On March 16, 1976, ambassador Robert Hill sent a curious telegram from Buenos Aires to his superiors in Washington D.C. It detailed a conversation he had with the Commander in Chief of the Argentine Navy.
“He admitted that [the] military were inexperienced in terms of public relations problems in Argentina, much less in the U.S., and he asked if I could indicate to him one or two reputable public relations firms in the U.S. which might handle the problem for a future military government,” Hill wrote in his message.
Barely a week later, the Argentine military staged a coup. In the years that followed, the junta that came to power as dictators waged an internal campaign against academics, students, political opponents and anyone else who opposed the oppressive ruling regime.
It was known as the Dirty War.
Throughout this conflict, which amounted to a fight between those who had stolen power and those trying to hold them accountable, some 30,000 people disappeared. They were presumed dead.
One of the military leadership’s first moves was to contract a Madison Avenue public relations firm, Burson Marsteller (now Burson Cohn & Wolfe) to manage its international image. The company placed advertisements for Argentina in influential American publications and pitched good news stories to journalists. Its work portrayed a positive image of Argentina, while its military dictators ran their brutal campaign to crackdown on mounting dissent.
The Argentine military was not unique in its approach. Burson Marsteller has represented a range of foreign governments — Indonesia (following the East Timor massacre in 1992), Turkey (in 2017) and Romania (during the Cold War) — and other high-powered public relations firms have done the same. Ketchum, for example, works closely with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
One tactic Burson Marsteller used to help Argentina is simple and remains almost as effective today as it did in 1976: Control the narrative with a stream of positive articles and advertisements, drowning out negative coverage.
Burson Marsteller used the volume of alternative content, in particular, to influence public perception. In several instances, they designed advertisements to look like articles, lodging them in the subconscious of less attentive readers.
The dawn of the internet has revolutionized how companies do this work, but it has not changed the basic strategy. Burson Marsteller bought out pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal to promote Argentina’s agriculture and economy while distracting from its Dirty War.
Now, companies can set up websites or hire public relations staff to flood media outlets with search-friendly press releases.
Social media has added fuel to the fire. It has offered politicians and their parties a direct way to communicate with voters, cutting out critical media, controlling the filtering of information to the public while shaping the narrative to suit an agenda. There is perhaps no better example of this than former U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter during his time in the White House.
The rise of direct internet communications has coincided with a decline in the news media industry. In 1998 there were 1.9 communications employees for every working journalist in America; by 2019, this number had exploded to 6.4, according to U.S. Census data.
“Want to be the source of the story? Make it easy,” Bernstein Crisis Management, based in Los Angeles County, writes in a post on its website. “Have an online newsroom, not tucked away behind some teeny-tiny link at the bottom of your site, but in a highly visible location somewhere up top. Fill it with the latest information on your organization and the current crisis, so that media or stakeholders looking for the latest info ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ are actually able to find it at any time of day, from anywhere in the world.”
As corruption allegations rocked City Hall through the spring and summer, this tactic has been embraced by Brampton’s director of communications, Jason Tamming. The City’s communication department, which increasingly presents itself as a news source and pitches directly to news organizations, has stickhandled a controversial and limited third-party investigation into bombshell allegations in order to reduce scrutiny and smooth the narrative.
Who is Tamming working for?
The taxpayers of Brampton.
Or his former Niagara Conservative counterpart David Barrick, Brampton’s CAO and the focus of the disturbing corruption allegations.
Both were hired by Mayor Patrick Brown, despite their involvement in the corrupt “Inside Job” hiring of Niagara’s former CAO. That was the title of the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation into the scandal. Tamming’s fraudulent behaviour—he secretly provided the candidate preferred by him and Barrick with the questions and answers ahead of the interview process—resulted in his firing.
Barrick was also fired from his role with the local conservation authority.
Brown, who was connected to both through his PC Party circles, scooped them up, and Barrick now runs the entire City Hall administration while Tamming controls all the messaging.
Content produced by the City of Brampton’s media department takes centre stage on its taxpayer-funded website. In the middle of the Brampton homepage, a short title reads: “News”. The page the heading links to is largely filled with media releases written by City staff, alongside some “featured stories”, all of which push the City’s interpretation and priorities to the public, without the watchful eye of an independent party.
The staff who write these releases are well compensated. Tamming earned $171,071.99 in 2020, alongside a taxable benefit worth $11,461.90 (possibly for a taxpayer-funded vehicle) and Natalie Stogdill, manager of media and engagement, took home $109,292.29. A job posting for a “specialist, communications” at the City over the summer came with a starting salary of just over $67,000 per year.
“Provide assistance with planning, strategy preparation, implementation and measurement of communication programs,” one of the job requirements explains.
Alarming allegations of gross misconduct at the City of Brampton were levelled by Gurdeep (Nikki) Kaur in a widely distributed April email that centred on Barrick. In a lengthy and detailed message, Kaur alleged corruption, delinquent hiring and questionable procurement, concerns that were eventually forwarded to a third-party investigator, Deloitte, to complete an investigation.
The process leading up to the investigation was mired in secrecy. The public was locked out of meetings, including the closed-door session where it was decided Deloitte would conduct the audit. It was later learned that Peter MacKay, who is mentioned in the emailed set of allegations, for allegedly benefitting from Brown’s alleged use of City resources, including staff, to help MacKay’s federal Conservative leadership bid last year, had been hired by Deloitte months before it was chosen for the investigation. It’s unclear why the firm did not declare a conflict and refuse the job. It remains unclear why it was chosen in the first place.
The investigation report’s eventual release was rushed, leaving no time for the public to read it or request action from members of council.
The report found Barrick had not broken the City’s internal rules — which it said he was updating “contemporaneously with alleged activity” — technically, because he simply changed them as he went along. For example, the report detailed how senior staff responsible for “managing critical city infrastructure” were being hired without any required engineering experience. Barrick removed the requirement for an engineering degree at the last minute, despite the director roles being primarily engineering positions. The commissioner responsible for the department refused to sign-off and he was eventually fired.
The majority of councillors, allied with Brown, took the review’s finding that the majority of allegations were not substantiated during the investigation, which was cut short because Deloitte failed to meet the deadline, despite two extensions, at its word and moved on.
The City’s communications department enthusiastically did the same.
It is not the first time allegations of disturbing behaviour have been levelled against Barrick. In his previous role in Niagara Region, where he worked for the local conservation authority, he was accused of widespread mismanagement, abuse of public funds, and the Ontario Auditor General even reported his hiring there was improper.
He has left a disgraceful trail wherever he’s worked in the public sector.
Three of Brampton’s current senior staff, including Barrick and Tamming, were found to have been involved in the corrupt Niagara hiring scandal. The Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation revealed shocking misconduct. The questions and answers provided by Tamming to the preferred candidate, Carmen D’Angelo (Barrick’s conservation authority boss at the time) were not given to any other CAO candidate. Tamming misled the Ombudsman, telling investigators who probed the matter that D’Angelo may have called to talk about the interview questions. The investigators found the document sent by Tamming to D’Angelo with the questions and answers, which Tamming had specially crafted for D’Angelo, tailoring them to his specific experience with the conservation authority.
Tamming, who is paid by Brampton taxpayers, is now responsible for crafting communication to them.
As the allegations against Barrick have surfaced during his time in Brampton, Tamming has managed a communications department that has protected the City’s top bureaucrat and not the taxpayer. Tamming used the City’s well-funded department to pump out half-truths about the Deloitte report and push the public away from legitimate concerns about transparency inside City Hall.
A media release sent by his team on September 29, the day the Deloitte report was received by council (even though the firm’s investigators refused to show up to the meeting and answer questions) epitomized Tamming’s deceptive tactics to dupe the taxpayers he is supposed to be working for. His team sent its release to journalists and shared it online.
It described the work by Deloitte as “comprehensive”. Deloitte admitted in the report itself that it didn’t even finish its investigation. Some interviews were not conducted and, remarkably, the principal accuser, Nikki Kaur, didn’t even get her final meeting with the investigators to present key evidence, which was not even mentioned in the report, including damning information against Barrick and Brown that she had initially shared with The Pointer. It showed Barrick directing Kaur in saved WhatsApp messages to contact a close associate of Brown for a lucrative City contract. The evidence also clearly proves the mayor directed the use of senior City staff who don’t even work for him to campaign during weekday working hours for MacKay last year.
In an an even more egregious abuse of authority, Tamming’s press release meant for the public he is employed by, included the following:
“These conclusions are further supported by previous reviews of this matter by the Ontario Ombudsman and the Peel Regional Police.”
The claim about the Ombudsman is demonstrably false. A spokesperson for the Ombudsman’s office told The Pointer the watchdog has not had any involvement with the City of Brampton for any investigation since 2017, a year before Brown was elected and two years before Barrick was hired.
Peel Regional Police, meanwhile, has issued no findings into the allegations brought forward by Kaur and it doesn’t appear the force ever launched an investigation into the matter, contrary to the claim by Tamming’s team.
Despite its tenuous relationship with the truth, Brampton’s push to control the narrative worked. The Pointer identified at least four media stories, including one in The Toronto Sun, that replicated the false claim that Ontario’s Ombudsman had already found the allegations to be unsubstantiated.
Brampton did not respond to questions about the press release.
Tamming might view his misinformation campaign as a success, call it “alternative facts”, to borrow the term used by former Donald Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway.
The decision by Tamming to ignore questions about the investigation follows a pattern inside City Hall: questions about other City issues are received and dealt with, while those regarding CAO Barrick are mysteriously ignored.
Tamming himself has communicated with The Pointer about the Deloitte report twice in recent months, but only after stories have been published and he complained about details he chose to ignore when failing to provide responses prior to publication. He has continuously ignored questions sent before publication and disregarded follow-up requests for information. But has requested amendments to stories after publication, on issues he refused to address and clarify beforehand.
His misleading September press release concluded with a convenient line: “Questions about the report contents should be directed to Deloitte.”
The firm told The Pointer its “policies and the rules of professional conduct prohibit us from discussing any matters relating to our clients.”
It’s a circular game Tamming, Barrick, Brown and Deloitte are playing. Anyone who asks the three men about the report’s gaps and shortcomings is told to take it up with the firm they chose. Deloitte, of course, claims its relationship with the City prevents it from responding.
So the taxpayers who paid for a comprehensive investigation, never got what they were promised. And they have no way to get any answers.
It’s as if Brampton residents have been sucked back in time, to the late ‘70s, when military dictators took over Argentina, and a New York PR firm spun the truth into a dirty war.
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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer