Internal tensions at Brunswick News exposed as trial into ex-editor's firing starts

A former top editor at Irving-owned Brunswick News acknowledged in court Monday that he didn't consider it appropriate for his colleague Al Hogan to try to alter government records of a controversial fishing trip.

John Wishart, who once reported to Hogan and later became his boss, acknowledged that the newspaper company had a perception problem in 2013 when it appeared that another colleague, Murray Guy, had accepted a free trip to Larry's Gulch. 

Wishart listened as a lawyer for the company read back to him an email in which he said he didn't think Guy, then the assistant managing editor, could separate his private trip to the lodge as a guest of NB Liquor from his senior role at the Moncton Times & Transcript.

Guy's name appeared on a guest list for the lodge obtained by one of the company's reporters through a right-to-information request.

Wishart wrote to Hogan at the time that he was "unable to divorce Murray the fisherman from Murray the news editor" and "the perception is bad" because it would put the company's coverage of NB Liquor and the government "under a cloud."

"You're emphasizing the perception," lawyer Catherine Lahey said as she cross-examined him. "That's the overriding issue isn't it Mr. Wishart?"

Get document changed

She also read an email in which Hogan told Guy, "Better get Darell to change it before it gets released," a reference to Darell Fowlie, a top adviser to then-Premier David Alward. Fowlie was later found in an independent report to have helped alter the document.

Wishart was called to testify in support of Hogan's case. But asked if it was acceptable to seek changes to the document, Wishart responded, "certainly changing the public record would not be on board."

Jacques Poitras/CBC

Hogan was fired from his position as managing editor of the Times & Transcript in 2015, following an internal investigation that was triggered when the podcast Canadaland asked about the fishing trip. Guy resigned as assistant managing editor at the time.

Hogan is alleging wrongful dismissal.

Hogan says in his statement of claim that he wasn't trying to have Guy's name removed, only the reference to where he worked, because Guy had permission to go to the lodge "provided he did so as a private citizen and not as a representative of Brunswick News or the Times & Transcript." 

A report into the case by then-Information Commissioner Anne Bertrand agreed that Guy asked Fowlie, the premier's adviser, "to have the name of the organization where he worked" removed from the list.

But in one 2013 email read in court Monday, Guy told Fowlie it "would be huge if could get name whacked so others don't see." 

The newspaper didn't publish a story on the 2013 guest list. Wishart testified that, as editor-in-chief of Brunswick News at the time, he believed Guy's assertion that the list was a mistake and he had turned down an invitation to the lodge.

He testified that he urged Hogan to make it clear that accepting any trips to Larry's Gulch in the future would be against the company's code of conduct, which bans accepting gifts. 

But in 2015, the podcast Canadaland began looking into the story, prompting new managers at Brunswick News to revisit the issue.

Investigation a 'sham'

Hogan says in his court filings the 2015 investigation was "a sham" and the company "intentionally manipulated" the findings to fire him to achieve "an underlying objective to concentrate editorial control over its publications in its corporate directors, including Irving."

Pierre Fournier/CBC

Hogan's lawyer Scott Ellsworth tried to paint that bigger picture through Wishart's testimony, getting him to describe increasing centralization of editorial decision-making at head office in Saint John beginning in 2009-2010.

Wishart testified that Jamie Irving, the Brunswick News vice-president, took part in daily discussions to approve the editorials appearing in all of the company's newspapers.

But Lahey repeatedly objected to Ellsworth raising those issues, arguing they were unrelated to the central issue of whether BNI was right to fire Hogan. 

"I do not see that that's remotely relevant," she said at one point.

"This is foolishness," she said during a discussion of the difference between news stories and editorials.

CBC

Lahey said the basic issue was that newspapers must be seen as trustworthy and Hogan's altering one of his own emails during the internal investigation showed he couldn't be trusted.

Not only had he removed some elements of the email, she said, Hogan also added information to the email as well. 

"He manipulated evidence," she said. "He altered evidence during the course of an investigation."

She added: "He was expected to lead by example. There was a heightened expectation of integrity and trustworthiness. … The plaintiff failed dramatically in the delivery of those expectations."

Hogan says in his filings that Guy lied to him in 2013 and said he hadn't been on the trip, so when he told the internal investigators that, he believed it was true. He "related to management what he believed to be true," Ellsworth said Monday.

He also pointed out that notes taken by the internal investigator during interviews with four key players in early 2015 have gone missing and aren't available to back up Hogan's version of events.

Lack of balance alleged

Ellsworth also tried to argue that Brunswick News has gone against its own code of conduct's commitment to fairness and balance by never publishing Hogan's side of the story.

The paper's ombudsperson published a series of columns in February 2015 giving the company's version of what happened, but the newspapers have never given Hogan a chance to recount his version, Ellsworth said.

"The narrative that was presented was not true and it was never corrected," he said.

Hogan is expected to testify as early as Tuesday and Ellsworth said Jamie Irving will be testifying later in the week.