Shipyard ISI

The NSS and Government-Media Relations

Dan Middlemiss, 15 December 2020.

I recently posted a short summary of an article by journalist David Pugliese on the rising costs of the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC).[1] This led to a few comments discussing related publications concerning defence funding as it might pertain to the CSC and other defence projects. However, one comment questioned Pugliese’s accusatory bias and suggested he was prone to sending “his lawyers after” those who called him out on his incorrect facts in his reporting.

This is an interesting comment. I have seen at least one post on Reddit which made a similar claim, but likewise without any supporting evidence. It may be true that Pugliese has threatened lawsuits on occasion, but I have been following Pugliese’s writings for many years, and while I do not know him and often disagree with his views, I generally have found him to be reasonably meticulous in his research and his articles to be one of the few sources of information available on current defence issues, including the progress of various NSS shipbuilding projects. There are now far too few media writing about defence procurement matters.

Perhaps the blogosphere is confused about exactly who has been threatening to sue whom. Pugliese claims his article is based on many access to information (ATI) documents, and if the people he mentions in his piece have issues with the accuracy of his sources and claims, they would be taking appropriate legal action.

And this would not by an uncommon reaction to Pugliese’s writings. Senior officials with Irving Shipbuilding, for example, have in the past threatened to sue Pugliese for simply making a request to the Department of National Defence (DND) about the quality of the welds on the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) being built by Irving. This was an astonishing reaction by Irving, and reveals just how difficult it is for our media to glean even the most mundane details about how the NSS is progressing. It also represented a violation of ATI procedures  which were designed to safeguard the privacy of individuals making requests. Someone in DND had immediately notified Kevin McCoy, the President of Irving Shipbuilding, about Pugliese’s request, and McCoy then telephoned Pugliese and threatened to sue him if he wrote about the welding issue. Ultimately, when other media outlets got wind of this story, DND had to back down and admit that it should not have contacted Irving, and another Minister went further in saying it was “unfortunate” that McCoy had threatened a reporter in this way [2]. Mr. McCoy was unrepentant, however, and later testified before a parliamentary committee that he threatened to sue because Pugliese was making “very wild accusations” and this threatened the reputation of the company [3]. We should recall that Pugliese had not written anything at this point, he had just made a simple request to DND on the basis of a tip he had received, something that happens frequently in the lives of journalists. As it turned out, there were in fact some minor problems with the welds but these were readily fixed. Had the Department just admitted this, Pugliese probably would not have pursued the story much further.

On another occasion, Pugliese reported that the government had allowed Irving Shipbuilding to claim a $40 million industrial benefit credit for an Alberta french fry factory as part of ISI’s contract to build AOPs. Under the NSS Industrial and Technological Benefits (ITB) policy, prime contractors are required to generate work in Canada equal to 100% of the value of the contracts they receive. These ITBs are intended to promote innovative research and employment in defence aerospace and related fields. While ISI was not violated any of its contractual terms from a legal standpoint, I will leave it to you readers to judge whether the allowed credits in this ISI example violated the spirit of federal policy. But a more troubling aspect of this case was that federal officials alerted ISI that The Globe and Mail was seeking information about the french fry plant credit. The newspaper later received a letter from an Irving lawyer which threatened legal action if the newspaper article contained any allegations of improper conduct [4].

Through my contacts with people in the navy, I have personally witnessed similar attempts by naval officers to besmirch the reputation of not only Pugliese, but other journalists as well. And most of the time, the problems arose in the first place because the navy officials refused to release information to the reporter, and then delighted in pointing out the small errors of factual detail in the published articles. This, it seems to me, is both foolish and ultimately self-defeating behaviour on the part of naval and governmental officials. The cover-up is always worse than unvarnished truth, and some of the facts always seem to get out to embarrass the government.

The shipbuilding industry, and especially Irving, has a long history of adopting ‘shoot-the-messenger’ tactics against any suggestion that their work is anything less than perfection itself. Irving has in the past taken out full page ads in leading national newspapers vilifying anyone who has the temerity to slight its workmanship.

Finally, today David Pugliese is reporting that top industry officials have been told by DND Deputy Minister, Jody Thomas, to stop complaining about the CSC project because it is hindering the project [5]. Amid growing concern about the rising costs of the CSC project, instead of ‘too much noise,’ DND and NSS officials would prefer silence. Apparently Canadians only have the right to hear positive news about the NSS, preferably from former DND bureaucrats, and nothing about mounting costs, delayed delivery schedules, and other problems with projects like the CSC.

Far from being the open and transparent process Ottawa promised about the NSS, politicians and senior officials would prefer government by fiat and gag orders.

References:

  1. “CSC Costs - Again!”, (10 December 2020) https://www.navalreview.ca/2020/12/csc-costs-again/
  2. For details of this story, see, David Pugliese, “Federal ministries investigate after officials provide Irving Shipbuilding with information about Postmedia journalist”, Ottawa Citizen, (15 March 2019). [Accessed at: https://nationalpost.com/news/investigation-launched-by-federal-officials-after-postmedia-information-provided-to-irving-shipbuilding]. See also, “A reporter asked the government about a Navy ship — then got a call from an Irving president”, CBC Radio transcript, (18 March 2019). [Accessed at: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-monday-edition-1.5061019/a-reporter-asked-the-government-about-a-navy-ship-then-got-a-call-from-an-irving-president-1.5061025]
  3. David Pugliese, “Irving says it threatened to sue journalist to protect government's shipbuilding reputation, but DND disputes company's story”, Ottawa Citizen, (3 April 2019). [Accessed at: https://nationalpost.com/news/irving-says-it-threatened-to-sue-journalist-to-protect-governments-shipbuilding-reputation-but-dnd-disputes-claim]
  4. David Pugliese, “Federal military procurement program could result in more french fry plants instead of high-tech defence jobs”, Ottawa Citizen, (31 May 2019). [Accessed at: https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/federal-military-procurement-program-could-result-in-more-french-fry-plants-instead-of-high-tech-defence-jobs]
  5. David Pugliese, “'Too much noise' on Canadian warship program - DND Deputy Minister admonishes industry executives”, Ottawa Citizen, (14 December 2020). [Accessed at: https://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/defence-watch/too-much-noise-on-canadian-warship-program-dnd-deputy-minister-admonishes-industry-executives]
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