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EDITORIAL: Tip-offs and big business

An aerial image of Irving Shipbuilding’s Halifax Shipyard.
An aerial image of Irving Shipbuilding’s Halifax shipyard. — Irving Shipbuilding Inc. photo

On the surface, it sounds like a tempest in a media teapot: a reporter asks two federal government departments about a government contract, and the government tips off a private business that the reporter is asking questions.

But it’s more than that.

Here’s a short version: Postmedia reporter David Pugliese sent questions to both the Department of National Defence (DND) and Public Services and Procurement Canada, asking about welding issues on the first of the six Arctic patrol vessels that Irving Shipbuilding is building for the Canadian Navy.

Shortly after Pugliese asked his questions — 90 minutes afterwards, in fact — an Irving Shipbuilding official was in touch by email, saying they were aware that he was asking questions.

Later, Irving Shipbuilding president Kevin McCoy told Pugliese that the company’s lawyers would be “making sure you understand that if you write something false about our reputation we will pursue it.”

In other words, something of a full court press — but then again, most reporters will tell you they’ve been threatened more than a few times with legal action long before they’ve put words on a page, and often, by businesspeople threatening the big stick. It comes with the job.

But the issue involves more than the thickness of Pugliese’s skin.

Shortly after Pugliese asked his questions — 90 minutes afterwards, in fact — an Irving Shipbuilding official was in touch by email, saying they were aware that he was asking questions.

That’s because — as the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada pointed out earlier this week, the Department of National Defence broke federal privacy law by tipping off Irving and by providing Pugliese’s name. The privacy commissioner says DND is reviewing its disclosure policies and procedures, and those policies will be reviewed by the privacy commissioner when they’re complete.

Still pretty much a bunch of waves in a media teapot, right?

Well, no — what government officials did for a large company is something they almost certainly would not have done for an everyday citizen.

In fact, if the matter had involved a request for information about whether you were legally occupying Crown land, government officials would pretty much stand on their heads to protect the identity of the person making the request.

With large companies — and big employers — there don’t seem to be as many headstands.

Just like the SNC-Lavalin debacle, the case speaks to the coziness between big businesses and the civil servants they deal with on a regular basis. The average individual has to navigate their way through the near-impenetrable mileage of bureaucracy; big businesses have speed-dial and an early warning system.

That is tangible proof that the bigger a business is, the more likely it is to get special treatment from a government and its departments, even if that treatment involves breaking the rules.

And that should alarm anyone who thinks governments should offer equal treatment.

If nothing else, it takes the whole thing out of the tempestuous teapot zone and into the land of privilege.

• This article has been corrected for a factual error.

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