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Conservative MPs, Senators echo Scheer’s condemnation of The Rebel, but many stay silent

By Samantha Wright Allen      

There’s a market for a Canadian conservative news outlet but 'only if it’s smart, sane, savvy,' says a former Conservative aide.

Clockwise from left, Conservative Senator Salma Ataullahjan says The Rebel ‘never represented’ her; she applauds the decision of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to stop giving interviews to the site; MP Deepak Obhrai says he has no interest in doing so, and never had; and MP Blake Richards says the site made the right decision to fire one of its contributors, but does not rule out being interviewed by The Rebel in the future. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright and Andrew Meade, photograph courtesy of the Inter-Parliamentary Union
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Conservative MPs and Senators have mostly echoed their party leader’s disavowal of The Rebel, but many have stayed silent in response to calls for Conservatives to publicly distance themselves from the far-right Canadian media company criticized most recently for its coverage of a deadly white supremacist rally south of the border.

After Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) said he would refuse interviews with The Rebel until the “editorial directions” change, The Hill Times reached out to all Conservative MPs and Senators last week for their comments about the site that has long billed itself as a conservative voice in Canada.

Several Parliamentarians were unavailable for interviews, and fewer than 10 responded to either echo Mr. Scheer’s sentiment or offer their own.

Mr. Scheer, who has granted several interviews to the site and whose former campaign manager Hamish Marshall was until recently listed as a director on The Rebel’s board, said there’s a “fine line between reporting the facts and giving [hate] groups a platform.”

 The commitment came in a Thursday statement, which the leader had been reviewing for days, Vice News reported, as public pressure built on him to distance himself from the outlet.  

“In Canada, journalists do not need the approval of politicians to do our work,” said founder Ezra Levant by email of the disavowals that have come from several longtime party members. “We will continue to cover politics without fear or favour.”

The Rebel founder Ezra Levant sent a staff memo last week saying the site rejects the alt-right. Screengrab of The Rebel YouTube

He suggested Mr. Scheer’s refusal could be connected to unfavourable coverage.

“I notice he has cancelled his policy position in favour of free speech on campus, too. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk to us about that, either. I’m pretty confident that the CBC won’t ask him any tough questions from a conservative point of view.”

The party leader’s statement came in the midst of an explosive week of departures at and denouncements of The Rebel, spurred many said by its connection to the alt-right, which led Mr. Levant to publicly reject the U.S. white nationalist movement associated with the likes of Richard Spencer, asserting the alt-right had “changed into something new.”

The media personality has long connections with conservative politics. He was a member of the Reform Party and for a time worked as Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s communications director. He also worked under Kory Teneycke at the now-defunct Sun News Network after Mr. Teneycke served as Stephen Harper’s director of communications. 

Both Sun News Network and The Rebel were viewed by Conservatives as outlets that offered “more fair treatment,” said Andrew House, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group who was chief of staff to Conservative public safety ministers from 2010 to 2015.

“I think there is a strong reluctance to lash out in any way against such an outlet,” said Mr.  House, who wasn’t surprised by the silence from a majority of MPs and Senators when leading politicians had already come forward.

That’s especially the case in the context of an “entrenched perception that traditional Canadian media favours left-leaning parties.”

“[The Rebel] has lost credibility and they’ve certainly lost well-known personalities. They’ve gained notoriety, but not the right kind,” he said, adding there’s a market for conservative news but “only if it’s smart, sane, savvy.”

Conservative MP Blake Richards (Banff-Airdrie, Alta.) said in an interview last week that while he hadn’t followed the developments closely, The Rebel‘s firing of Faith Goldy was “the appropriate course of action.” Ms. Goldy captured on video a car crashing into anti-racist protesters and appeared on a neo-Nazi podcast last week.

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer said he preferred Canadian news media companies that ‘focus on the less sensational.’ The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

On the public calls for Conservatives to denounce the site, Mr. Richards said “People are free to call on people to do whatever they’d like to call on them to do, and then those people are free to respond as they wish or not respond as they wish.”

Asked if he would appear on the site as it stands now, he said “I think the reporter that made the comments [Faith Goldy] has been fired, so I think they’ve taken the appropriate course of action.”

Bob Zimmer (Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies, B.C.) said The Rebel “absolutely” has influence among conservative voters, but added he follows a diversity of media and prefers those that “focus on the less sensational.” Mr. Richards said The Rebel has no more influence on the party than any other media group.

“Without criticizing anyone, I’m more interested in news stories as opposed to sensationalism. I think in Canada we need to focus in on what the facts of the story are,” said Mr. Zimmer, who did not say whether he would appear on The Rebel again.

“I gave some interviews before with [The Rebel co-founder] Brian Lilley, and they’ve been good interviews, and Brian’s not there any more.”

The Rebel not likely to damage Tory brand: former staffer

Last week was a blow to The Rebel alone, and isn’t likely to have an impact on the Conservative Party, said Mr. House, even as the Liberals launched an aggressive campaign pointing to “close ties” between the two.

Former Conservative staffer Andrew House said The Rebel has lost credibility, but it shouldn’t touch the Conservative Party because there’s ‘sufficient space’ between the two. The Hill Times photograph

“There is sufficient space between The Rebel as a media outlet and the Conservative Party that there won’t be damage to the party brand,” said Earnscliffe’s Mr. House.

Asked why Conservative politicians began to distance themselves from The Rebel last week, when it has long been criticized for crossing the line of news coverage into advocacy, Mr. House said there has been a cumulative effect, where MPs may have been willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a conservative outlet.

“I think what happened at Charlottesville was perhaps a breaking point for a lot of MPs and likely Mr. Scheer, where folks began to say that the risk of dealing with The Rebel began to outweigh the benefits,” said Mr. House.

The events in Charlottesville, Va., represented a deep cut, but it may not spell the end for The Rebel, said Mr. House, noting firing Ms. Goldy was a “tactical move.”

At this point it’s a niche website that lacks broad-based appeal, he said, but that could shift if it undergoes a fundamental and sustained change in direction.

“I think MPs naturally recognize that, and are waiting for The Rebel to make that evolution… not in its philosophical leanings but perhaps in its reporting style and tone.”

Politicians, contributors leave The Rebel

House Leader Candice Bergen’s (Portage- Lisgar, Man.) office said she wouldn’t be adding anything beyond a tweet denouncing racism after the Charlottesville rally attack, but she does “fully support the leader and his decision” and Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) referred to the Tory leader’s statement as comment.

That messaging was matched by Conservatives in the Red Chamber, with the party’s Senate Leader Larry Smith’s (Saurel, Que.) office confirming by email his “thoughts on this matter are aligned with Mr. Scheer’s.”  

Of the 36 Senators contacted, Kelvin Ogilvie (Annapolis Valley-Hants, N.S.) pointed to Mr. Smith’s statement, Denise Batters (Saskatchewan) declined to comment, and Salma Ataullahjan (Toronto, Ont.) denounced the site.

“I am a Conservative and a Canadian—their views have most definitely never represented me. I am glad Mr. Scheer is taking a position of leadership on the issue,” said Ms. Ataullahjan, a Pakistan-born Canadian who was named to the Senate in 2010 by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The Rebel has a popular YouTube channel with 856,000 subscribers as of Tuesday, but it lost more than 16,000 subscribers in the last week and the website was offline for hours after a technology company stopped directing traffic to it.

Former leadership contender Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) was among the first last week to disavow the site. Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), who also ran for leader, pointed to his condemnation last December of the “Trump-style” politics invading Canada, in response to a “Rally for Alberta,” hosted by The Rebel, where crowds shouted “lock her up” of Premier Rachel Notley. Mr. Obhrai’s statement at the time did not name The Rebel.

“I have never given an interview to TheRebel.Media and have no interest in doing so in the future,” Mr. Obhrai said by email last week. “As displayed during my campaign for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, my core principles are diversity, [inclusivity], and respect for all.”

The same day Mr. Chong said he’d never appear on The Rebel again, Mr. Lilley announced he was quitting, later followed by contributors Barbara Kay and John Robson and Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes. Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), who was unavailable for an interview, said on Twitter he “ruled out appearances when Rebel went off rails with hateful anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic content. Now white supremacy—beyond the pale.”

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), another former leadership candidate, and Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.) applauded Mr. Lilley’s decision via Twitter in the days after the violence in Charlottesville. 

“Flirting with or giving a wink and a nod to Nazism and white supremacy for clicks and likes is disgusting,” Ms. Rempel wrote in a follow-up tweet, though she did not name The Rebel or its contributors.

Neither Ms. Rempel nor Ms. Raitt responded to The Hill Times’ request for comment.

swallen@hilltimes.com

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