'Putin's Revenge' holds lessons about foreign influence for Canada and its upcoming election

The new documentary, 'Putin's Revenge,' examines Vladimir Putin and Russia's influence over the 2016 U.S. election and is as a cautionary tale for Canada.

A new documentary tells the story of Russian president and his fight with the United States

A new documentary 'Putin's Revenge,' directed by Michael Kirk, examines the initial reaction in the United States by both the White House and the news media about Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Frederick Brown/Getty Images)

Two years from now, Canadians will be mulling over the results of the latest federal election slated for Oct. 21, 2019.

It seems inevitable that no matter the result, some will wonder whether our election was subject to any of the fake news interference that many now believe afflicted the 2016 U.S presidential election.

But if a new documentary that examines the initial reaction in the United States by both the White House and the news media is any indication, the election here would be over before anyone seriously understood the gravity of what had happened, or how easily fake news stories could blend with authentic ones.

"I'm deeply troubled by the malleability of truth in the world now. If there's an ultimate victory for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, it is the opacity of truth now," says filmmaker Michael Kirk.

This week, the PBS program Frontline aired the first of a two-part investigative documentary written and directed by Kirk, called "Putin's Revenge."

Comprised of dozens of interviews with journalists who've followed the story, former U.S. intelligence officials and others, it chronicles the dawning of concern in the White House about potential interference by the Russian government and the news media's initial reaction.

Neither comes off particularly well.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama released a statement publicly alluding to foreign interference in the U.S. election only a month before the vote. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

It shows then-president Barack Obama was finally convinced just a month before the vote to release a statement publicly alluding to foreign interference in the election.

"And, they roll it out, thinking they're going to own the weekend news cycle," says Kirk, who spoke to The Investigators (Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network) this week from New York.

But the documentary shows a more salacious headline was about to change everything.

"Within a half hour, the Access Hollywood tape breaks. And blows the announcement that Russia, that high authorities in Russia, were interfering in the United States election. It just blew it right off the front page."

Half an hour after news broke that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, had used vulgar language to describe the way he treated some women, WikiLeaks posted a trove of emails stolen from Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton's campaign manager. (Getty Images)

The Access Hollywood tape revealed Donald Trump, at that time the Republican presidential candidate, had used vulgar language to describe the way he treated some women. But, only half an hour after that headline broke, WikiLeaks published a trove of emails stolen from Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton's campaign manager.

"It felt like news. But in the process of all that, the coverage of Putin's role and Russia's role in the disruption and chaos of the election was left by the wayside."

Even now, nearly a year since the U.S. election, there are still investigations underway in Washington trying to determine the full extent of that interference. But based on his own research, Kirk believes Canadians would be wrong to believe the only potential threat to the 2019 election could come from Russia.

"If Putin is doing it, what is China and other people, other countries, what are they doing as well, if democracy is that insecure?"

Also this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain: CBC Ottawa reporter Ashley Burke tells what she experienced inside a filthy apartment that was the focus of a housing story. And, The Fifth Estate host Habiba Nosheen talks about interviewing a man who was wearing an elaborate disguise.

The two-part Frontline documentary Putin's Revenge began Oct. 25 and continues Nov. 1 on PBS.​

'Putin's Revenge' filmmaker Michael Kirk (The Investigators with Diana Swain)

5 years ago
Duration 5:40
'Putin's Revenge' filmmaker Michael Kirk: Investigations of Russian interference shed light on the role news media played in last year's U.S. election. Should Canada be worried it could happen here? Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network.


Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.