Fair Reading: Did Rebel commander Levant really have a cozy chat with O'Toole?

In a new fact-checking feature, The Line sifts through the insane detritus of social media to give you the truth. Today's answer: No.

In a new feature, The Line will help you cut through the bullshit and find out what everyone on Twitter is fighting about, and what actually is true. Today's topic: Did Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O'Toole really grant Ezra Levant of The Rebel an exclusive interview?

The short answer is ... no. He didn't. But the details are more complicated and interesting.

First, let's acknowledge the context: The Rebel is part of Canada's far-right media ecosystem. In the aftermath of last week's attack on the U.S. capitol, we are witnessing a very fast, and long overdue, reckoning among right-wing politicians and media outlets in that country. Too many prominent figures in both camps have indulged in far too much batshittery and conspiracy mongering, heedless of consequences. Last week, the consequences burst into the Senate chamber, took a dump on the floor and murdered a cop. Hence the reckoning, as media Dr. Frankenteins the world over recoil in horror from the populist monsters they have created.

Just as this reckoning against angry, fringe-right news is taking root in the U.S., the leader of Canada's Conservative party, which has its own fringe of nutjobs to deal with, decides to sit down with Ezra Levant?

No, he didn't, actually. But Levant sure made it sound like he did. 

On Monday, Rebel News published what it called, in a gigantic graphic featuring photos of Levant and O'Toole, "an exclusive interview." The topic of the interview was about the accrediting of Chinese media in Canada, but it's doubtful anyone actually read it. They did what we did — which was choke on their morning cup of Earl Grey and think, wait, O'Toole is giving Levant exclusive interviews? We texted our sources in the Conservative party and asked, what gives? And they were baffled. There had been no interview between O'Toole and Levant.

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It didn't take long for them to realize what had happened. Back in December, The Line was told, Levant had emailed the Conservative party to ask where the Conservatives stood on the media accreditation issue. A Conservative party communications staffer responded to the questions by email, and said that the answers could be attributed to O'Toole. This is standard practice for outlets seeking anodyne responses to straightforward requests for information about policy or position.

However, Levant took those answers, spliced them together with his original questions, and called it an exclusive interview. He published it yesterday.

That's not an “exclusive interview.” An exclusive interview is two people directly communicating; and if O’Toole had spoken with Levant directly, it would have conferred a degree of legitimacy on the news outlet. But this wasn't an interview. This was an email with a staffer. As National Post reporter Brian Platt noted so elegantly on Twitter, if what Levant did counts as an exclusive interview, than he's scoring sweet exclusive interviews with high-level officials literally every day.

Levant emailed the Tories some questions, got routine answers, spliced the emails together so that it looked like an interview, and then slapped a graphic on top that reinforced that appearance. This was misleading, and all professional journalists instantly saw what he’d done.

But then a whole heap of people who are not professionals and who don’t know the conventions of the craft raced off onto Twitter to attack the Conservatives for their far-right links. If they’d taken 30 seconds to poke around and ask questions, they could have spared themselves some egg on the face. But they didn’t.

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People hesitate to fact-check the things that they want to be true, and no one ever doubts that someone they dislike had done a bad, dumb thing. This meant that a bunch of people who were in a rush to hold up Levant as something detestable and beyond-the-pale ended up doing his marketing work for him.

But there are two other issues here worth exploring:

The first is ... should the Tories be communicating with the Rebel and the likes of Levant at all?

In the abstract, we at The Line think that government officials, and staffers for political parties that wish to become governments, should embrace a policy of maximum transparency. That includes answering straightforward questions from people you find odious and repulsive, subject only to very, very modest limits for obvious bad-faith actors. Until yesterday, we'd have said that the Rebel, despite its past conduct, still deserved basic answers.

But Levant’s little stunt has actually changed our calculus on this. Levant acted in bad faith, and we don't think bad-faith actors deserve much of anyone's time. We'd hope that any Conservative staffer or politician, or any staffer or politician from any party, will now feel free to tell Levant to pound sand.

As it happens, the Globe reports that the Tories have opted for Door Number One: no further communication with The Rebel.

The second question here is simply … what’s Levant doing? The ploy is bizarre and desperate. As far-right actors around the world are condemned, Levant released an “exclusive interview” that appeared to tie him to the Conservatives. This looks like Levant wanted to boost the Rebel’s perceived credibility by touting a major interview with a public figure. If so, it didn’t work, but that’s about all that makes sense.

But the real lesson here is for all those Twitter warriors who were in such a rush to make O’Toole look bad that they actually played right into Levant’s hands. A lot of good progs did Levant’s heavy lifting for him yesterday, and it looked awful good on them, we’d say.


The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com