When they feel they are being hurt by an issue, experienced politicians know to “change the channel” – to get the media and the public focused on a distraction. What else could Brian Mulroney possibly have been hoping to achieve on Wednesday, with his bizarre and unsubstantiated complaints about reporters covering the inquiry into his relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber?
To all observers, the former prime minister appeared to have been driven close to tears during his testimony by the recollection of the toll the Airbus affair took upon his family in 1995. Not so, he announced through the website maintained by his publicists, which aims to spin the inquiry as it happens. Mr. Mulroney claimed that he was upset that two journalists – one from the CBC, the other from The Globe and Mail – had been laughing at his testimony.
“They were carrying on like a pair of schoolchildren,” the website quoted Mr. Mulroney as saying. “It just got to me.” His publicists added that it was “a disgrace.”
Nobody else in the room seems to have noticed this behaviour, including colleagues of the two reporters sitting near them who presumably would have heard the “carrying on.” Mr. Mulroney appeared to be looking down, not at members of the media, when he lost his composure. And though equipped with a camera, Mr. Mulroney's publicist mysteriously failed to capture the alleged transgression. “I've got pictures,” he said, “but I didn't get them precisely at the moment of giggle.”
Mr. Mulroney's dubious complaint achieved its apparent purpose. Rather than focusing on the unanswered questions about cash payments he received from Mr. Schreiber, and the inconsistencies in the accounts he has offered of his behaviour, many media outlets focused their coverage of Wednesday's testimony on his allegations of mockery. Even if it made Mr. Mulroney look silly, it changed the channel.
But for how long? As the inquiry continues, the questions about the payments from Mr. Schreiber – and Mr. Mulroney's efforts to keep them secret – grow more pronounced. On Wednesday, documents tabled at the inquiry showed that, when Mr. Mulroney finally declared the payments for tax purposes nearly six years after they were received, he struck a deal to avoid disclosing Mr. Schreiber as the source. Yesterday, pressed by the inquiry's counsel, Mr. Mulroney could not provide a coherent explanation for the contradiction between his statements under oath in 1996 – when he said his dealings with Mr. Schreiber after leaving office had been limited to “a cup of coffee, I think, once or twice” – and reality.
It has long been a habit of Mr. Mulroney to attack journalists who raise or report questions about his behaviour, rather than attempting to answer them. His testimony may be his final opportunity to put to rest suspicions about what Mr. Schreiber was paying for. How disappointing that he prefers to shift the topic.