An anonymous email to the Toronto Star's newsroom led to several exclusive stories about the inner workings of Canada's Conservative party. Public editor Kathy English explains why the newspaper published this confidential information. 

 By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

There was a time, not so long ago, before the dawn of the Internet era, when the secret documents of politicians and public officials arrived in newsrooms in brown envelopes sent from anonymous sources.

Journalists have always been keen to receive those packages of confidential information (whatever the colour of the envelope), but well understood that the secrets revealed inside must be verified before they can be reported.

These days, secret documents not intended for the public light are more likely to come to newsrooms electronically, sent anonymously through email. As we’ve learned from Wikileaks, digital technology makes it easier for anyone to anonymously share confidential documents and harder for governments and politicians to control information leaks to the media and public.

In the click of a mouse, information never intended for public eyes can now be shared. But from the envelope era to the Internet era, what remains unchanged is the imperative that journalists do not publish such information until they can verify.

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This core journalistic principle was front of mind in the Star’s newsroom and Ottawa bureau after internal documents from Stephen Harper’s Conservative party showed up anonymously in a newsroom email box last week. The Star did not know the identity of the person who sent the email, which included a 70-page slide show presented to the Conservative party’s recent national council.

This embarrassing leak of party documents led to several exclusive and powerful page 1 news stories. These included a report that the Conservatives plan to target Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at his upcoming party convention with an orchestrated campaign focused on three words, “drive, disrupt, disunity,” as well as a fascinating story laying out details of the party’s 2015 election strategy and tactics, which includes leveraging the popularity of Harper’s wife.

As Ottawa reporter Susan Delacourt wrote last week, this was “a remarkable amount of information about the Conservative party’s political strategy.”

Not surprisingly, the Conservative party did not want its internal strategy memos to become front-page news. After all, this is a governing party known for its secrecy and silence. In 2012, the Canadian Association of Journalists gave Harper’s Conservative government its annual Code of Silence Award.

Indeed, party officials told the Star not to publish this information and said they were considering going to court to stop publication. They said the confidential information was stolen and demanded the Star give it back.

But just because Canada’s current ruling party doesn’t want the Star to publish its secrets, doesn’t mean the Star won’t publish—after doing its due diligence.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.