Monday, March 05, 2012

The robosleuths!

Meet the reporters who broke robocalls story: one's a source guy, the other a data geek

Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor say they are a little surprised at how long their robocalls story got
Hot tickets: Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher. (Photograph by Laura Ryckewaert, The Hill times)

By Laura Ryckewaert
Monday, March 5, 2012

The Ottawa Citizen calls them “McMaher.” That’s the cute nickname for Postmedia News reporter Stephen Maher and Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor, who landed one of the biggest scoops of the year about two weeks ago when they broke the not-so-cute story that Elections Canada, aided by the RCMP, was investigating fraudulent phone calls, or “robocalls,” made during that last election that misled voters. The story also reported that the Conservatives were conducting an internal probe. The story has since exploded onto the front pages of newspapers, political talk shows, and newscasts across the country. It has dominated Question Period every day since and it has knocked the federal government slightly off course.

Mr. Maher, 46, a former Halifax Chronicle Herald reporter, who first started on the Hill in 2003, and joined Postmedia News last August, said the story started during last May’s election campaign when he was told about a supporter for Egmont, P.E.I., Liberal candidate Guy Gallant, who had received a call asking if he supported Mr. Gallant’s campaign. But the voice on the phone sparked suspicion from the supporter because the caller had pronounced Mr. Gallant’s name in a way that no Atlantic Canadian would.

“The idea of someone making mischief in this way and purposefully trying to confuse and deceive voters in order to dissuade people from voting, it sort of stuck in my craw, the idea that someone would get up to that,” Mr. Maher told The Hill Times.

And so, in the midst of the spring election campaign which saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alberta.) Conservatives win an historic majority government, Mr. Maher said that call got the wheels turning on the story. Mr. Maher said he began collecting and analysing data, researching, interviewing and thinking. But he said even with all the files and transcripts he compiled during his solo months, he didn’t even get close to having something publishable.

Mr. Maher said convincing Mr. McGregor, 46, to join him was a key step.

Mr. McGregor had already been looking into harassing phone calls being made in the Conservative-coveted riding of long-time Liberal Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Quebec), and joined Mr. Maher’s investigation last fall, though the pair first discussed collaborating a short while after the election.

Working as a pair, the investigation took on a more systematic approach, said Mr. Maher, with each reporter playing to different strengths.

“It was an interesting combination because Steve’s a real source guy. He’s got tremendous sources, and I’m king of the data-geek, research guy. So we kind of offset nicely when we’re working on a story like this,” said Mr. McGregor.

By January, it became a full-time project.

“Over months we interviewed Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens, volunteers, people who work in the electoral robo-dial business, party organizers, activists, candidates, campaign managers. We used Access to Information requests, we created a spreadsheet of instances of this, looking for a pattern, and we developed, eventually, some confidential sources who were able to help us put the pieces together,” said Mr. Maher.

The pair compiled a massive spreadsheet to track ridings; essentially a large chart noting each riding, the players involved, and reported allegations among other information, also taking note of some ridings that seemed to be in the clear.

The sheer volume of research and the months that had passed since the election were their two biggest obstacles, Mr. McGregor said. “We had all this disparate information—different stories from different people and different campaigns across the country—and we had to find a common narrative, something that tied them together,” he said. “We had to kind of cut through to make sure people were really giving us the right information about what they remembered.”

Mr. McGregor said quite often, people will just tell you what they think you want to hear. To avoid this, Mr. McGregor said, the pair was careful not to ask any leading questions.

“We didn’t say to people, ‘Did you have calls pretending to be from Elections Canada telling people to go to the wrong polling stations?’” said Mr. McGregor. “We were very careful to say, ‘What did you experience in that election campaign? Was there anything notable that you thought maybe was unfair?’ and then that’s when we found this common narrative about the elections calls.”

In February, the pair was ready to file the story.

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Our original plan was to do this sort of pattern story, and we were concerned that it might end up having more questions than answers,” said Mr. Maher.

But then Mr. McGregor made a find.

“There was one particular moment when McGregor came around the corner here with a phone bill, where he had found a cellphone call at 11:08 a.m., on election day, from a telephone associated with the Guelph campaign team to Matt Meier in Edmonton at RackNine,” recounted Mr. Maher. “We knew that RackNine and Matt Meier were the subject of an Elections Canada investigation, but finding that link … was sort of the link that cemented the whole thing for us.

RackNine has said it was unaware its servers were being used for the fake calls and is cooperating with the investigation.

This discovery, Mr. Maher said, put their planned pattern story on the backburner. They knew what they had was newsworthy and significant, and so “[we] figured that we ought to get out what we knew.”

On February 23, the day their story was published,Prime Minister Harper was asked about it at a press conference in Iqaluit, and Jenni Byrne, Director of Political Operations for the Conservative Party and the national campaign manager in the last election, issued a statement denying the party’s involvement in making fraudulent calls to voters in the last election.

The level of attention that their story drew took the pair by surprise, Mr. Maher said. “I thought we had something significant, but it’s snowballed in a way that is beyond what I expected,” he told The Hill Times.

Since Mr. McGregor and Mr. Maher’s original story broke, news organizations have picked up the robocalls story, but as coverage grew, so did the number of ridings reporting phone incidents. Originally 18 ridings, by February 26, NDP MP Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre, Manitoba) said he knew of 34 ridings, while interim Liberal leader Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Ontario) said he knew of 27 Liberal ridings that had received calls. On February 28, media cited that 57 ridings had reported robocalls. The next day, that number jumped to 69 ridings.

Now, their story is being described by some observers as “Canada’s Watergate,” an overused reference in political scandal stories. Mr. McGregor said he disagrees with the comparison. “People have a tendency to compare any political scandal to Watergate, whether or not the comparison fits.”

And the two have also been compared to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two journalists who broke the U.S. Watergate scandal.

“So in the movie version, does Redford play McGregor and Hoffman play Maher?” asked Maclean’s columnist Scott Feschuk in a February 25 tweet, referencing the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, about Woodward and Bernstein uncovering Watergate.

While Mr. McGregor said the comparison is flattering, he also said, “It’s absurd, the only similarity is that we’re two white guys working on a story together about politics.”

Others are making other suggestions, and giving the dynamic duo nicknames of their own.

“When does Maher & McGregor become a buddy cop show on CBC?” asked Maclean’s writer Aaron Wheery in a February 23 tweet.

Ottawa Citizen now referring to robocall-story-breakers @Glen_McGregor and @StphnMaher internally as ‘McMaher,’” tweeted Mr. Coyne on February 27.

While Mr. McGregor jokingly told The Hill Times he personally prefers the nickname Maher-Gregor because, “as someone said, it sounds like a single malt scotch,” he said the congratulations on their journalism and support they’ve received from people and news organizations alike has been “very touching.”

“That’s one of the things I really like about the press gallery,” Mr. McGregor said. “Everybody appears competing with each other but there’s that kind of collegiality that’s quite nice.”

Indeed, it was in that collegial atmosphere of the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s Hot Room, a large office space for news agencies across the country on the third floor of Centre Block, that Mr. McGregor and Mr. Maher first met and teamed up.

Mr. McGregor first arrived on the Hill to write for the Ottawa Citizen in 1998. Mr. Maher arrived in 2003, but at the time was working as the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s Hill correspondent. A few years later, though still working for different companies, the pair collaborated for the first time, something Mr. McGregor said is “pretty rare.”

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Mr. Maher, for the Halifax Chronicle, had been analysing Nova Scotia ridings to track the government’s Economic Action Plan spending.

“We had a conversation saying it’d be cool to do it for the whole country,” said Mr. McGregor. “I had an idea on how we could take every project in the country—and at that point there were about 6,000 of them—and figure out pretty quickly which riding they were all in using some techniques called web-scraping and electronic mapping to assign every one of these projects to its correct riding without having to look up each one individually,” says Mr. McGregor.

Working for two different companies at the time, their collaboration had to be cleared first with their respective editors. Once approved, it resulted in an explosive story which earned the duo a Canadian Association of Journalists award for computer-assisted reporting in 2009, a first for both.

The robocalls story marks the third project “McMaher” has tackled—the second was a June 2010 story about a misuse of MP expenses—but the first time Mr. McGregor and Mr. Maher have collaborated while working for the same organization.

“Part of the reason I was excited about him coming to Postmedia was the possibility that we could work together formally on things,” Mr. McGregor said.

Mr. McGregor said he hopes to work with Mr. Maher on another project in the future, but at the moment, the pair said, they don’t have anything planned.

As to why they work so well together: “I think we have different but complimentary skills, but a similar sort of attitude; we want to get the story,” said Mr. Maher.

“It’s a weird situation where you know one plus one is greater than two. You’re able to develop ideas and approaches to a story that you wouldn’t do if you were just by yourself, through internal monologue. It really helps to kick things off another person,” said Mr. McGregor.


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