Inside the News with Peter Mansbridge

Last Updated: Aug 8, 2013 11:16 AM ET

Deny, deny, deny

Senator Mike Duffy and Sen. Donald Plett arrive on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday. May 23, 2013. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

By Mark Bulgutch and Peter Mansbridge

You don't even have to have a particularly sharp nose to pick up the whiff of scandal these days. It's all over the news. Every news cycle seems to bring a fresh angle to an on-going scandal, or gives birth to yet another brand new one. It's truly been an extraordinary few weeks.

But we've seen scandals before and the part that has always fascinated me is how the people caught up in these messes react. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone on the wrong side of a media revelation just come out and say, "Yup. I did it. You caught me. Sorry about that." Instead we usually see a denial. What's most interesting though is that there are different kinds of denials.

Some denials are worded very carefully. They can be full of outrage and bluster, but they don't actually deny anything. In the 1988 federal election campaign, I reported that the Liberal party had actively considered dumping its leader, John Turner. Turner's response was that CBC's story was, "The craziest thing I've heard in the last four years." And maybe it was. But it was still 100 percent true.

In 2006 a Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister, Ed Byrne, was accused of diverting money meant to pay for running his constituency office, to his personal bank account. His first reaction was to say, "I believe my name will be cleared." And maybe he did believe that. But he eventually pleaded guilty to fraud and he went to jail.

That kind of non-denial denial is pretty common. You might even say it's an honest denial, in that there's no direct lie involved, just a lot of flim-flam. But some people go for the gusto. They look you in the eye and don't hesitate to lie.

President Richard M. Nixon and his wife Pat Nixon stand together in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Charlie Harrity/Associated Press, File)

Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal in 1973: "In all my years of public life I have never obstructed justice."

Bill Clinton at the beginning of the Monica Lewinsky debacle in 1998: "I didn't have sexual relations with that woman."

After Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was caught with anabolic steroids in his system at the 1988 Olympics, a banned substance called stanozolol, his doctor Jamie Astaphan showed up at our CBC studio close to air time to do an interview. Barbara Frum grilled him carefully. Astaphan didn't blink. "I have never given Ben any stanozolol."

Barbara pushed him. "Would you testify under oath to that effect in any court, at any federal inquiry," she asked.

"Sure I would," said Astaphan.

Until a scandal plays itself out you never really know if someone is lying when they deny an accusation. Today's cases are still open. But the denials are piling up.

When Senator Mike Duffy asked to be interviewed on the CBC's suppertime newscast in Charlottetown in February he was naturally asked about why he'd accepted a housing allowance for living away from Ottawa, when it seemed he lived in Ottawa. The senator said, "The form that you fill in is vague." Then he said he'd spoken things over with his wife and they'd decided to repay the money just to put the whole thing behind them. And he said he wanted people to think of him as they had before. "The Old Duff. The Duff they've known and trusted would never do anything wrong. I would never knowingly fiddle anything."

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford attends an executive committee meeting at Toronto City Hall on Tuesday, May 28, 2013. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford and his city councillor brother Doug have been dealing with newspaper reports that boggle the mind. The mayor is said to have been seen on a video smoking what appears to be crack cocaine. The councillor is accused of being a serious dope dealer when he was in high school.

The mayor hasn't said much in public. His first denial: "These allegations are ridiculous." His second denial: "I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine."

As for the councilor, he spoke to every journalist who asked for an interview and among the things he said: "There is no truth to it. Very simple." And, "They want to go out and dig up unnamed sources in high school, good luck to them. I think it's disgusting. This is what happens when you're out there for the common folk. It's an outright vicious assault by the media."

Of course we don't know the full story in any of these scandals, so we have no way of knowing whether to believe the denials, or believe the accusations. We all have gut feelings, but in the pursuit of truth those don't count for very much.

When the truth comes out, and I suspect it will, history will look at the denials as either honest exasperation, or just more duplicity.

More from Inside the News:

Watch: At Issue: Senate Scandal
Breeding cynicism: Why political scandal is bad for the country

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