Politics

'I wish they hadn't': Qualtrough says she'll speak to Irving about threats to sue media

Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough says she will be speaking Irving Shipbuilding after a law firm representing the East Coast company pre-emptively threatened to sue media for a second time.

Journalists have the right to ask questions about billion-dollar projects, procurement minister says

From left to right, Jim Irving, co-CEO of Irving Shipbuilding Inc., Carla Qualtrough, minister of public services and procurement, and Bernadette Jordan, minister of rural economic development, speak at an event in Halifax to announce Lockheed Martin Canada as the designer of 15 new navy ships to be built at Irving Shipbuilding's shipyard in February. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough said today she will be speaking to Irving Shipbuilding after a law firm representing the East Coast company pre-emptively threatened to sue media for a second time.

She told reporters at a defence industry trade show on Thursday she wished the company had not threatened The Globe and Mail and Postmedia, and that subject will be among the top matters for discussion.

"It is certainly not a behaviour I would engage in," said Qualtrough, "and I wish there is respect shown to journalists for doing their jobs."

The media has the right to ask questions — particularly about complex subjects like procurement, where billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake, she said.

Qualtrough would not criticize Irving directly, noting that the federal government and private companies communicate with the public differently.

She said she talks regularly with the company, which is one of the federal government's go-to shipyards for large vessel construction. The subject of threatened lawsuits "will definitely be a topic of conversation," she added.

Law firm responded after media requests to government

Both media organizations were pursuing separate stories over the last few months and had asked questions of two different federal departments — queries that were flagged to Irving executives.

This week, The Globe asked Innovation, Science and Economic Development whether the New Brunswick company was counting an Alberta french fry plant as part of promised economic benefits associated with the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship program.

Separately, a Postmedia reporter questioned Public Services and Procurement Canada about the possibility of welding problems with the same class of ships.

In both instances, the company was flagged about the requests and — after a series of back and forth communications — Irving lawyers threatened lawsuits before any stories were written.

In a written statement Thursday, a spokesman for Irving Shipbuilding said the company fully respects "all journalists' responsibility to ask questions." The company acknowledged that threats of legal action were made — but defended its actions.

"When reporters appear to be relying on information that we know is not accurate, and may be part of a proposed story, we will issue the communication that is necessary in the circumstances to ensure accuracy," said Sean Lewis, the shipyard's director of communications.

"In two recent cases we did advise reporters that we would pursue legal action because we knew the reporters had highly inaccurate information that would cause our company, and the reputation of our hardworking employees, considerable reputational damage."

Lewis said the company would pursue legal action only as a last resort.

"This is the exception, not the norm," he said.

Qualtrough said her department recognizes it should not be divulging reporters' names to a private company when it is dealing with media queries.

"We're working on our policies to make sure we do a better job of protecting (journalists') privacy, while at the same time getting you the information you need that's accurate," she said.

The department, however, has had a less than stellar record of answering questions from the media and has gone to the extent of warning defence contractors not to talk to journalists.

That will change, Qualtrough said.

"I think we've gone too far on that," she said. "We'll be relaxing those rules and making sure companies can share information that doesn't in any way jeopardize their company's [intellectual property] or their corporate plan. At the same time, we need to let you get access to the information you need to be accurate in your stories."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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