Alberta's new United Conservative Party says it doesn't have any ties to Rebel Media, despite a report about a 2016 fundraising pitch that promoted one of the new party's leadership contenders and was distributed via the far-right website's mailing list.
The Rebel had reportedly sent out the fundraising pitch for the Wildrose party in 2016. At that time, the Wildrose, under Brian Jean's leadership, was the Official Opposition in the Alberta legislature. The pitch appears to have been delivered in an e-mail blast that targeted Premier Rachel Notley's incoming carbon tax, highlighted Jean's opposition, and asked people to sign a petition and donate $25 to help the party's "web team reach another 2,000 Albertans."
The new party — born this summer from uniting Jean's Wildrose and former federal Conservative minister Jason Kenney's Progressive Conservatives — declined to offer details about how and why the fundraising pitch was arranged.
The message urged its recipients to, "Help Brian Jean fight the carbon tax!" It described this as a sponsored announcement from the Wildrose party and appears to have been received by those on Rebel's list of subscribers. Alberta MLA Todd Loewen signed off at the bottom of the e-mail which came to light in 2016, following an online article posted by Progress Alberta, a left-leaning advocacy group.
Jean now running to lead UCP, but declined to comment
Jean is currently running to lead the United Conservative Party. Calls to his campaign team, to clarify the relationship between Wildrose and Rebel, were made Tuesday and Wednesday but were not returned before this story was published.
Loewen's Legislature office and the caucus spokesperson for the United Conservative Party also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
UCP spokeswoman Janice Harrington could not say whether Rebel ever had a copy of the Wildrose membership list, but said the Progressive Conservatives would not have shared their list, and the new party is still in the process of merging the two databases to create a new list.
"We have absolutely no affiliation with Rebel," Harrington said Monday. "I'm not familiar with how or what happened under the Wildrose ... I can tell you that the UCP has absolutely nothing to do with Rebel, we're not affiliated in anyway, we don't share anything."
On Tuesday, via e-mail, she added, "We will not be offering any further comment on this ... We are a new party moving forward."
Jean and Kenney are among the Alberta and national political leaders who moved to denounce or distance themselves from Rebel Media last week, following the website's controversial coverage of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. that turned deadly.
The Charlottesville coverage has been followed by more than a week of questions about how conservative political parties have engaged with Rebel in the past and how they will do so in the future. The ongoing developments, including high-profile departures from the website, have also prompted questions about Rebel Media's future as well as what it means when politicians say they won't engage with specific media organizations.
Rebel boss charts plan for change after "bumpy week"
A range of media outlets have recently unpacked Rebel's record, its rise, its "very bad week," and some of its ties. Progress Alberta has also launched a campaign called "#Isolatethehate," which records individual Alberta MLA responses to Rebel.
On Monday night, Rebel boss Ezra Levant responded to the week's news by dedicating a full episode of his program to what he described as a "piling on" of critics. He described the cancellation of a Rebel cruise, problems with employees, how Rebel came to be partially offline this week, and how, "Even so-called conservative politicians like Andrew Scheer are blacklisting us, too."
Levant appealed to his audience for support, and outlined future changes the website will be making, including bringing in more management, hiring a managing editor, bringing in new talent and journalists, and "transparency in crowdfunding."
"We really are in jeopardy, so I'm asking you to stand with the Rebel," Levant said. "If you want us to live, if you want us to keep going, please tell me, and tell my staff. ... There may be 30 screaming leftist journalists out there, but there are 30,000 quiet allies who are standing with us even after our bumpy week."
In a lengthy segment of his show addressing the gap that Rebel is trying to fill in the Canadian media landscape, Levant and his managing producer, Hannah Vanderkooy, discussed what a new managing editor would do.
“They would scrutinize every single script, every single pitch, (to) make sure that it’s not only got the right tone, but also the right facts. We try to double-check as much as we can, but as you say, you know, we’re wearing three different hats,” Vanderkooy said.
She did not immediately explain what the “right facts” means during the segment.
“We need one person that this is their only hat, this is their job, to keep everyone in line, and to make sure that we know they know when someone’s going to a protest, and they’re given a firm no.”
Last week, Levant released a video explaining why one of his reporters was let go following her coverage of Charlottesville. He noted he had told her “not to go in any capacity,” but her participation on a Daily Stormer podcast “was just too far.”
NationBuilder says Rebel remains a customer
The Los Angeles-based company NationBuilder hosts Rebel's website. As described in a blog post that has been removed from NationBuilder's site, the company built a "fully-functional NationBuilder site complete with a database and communication headquarters" and "developed a custom crowdfunding solution" for Rebel.
"The result: through compelling content and top-notch digital tools, The Rebel raised over $100,000 in less than twelve hours providing crucial early funding for its continuation," the blog post continues.
On Wednesday, NationBuilder issued an e-mail statement on behalf of Emily Schwartz, the company's vice-president of organizing. She confirmed Rebel remains a customer, and the removed blog post about raising funds, "was written by a third party who requested that we take it down, so we did."
"There are a lot of companies that make up the landscape of service providers: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Cloudflare, NationBuilder and many, many others. We take our responsibility and role in that ecosystem very seriously and will be speaking more on that in the very near future," Schwartz said.
A spokesman for NationBuilder, Dustin Lawrence, did not elaborate on NationBuilder's role when asked.
NationBuilder describes itself as nonpartisan. On its website, its mission is to, "build the infrastructure for a world of creators by helping leaders develop and organize thriving communities" and its vision as, "a world where everyone has the freedom and opportunity to create what they are meant to create."
On Tuesday, National Observer asked whether there is any point at which the federal government can or would intervene on a Canadian website's publication or online presence, and how Rebel Media fits into Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly's broader review of Canada's media system. Via e-mail, Joly's press secretary Pierre-Olivier Herbert replied, "Canadian Heritage does not intervene on the nature of content of private web sources."
Elsewhere on Western Canada's conservative political landscape
On Monday and Tuesday, National Observer contacted offices of other right-leaning parties across western Canada to find out more about working relationships with Rebel. An e-mailed question to Levant Tuesday about working relationships between Rebel and political parties — given the example of the Wildrose fundraising call — was not answered.
Rebel, in October, 2016, highlighted Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's "lonely fight" against a carbon tax in Canada, but also more recently "call[ed]" him out on taxes. Wall was interviewed on Rebel in the past, as well, but Saskatchewan Party spokesman Dale Richardson told National Observer that the retiring premier will not be doing so again.
In an e-mailed statement, Richardson wrote, "Throughout his decade in office, Premier Wall has consistently spoken out against racism and intolerance. In the days since Charlottesville, Premier Wall has tweeted his condemnation of the disgusting events that happened there. He will not be conducting media interviews with The Rebel in the future."
If one side includes Nazis and the other side does not..there is no moral equivalency.— Brad Wall (@PremierBradWall) August 16, 2017
Richardson also wrote, "The Saskatchewan Party has never been involved with the Rebel relating to our membership list or theirs, and would never share our party's membership list with any third party organization — the Rebel or otherwise.
"The Rebel has also never acted on behalf of the Saskatchewan Party by distributing communications materials or conducting fundraising activities.
Questions put to a caucus spokesperson for the BC Liberals went unanswered Tuesday, but via e-mail, party spokesman Emile Scheffel said the BC Liberals have never shared their membership lists, nor have they used Rebel to distribute messaging or to access members or contacts.
In Manitoba, Progressive Conservative party spokesman Blake Robert said Tuesday, "We have never had any kind of working relationship with the Rebel, we don't share the membership lists, we don't use Rebel to distribute e-mails, we do all of our own e-mail distribution here through the party for fundraising, that's all in-house stuff. We've never had any formal relationship at all with Rebel Media."
Premier Brian Pallister said through a spokesman on Tuesday that he had never done an interview with Rebel, "and we would not be interested in doing one."
Among Canadian provinces, Manitoba has seen the second-highest number of asylum seekers coming across the U.S.-Canada border, behind Quebec. Pallister asked Ottawa for more help dealing with the expected influx of people fleeing new immigration laws in the United States at the start of the year.
"The only time The Rebel has interacted with Manitoba that I’m aware of is when they sent a correspondent to Altona to make a nuisance of herself during an already stressful and emotional time when our government staff were dealing with an influx of asylum seekers crossing the border into Manitoba," said Chisholm Pothier, Pallister's director of communications, in an email.
"Pretty par for the course for The Rebel, but not at all a constructive intervention."
Journalists' association wary of politicians blacklisting media outlets
The Canadian Association of Journalists, a professional organization representing about 500 journalists from across the country, has previously found itself defending Rebel Media after previous attempts by government organizations to blacklist the far-right website.
But on Wednesday, the association issued a statement to "clarify its past advocacy on Rebel Media’s behalf — and its criticism of that organization, too."
Last year, the association urged the Alberta government to "reinstate Rebel's access to the legislature" in Edmonton, on the basis of three arguments, including, "No government gets to decide who can hold it to account."
In June 2017, the association also called on Rebel to allow a reporter from the news site Canadaland to attend an event.
The CAJ strongly believes in equal access for all media to cover events in the public interest. We’ve spoken out about this repeatedly. /1— CAJ (@caj) June 17, 2017
The journalists' association statement noted, "Rebel Media’s conduct at Charlottesville protests and accusations of impropriety leveled at the organization from former employees have both raised questions about Rebel’s legitimacy as a news outlet, and reignited a debate about what counts as journalism in a rapidly evolving media landscape."
In an interview with National Observer, association president Nick Taylor-Vaisey stopped short of weighing in on those questions of legitimacy, however.
"Because we're not disciplinary, we're not a regulatory body, we're not an enforcement agency of any sort, it's hard for us to take a position on whether or not something is journalism," Taylor-Vaisey said. "We're not a press council ... all we can do is reinforce the ethics guidelines that we produced a few years ago as a form of an answer to this kind of question."
In its statement, the organization flagged two specific guidelines in relation to Rebel: "We do not allow our own biases to impede fair and accurate reporting," and, "we carefully consider our political activities and community involvements—including those online—and refrain from taking part in demonstrations, signing petitions, doing public relations work, fundraising or making financial contributions if there is a chance we will be covering the campaign, activity or group involved."
Asked about the number of politicians who have said they will no longer speak to Rebel, Taylor-Vaisey said the journalists' association does not support blacklisting. But, he noted Rob Ford's long refusal to speak to the Toronto Star did not prevent that organization from reporting on the former Toronto mayor.
"We never like it when politicians blacklist media outlets, broadly speaking. ... It doesn't support a free press anytime a politician decides to issue a blanket ban on talking to a media outlet," Taylor-Vaisey said.
"That said, I'm sure Rebel Media will get by without talking to those politicians. And that's not a supportive statement of Rebel Media. My opinion is that, and the CAJ's opinion would be that, it's never positive when politicians decide to blacklist media outlets, but media outlets will always find ways to report stories about those politicians."