New Brunswick

Publisher, editor out over wafer story

The publisher and editor of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal are no longer with the paper after it was forced to apologize to Stephen Harper and two of its own reporters over a story about whether the prime minister took communion at the state funeral of former governor general Roméo LeBlanc.
Stephen Harper attends the funeral of former governor general Roméo LeBlanc in New Brunswick on July 3, at which a New Brunswick newspaper claimed the PM pocketed a communion wafer. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

The publisher and editor of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal are no longer with the paper after it was forced to apologize to Stephen Harper and two of its own reporters over a story about whether the prime minister took communion at the state funeral of former governor general Roméo LeBlanc.

CBC News has confirmed that editor Shawna Richer has been fired and that Jamie Irving is no longer the publisher of the paper. Earlier, their names had been removed from the paper's list of senior staff.

The apology, which ran on the provincial newspaper's front page on Tuesday, said the story that ran on July 8  that accused Harper of placing a communion wafer in his pocket was "inaccurate and should not have been published."

"There was no credible support for these statements of fact at the time this article was published, nor is the Telegraph-Journal aware of any credible support for these statements now," the apology said.

"Our reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras, who wrote the story reporting on the funeral, did not include these statements in the version of the story that they wrote. In the editing process, these statements were added without the knowledge of the reporters and without any credible support for them.

"The Telegraph-Journal sincerely apologizes to the prime minister for the harm that this inaccurate story has caused. We also apologize to reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras and to our readers for our failure to meet our own standards of responsible journalism and accuracy in reporting."

Video of the state funeral in Memramcook, N.B., on July 3 shows Harper — an evangelical Protestant — reaching out to take the host with his right hand, but it doesn't show what he did with it.

Harper outraged

During a news conference at the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on July 10, Harper slammed the allegations that he had pocketed the wafer.

The Telegraph-Journal issues an apology on its front page on Tuesday.

"I think somebody running a story — and I don't know where responsibility lies — somebody running an unsubstantiated story that I would stick communion bread in my pocket is really absurd," Harper said.

"First of all, as a Christian, I've never refused communion when offered to me. That is actually pretty important to me," he said.

"And I think it's a real, frankly, a low point. This is a low moment in journalism, whoever is responsible for this. It's just a terrible story and a ridiculous story, and not based on anything, near as I can tell."

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Office told CBC News that Harper "appreciates and accepts the apology."

Professors begin boycott of Telegraph-Journal

The apology comes on the same day that a dozen professors from the University of New Brunswick, Mount Allison University and St. Thomas University issued a news release stating that they will no longer talk to the newspaper because of its decision to fire a student intern over factual errors that appeared in a story.

Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University, is one of the professors leading the boycott.

"From my point of view, this has nothing to do with the Irvings, this has nothing to do with the size of the family business. It all has to do with the editorial integrity of the newspaper, the health of civic debate and what looks to me like a bit of an infringement on journalistic independence," Bateman said.

In May, Matt McCann was fired after writing a story about a faculty protest against Premier Shawn Graham receiving an honorary degree from the University of New Brunswick.

Richer said McCann's story was unbalanced and contained three errors.

The professors joining the boycott include six from St. Thomas, four from UNB and two from Mount Allison university. They say they will reconsider the boycott when McCann graduates in 2010 or if he is reinstated at the Telegraph-Journal.

It was another in an embarrassing string of events for the Telegraph-Journal.

Saint John Mayor Ivan Court dared the newspaper's publisher to a debate and temporarily imposed his own ban on speaking to the Telegraph-Journal in January over his belief that the paper was too negative in its coverage of city hall.

Court then said in late June that Irving and several senior newspaper staff members had told him in a private meeting that if the city cut taxes and replaced its manager, the tone of city hall coverage would change.

"I and our former manager met Jamie Irving and his editorial staff in the manager's office. And we were told that unless we did what they wanted, they would continue what you see daily in the paper. And we saw the result of that: We no longer have a city manager," Court said.