I’m told that every partner in this search has a contract. Now, I find this surprising. I thought it was just people working together to answer questions important to the history of humans. But these are all lawyered; it must’ve been written by a team of lawyers, it’s so detailed. I’ll urge people to wait and read some of the rather bizarre elements of this contract. But there is no mention of money in it.

I was listening to your program the other day, where the stringer for the Guardian referred to the “favour bank.” It’s a very, very good analogy. This may be about political favours. It may be about something else, but it’s not obvious on the face of that contract.

What about the Toronto Star, what relationship does the Toronto Star have to the expedition? Is it simply that of a news source and subject, or is there any contractual or financial relationship that you’re aware of?

Because of your reporting and others on that original CBC contract, I explicitly asked that question.

My reputation is all I have. And so, I don’t want to fall into some trap and then find out months later that the Star paid for it. So, I explicitly asked editors, and they got their backs up even back then, with a sort of “How dare you?” tone, and so I simply said I have a right to know because my reputation is all I have, and I don’t assume anything unless I get an answer that I trust, then I figure I’m on solid ground. So you tell me. Did the Star pay? They assured me that it didn’t.

Who are the editors at the Toronto Star who spiked the story?

Who handled the story, or who banned me? The point man on all this, is Paul Woods, the Executive Editor, Michael Cooke, the Executive Editor. Those two were at the meeting in Vancouver yesterday with a labour relations person from the company. My immediate supervisor was Lynn McAuley. She had to bear the brunt of me pushing back, and I don’t know if she knows as much as I do, or knows very little. The other editor who was sort of in the loop on this was Jane Davenport, the Managing Editor.

Jesse, I should say – people may have forgotten now, the business has fallen so far – that when I started out as a Toronto Star reporter way back in the early 1990s, every day practically, doors would slam, people would throw objects, there would be tirades of swearing that would make a sailor blush. And yet, every day people got over it, put out a newspaper, and got back to it the next day. That’s just part of the culture of newspaper journalism.

But now suddenly, it’s being run by accountants and lawyers and no one seems to be able to have a frank conversation and just say, if you’ve got a problem with my reporting, let me finish it, and before you publish it, you can run it through any number of lawyers you want, you can ask me any number of questions you want, but just let me finish it. That’s all I asked them to do.

And you were not allowed to do that. What do you mean by “reporting ban?” I’ve never heard of such a thing.

Well, same here. The letter said, words to the effect, “You must cease all reporting on anything related to John Geiger.”

They said this in the context of a pending meeting which they originally wanted to have in Toronto. I have serious health problems, I won’t go into it, mostly because I don’t want to sound pathetic, but also because I take my privacy very seriously. I was unable to travel, so eventually that meeting took place yesterday in Vancouver, and by the time 6 weeks had passed from the initial order to stop reporting, the company had added on all sorts of unrelated things. Suggestions that I’m a “discipline problem,” ect. – never stated explicitly, but whispered through union representatives who repeated it to me.

Other things they repeated to me, which I’m bracing myself for – I believe, based on what they said, there may be things that the Star wants to do which will make this problem a lot bigger. But that’s up to them.

Are you talking about legal repercussions?

I suspect, because I’m a member of the union, if the Star wants to take any action against me, their only avenue is the courts. I was told that they’re very serious about these issues that they brought up – which I can’t talk about now because of legal advice – they may become public soon, I don’t know. This reporting ban, as I call it – because that’s precisely what I think it is when you’re ordered to stop reporting – that’s a gag order.

They never explicitly said what the reasons were for ordering me to stop reporting on John Geiger and anything related to him. But I immediately went to the Board Chair of TorStar Corporation, the owner of the Toronto Star, John Honderich, who I once considered a friend, someone who I respected. In great detail, I laid out what I thought was going on, including my suspicions.

He said there are two problems with your reporting: the first relates to a Supreme Court ruling which effectively says you cannot ambush the target of a story at the eleventh hour. The way I understand it — you can’t investigate someone, have the story ready to go and then phone someone up and say, “Okay, you’ve got an hour to respond, the presses are about to roll.” In no way was I doing that with Mr. Geiger. Seven weeks ago yesterday was the first time I contacted him – obviously there was no eleventh hour ambush in any of this, and there isn’t now.

The second issue he raised was potential conflict of interest. I’m writing a book called Ice Ghosts and it’s about the converging lives of searchers over decades into this moment of discovery. It’s more a book about human nature than it is about Franklin, but it’s told against the backdrop of the Franklin history. The book, as I mentioned, and as stated in a legally enforceable contract, is not a John Geiger book. It’s a Royal Canadian Geographic Society book. It’s explicitly described as a coffee table book – I am not writing a coffee table book.

Just a third point so people understand that I don’t have a conflict of interest – I do not have a book contract in Canada. My literary agent in New York has had discussions with a publisher but it’s been going on for months and no contract has been signed. The US publisher, when I mentioned this in the fall, literally rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t go too much into the Canadian stuff, readers will flee.” He wants a book for an international audience and this sort of stuff just does not interest an international audience. So I am, I have been told to not bother with this stuff in the book that I am writing.

There is no conflict of interest and that’s been confirmed for me by three lawyers and my union.

But when I met with [Editor in Chief] Michael Cooke and [Executive Editor] Paul Woods yesterday, they wanted to talk about other things. I insisted that we talk about the core issue: “The reporting ban, are you prepared to lift it?”

It went around in circles until Michael Cooke said, “Tell us what the story is about.” I’ve told them before in messages, memos and e-mails, but I told them again. He listened to me and said, “Thanks for telling us.” He then accused me of ducking and dodging them for weeks, and I told him that was nonsense.

He said, “This is not a story we’re interested in.”

The very fact that John Honderich is talking about your book deal and a possible conflict of interest… it seems ludicrous that he would be involved on that granular level. All signs point to, at the highest levels of the Star, a willingness to stop this in its tracks. And something must be inspiring that. Can I take it that it is your suspicion that it is John Gieger’s influence that is doing so?

I’ve repeatedly asked my sources who know him better. I’ve run this through my head a thousand times. No one has given me any reason why John Gieger would have sufficient influence at the Toronto Star to get them to block a story that is absolutely a Toronto Star kind of story. It doesn’t smell right. The most disappointing thing about this for me is when I explicitly and in detail – just as I told you and your listeners – I do not have a Canadian book contract. John Honderich insisted that isn’t true and the he knew better. Why? Because he says he read it on the internet.

What did Jim Balsillie say in his letter?

In referring to the documentary on Franklin which aired on the Nature of Things on April 9th 2015, he writes: “I am concerned that the documentary contains information that runs contrary to the planning meeting that was held in your office on June 9th 2014 and filmed for the Prime Minister’s online news channel.”

“The narrative, as currently presented, attempts to minimize the role of the government and its respective agencies and private partners. It also creates new and exaggerated narratives for the exclusive benefit of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and its own partners.” And then he lists some examples, but I can tell you that not by any means is it an exhaustive list.

He mentions, for instance, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, which is the Russian flagged civilian vessel that Geiger was on with other civilians, being shown throughout the film as the main platform for the search. Yet it was CCGS Laurier that led the search and carried the crew, experts and equipment used to find HMS Erebus. The Laurier is the coast guard icebreaker that I lived and worked on. I’ll give you a couple of other ones here – this one, I think is important: the military autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) – a robotic sub, effectively – and this is a top secret device. Oddly enough, this top secret device that I wasn’t able to get information on is being transported on a Russian flagged vessel. According to the letter, the device “is being presented as a key technical help for the archeology team in finding HMS Erebus,” yet it was only used for open water testing, far from the search area.

[reading]”This runs contrary to public records that show it was Canadian Hydrographic Service’s use of the Gannet and the Kinglet, launched from the CCGS Laurier, which surveyed the sea bed, which ultimately led to the discovery.”

Now, this may be hard for people to get. “Who cares?” they may be asking. But when you look at all the problems people have with the factual record as presented in this film, these are all elements of history that are now being repeated as fact, and they are incorrect.

Why? What is your editorial hypothesis as to why history is being represented?

I think Balsillie said it. It’s intended for the exclusive benefit of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and its own partners. This is what Balsillie and others are alleging. I’m not alleging anything. I’m a reporter. They are alleging that the RCGS headed by John Geiger are inflating their role in this historic discovery, for what purposes? Who knows? Balsillie explicitly says he doesn’t want to speculate.

(Reads from letter:)

“While I don’t want to speculate about the motivation of RCGS and its partners in creating an alternative narrative for themselves and their role in the Victoria Straight partnership, I am concerned that official communication outputs, such as this documentary, contain versions of the search that are misleading to the Canadian public.”

Paul, is it possible that the pressure placed on the Toronto Star didn’t come from John Geiger, but from government?

Anything is possible, I don’t have the answer to those questions but I hope to have them someday. But I would be shocked if a newspaper that is publicly known to be left of centre, allied with the Liberal party sometimes, sometimes the NDP, but certainly not the Federal Conservative party, I would be shocked if they are somehow working together to keep the story out of the newspaper.

But I ask you as an experienced journalist: just based on the few excerpts I read from the letter – and understanding that I have much more to write – doesn’t that sound to you like a story the Toronto Star would want to be all over?

It sounds like you offered The Toronto Star a major scoop. 

That’s kind. I don’t know if I can say that, but as I write this thing in my head – remember, I’ve been under a ban for six weeks – I’m now starting to write it feverishly again. But if people take the time and I can find someone to publish it at length, there will be a lot of unhappy people.

This is a symptom of a broader disease that is eating away at the core of our democracy. Experts on climate, on medicine, on things that are central to our society are being silenced by a government that does favours for the politically connected. And that is just very dangerous for our future.

Paul, if you have any trouble finding a publishing partner, and I don’t imagine that you will, I hope you’ll consider publishing with CANADALAND. 

That’s very kind, and I’ll say it on behalf of all the people who are thinking it: thanks for what you do, because without you there’d be no way to have frank discussions like this.

Jesse, through a long career, I’ve always gravitated to ordinary people, with respect, as opposed to people in the establishment – the politicians, the preachers, the generals – because ordinary people tend to speak the truth more often than not, and secondly, know the truth. And what’s happening in this country – people know the truth, they’re just asking for the evidence.

And that’s what I’m trying to give them.




CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this post decribed Paul Watson as:”Canada’s Only Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist,” a description found on his Toronto Star biography, since changed. We have since learned that Canadian-born photographer Barbara Davidson has also won a Pulitzer Prize. CANADALAND regrets the error.

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