Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rights and Democracy: how a smear is done

Heavy hitters testified as scheduled before the parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International development, now looking into the troubled Rights and Democracy agency. There was Suzanne Trépanier (the widow of former R&D President Rémy Beauregard); two other former R&D presidents, Ed Broadbent and Warren Allmand; and former Board member Payam Akhavan, who resigned in disgust in January.

There is really very little left to say about the egregious antics of the Gang of Seven, and there were no surprises today. I missed Akhavan's testimony, but nothing earth-shattering has been reported. Mme. Trépanier
, recounting the abuse of her late spouse by members of the Rights and Democracy Board, called for a public inquiry, as have many others. Allmand and Broadbent spoke of the non-partisan nature of the Board in years past, and called for something to be done without delay about the current mess. "The soul of the Centre" is in peril, Broadbent said, and the reputation of Rights and Democracy in the international human rights community has been seriously harmed.

Nothing new in any of this.

The real story today was itself a story: one that appeared this morning in the Edmonton Journal under the by-line of Steven Edwards, Canwest's New York correspondent.

Recall the timely appearance of Senator Linda Frum's rather unconvincing defence of the Braun Gang--warmed-over talking points, actually--back in March? And now we have another suspiciously timely piece, a shabby trash-job on Payam Akhavan, appearing on the very same day when he was slated to testify.

This article should be used in J-school as a graphic illustration of spin. The rot begins at the hed: "Rights and Democracy board member used 'inappropriate' tactics to lobby for UN post." That sets up the story nicely.

Well, what did Akhavan do? A new UN commission on war crimes in Sri Lanka was being mooted (it was never established), and he asked then-President Rémy Beauregard to recommend him for it.

That's it. That's all. But this is how Edwards spins it in his third graf:

The administrative chief in question was Remy [sic] Beauregard, whose job as president essentially placed him in service of the board. Not only would such an official find it difficult to turn down a request from a board member, but Akhavan also sought the UN appointment through a division of the international body that, documents show, had earlier received an $824,000 over four years from the taxpayer-funded Rights and Democracy.

"[F]ind it difficult to turn down?" How so? What would have happened to Beauregard had he refused? And then there is Edwards' innuendo about a conflict of interest. Only when we read all the way to the last (16th) graf do we discover that Akhavan's request was made after the partnership between Rights and Democracy and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had been terminated.

Here are the fourth and fifth grafs:

Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University, boasts a resume showing he is amply qualified to join an inquiry such as the one some in the UN were mulling in order to investigate alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

But for some, the memo and Beauregard's subsequent letter of recommendation to the UN raise questions of propriety.

It turns out that "some" is "a senior UN-focused executive familiar with squabbling among past and present officials with Rights and Democracy...who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject matter." His use of the term "inappropriate" was qualified (and is found only in the seventh graf):

"This may not be a breach of fiduciary duty, but it appears to be inconsistent with what the role of a director should be. So it strikes me as inappropriate."

"Appears to be inconsistent." "Strikes me as inappropriate." Yet the word "inappropriate" finds its way, unqualified, into a hed and lede, and a simple request for a letter of reference becomes the snarl-word "tactics." Is it really "inappropriate" to ask for a written endorsement from the President of your own organization for a job for which you are "amply qualified?"

A shameful piece. And, as noted, check the timing.

The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence. But if this happens again, I think we can safely conclude that it's enemy action.

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