National Disgrace

Of the four principal figures in the scandal involving the conduct of Canadian troops in Somalia, one is dead, one is irreversibly brain-damaged, one is serving a five-year sentence at the Canadian Forces Service Prison and Detention Barracks in Edmonton, and one is doing all he can to keep the story alive.

This week, he got what he wanted, but more than he bargained for. On Sunday and Monday, the circumstances surrounding the death of a Somali teenager named Shidane Arone in March, 1993, made an explosive return to headlines.

It had been bad enough to learn in the first place that supposedly elite Canadian troops had beaten a 16-year-old to death. Then there were the revelations that white supremacists were among members of the unit that was responsible. In November, the media splashed full-colour snapshots of Mr. Arone just before he died – pictures so sickening they divided newsrooms across the country over whether to publish them, and triggered genuine public anger at those that did. (The Globe didn’t publish the photographs.) The news developments this week began with the airing of a leaked amateur videotape of the Canadian Airborne Regiment taken just two weeks before the murder in Belet Huen, Somalia. The two-hour tape, a memento of 2 Commando’s time in Africa, was widely dubbed and circulated among the enlisted men of the unit. Once in the hands of the TV networks, however, it was distilled to two minutes of highlights of Canadian soldiers making vulgar, racist and threatening remarks about the very people they were in Somalia to help. The news reports presented these images as evidence of an openly brutish culture.

It might have ended there – a brief burst of appalling footage, followed by promises of an inquiry by military authorities – but then the story got bigger and uglier. On Wednesday evening, first CFCF, the CTV affiliate in Montreal, then CTV National News aired portions of a second videotape, this one showing a hazing ritual within the same Airborne regiment, taken at CFB Petawawa, Ont., shortly before the troops shipped out to Somalia. If the first tape had been disturbing and offensive, the second was stomach-churning.

Troops were shown vomiting or being forced to eat the vomit of their fellows; being fed bread soaked in urine; being smeared with feces. The lone black soldier in the group was seen on all fours, being led around on a makeshift leash, “I love the KKK” written on his back in excrement. These were the images CTV producers felt they could air in good conscience, along with a suitably strenuous warning to viewers. Not shown was footage of soldiers defecating or simulating sodomy.

The man who set all this in motion when he released the first video to the media is Scott Raymond Taylor, the publisher of Esprit de Corps, a small Ottawa-based magazine subtitled “Canadian Military Then and Now.” More than anyone else, Mr. Taylor has been responsible for keeping alive the story of exactly what went on in the Canadian Forces camp at Belet Huen.

The leak of the videotape was intended to advance his case that Private Elvin Kyle Brown, the only soldier to receive a prison sentence over the torture and murder of Mr. Arone, has been made a scapegoat, and that insufficient attention has been paid to the possible culpability of senior officers. But as Mr. Taylor rudely discovered, when it comes to managing the media, things rarely go according to script. Esprit de Corps operates on a shoestring. Better than an amateur production, but by no means slickly professional, it caters to a readership of soldiers, former soldiers and military buffs. Its point of view is unabashedly that of the enlisted troops rather than the military brass. A typical issue contains historical articles and reminiscences, news briefs and an editorial broadside or two aimed at the bureaucrats in the Department of National Defence.

Mr. Taylor has used the magazine to conduct an old-fashioned press crusade on behalf of Pte. Brown. In Mr. Taylor’s view, the real villain in the Somalia scandal was Corporal Clayton Matchee, the man who beat Mr. Arone to death. Pte. Brown was merely a reluctant witness who told Cpl. Matchee to stop, but who could not halt the beating without precipitating a violent confrontation, something he was too frightened at the time to do. But it was Pte. Brown, Mr. Taylor points out, who the next day told his superiors what had happened and handed over photographic evidence.

When Cpl. Matchee attempted suicide after being arrested for the murder, rendering himself permanently brain-damaged and unfit to stand trial, Mr. Taylor believes the military made Pte. Brown the fall guy. He thinks too few questions have been asked about the leadership at Belet Huen. Mr. Taylor put Pte. Brown on the cover of Esprit de Corps in July under the headline “Scapegoat.” Toronto Sun editor emeritus Peter Worthington, who substantially agrees with Mr. Taylor and who himself wrote a cover story on Pte. Brown in the September issue of Saturday Night magazine, acknowledges Mr. Taylor’s help in getting members of the closed Airborne regiment to co-operate with him.

Mr. Taylor first became aware of the existence of the Somalia video in late November through Pte. Brown. Mr. Taylor learned that a number of Airborne troopers had had the tape, but had destroyed their copies out of fear of the reaction should it ever become public. A member of the regiment, whom Mr. Taylor refuses to name, leaked a copy to Esprit de Corps in the hope that it would help Pte. Brown’s case.

What Mr. Taylor saw when he watched the tape was familiar barracks-room bluster: coarse language, a callous cynicism toward the mission and racist posturing on the part of some of the men. But he also saw Pte. Brown visibly uncomfortable with the more Neanderthal bravado. He decided to take the tape public, hoping to garner headlines such as “Videotape exonerates Brown’s conduct.”

He chose to leak the tape to two outlets with which he’d had prior dealings: The Ottawa Sun, whose big weekend paper appears on Sunday, and a CBC Newsworld program, Ottawa: Inside Out, which is also broadcast on Sunday.

The program is taped in advance. Mr. Taylor was interviewed by host and producer Denise Rudnicki last Friday on condition that the release of the damning Somalia tape be embargoed until Sunday. Newsworld, however, knew that the Sun had a copy of the tape and would break the story first thing Sunday morning. The network was anxious to run with the story the instant the Sun hit the streets. Ottawa: Inside Out passed a copy of the tape to CBC correspondent Susan Harada so that she could begin working on her story on Friday.

On Saturday, Ms. Harada contacted Patrick McCann, Pte. Brown’s lawyer, for a comment about the videotape. This was the first Mr. McCann had heard of its release. He assumed the leaked copy was Pte. Brown’s and that Mr. Taylor was breaking a trust with his client. Unaware that only CBC and the Ottawa Sun had been handed copies, he fired off a letter to almost every major news outlet warning of copyright infringement if the tape were used. He later rescinded the injunction after he was satisfied that the copy released by Mr. Taylor had come from another source. But, meanwhile, his letter had tipped off the other media about the existence of a controversial tape. In effect, Mr. McCann unwittingly primed the story in advance.

At 6:20 a.m. on Sunday morning, Mr. Taylor’s home phone began to ring. It didn’t stop until 11 that night. “It was incredible,” he says. “I’d finish one interview and there would be two more calls waiting.” The only break came shortly before noon when he left the house to visit a friend to watch his pre-taped interview with Ms. Rudnicki on Newsworld. Mr. Taylor, the man in the media maelstrom, does not have cable TV.

By Monday evening, he’d given interviews to what seemed like every news outlet in the country, from The Toronto Star to CBC Charlottetown, from Maclean’s to TVOntario’s Studio 2. He’d appeared on four Newsworld programs. By the second day, the camera-shy Mr. Taylor was physically ill from the media overdose. “We’re rank amateurs at this,” he confesses. “I had no idea the way it was going to take off. None. . . . I felt we’d created this thing. It was our Frankenstein’s monster.”

What dismayed him more than anything was the media’s take on the story. One news outlet after another took the same approach as the Ottawa Sun‘s headline: “Videotape shows soldiers’ hatred.” Mr. Taylor felt the tape was being used to show that racism and thuggery were endemic in the Airborne, that the regiment was rotten to the core. “Is what we’re seeing (in these news reports) an accurate representation? No.”

In fact, he insists, the full tape shows a much more nuanced portrait of 2 Commando. There are elements of the tape, he says, that will shock polite civilian society but will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with military life. Certainly, there are bad apples among the unit – making that clear was part of his intention in leaking the tape – but there are also scenes of decent, ordinary men doing a thankless job.

By fixating on the racism and brutishness, Mr. Taylor says, the media have actually obscured the larger point. In Ms. Harada’s original story for CBC-TV, Pte. Brown is mentioned in a single reference: “In the background, a silent Pte. Kyle Brown, now serving a five-year term for Arone’s death.” None of the reports explored Mr. Taylor’s charge that the tape shows something seriously amiss with the command of the regiment.

And by focusing on the fact that there are racist goons within the unit, he says the media merely reveal their own amnesia. Racism in the regiment was an issue almost two years ago, most prominently when a photograph came to light of Cpl. Matt McKay making a Nazi salute. What the media latched onto this week, Mr. Taylor says, is yesterday’s news.

On the other hand, presented with such inflammatory material, the media could hardly do other than play up the evidence of disturbing attitudes and behaviour on the part of Canadian troops. As was the case of the photographs of Mr. Arone’s beating that were released in November, it is one thing to hear the incident described. It is quite another to be confronted with documentary evidence of it. And Mr. Taylor is, by his own admission, terribly naive about the priorities and imperatives of the major media.

If he had not made the video public, it is highly unlikely the second tape – showing the brutal hazing ritual of 1 Commando – would have come to light, at least not now. And the content of the second tape is such that it can only focus even greater attention on the culture of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, at the expense of the cause Mr. Taylor wishes to promote.

The irony is that the coverage unleashed by him has swept him up in its flow. He had nothing directly to do with the leak of the second tape, but its images were so repellent that CTV could not screen them unedited. The network therefore needed someone to watch the tape in its entirety, and to comment on it.

Mr. Taylor became a mirror for CTV to bounce its coverage off. Viewers watched not only selected segments of the tape, but his reaction to it. He became the suture between Sunday’s headlines and the new developments that broke Wednesday. The man who made it all happen, the man who decried the media spin, had been reduced to a surrogate

Globe and Mail January 21, 1995