By Tom Hawthorn
February 27, 2008
Special to The Globe and Mail
The click-clicking of computer keys could be heard on the other end of the telephone line.
“I'm posting a Basi-Virk blog item as we speak. No rest for the wicked,” Bill Tieleman said. He paused. “Four years without rest.”
Sure enough, another 1,000-word item popped up on billtieleman.blogspot.com. Most of it was the draft Hansard text of a statement in the legislature in which several newspaper articles were cited, as well as Mr. Tieleman's blog.
In this case, one man's blog recording a politician's statement in which the blog is mentioned is not so much self-indulgence as the laying of another brick in a building whose final size is as yet unknown.
Mr. Tieleman has become a regular at court as he covers the case as a columnist for the free daily newspaper 24 Hours. After spending hundreds of hours listening to pretrial wrangling, Mr. Tieleman's dispatch this week for the online newsmagazine TheTyee.ca opened with a riff on the old Twilight Zone theme.
“Submitted for your approval: The strange case of David Basi, Bob Virk and Aneal Basi, three former B.C. Liberal government aides facing corruption charges related to the $1-billion privatization of B.C. Rail way back in 2003 — a case that has not — and may never — come to trial!”
Once again, the trial's starting date has been pushed back in a case in which the spectators in court are sometimes outnumbered by lawyers.
“It's a frustrating case to cover,” Mr. Tieleman said. “It's very complex. At times it moves at a glacial pace and other times it's an avalanche.”
Mr. Tieleman, 51, is one of the regulars. The other reporters frequently in attendance are Neal Hall of the Vancouver Sun, Camille Bains of The Canadian Press, and Mark Hume of this newspaper. Robin Mathews, a retired professor notorious for his long-running battles with the Canadian literary establishment, writes incendiary postings from the court for ViveleCanada.ca, which are reprinted at “The Legislature Raids” blog by a tireless champion of the case known by her online pseudonym of BC Mary. This week, Mr. Mathews suggests the Gordon Campbell government may be an illegitimate rogue state. He also called for the removal from the case of Madam Justice Elizabeth Bennett.
Mr. Mathews's cynicism about the judiciary is never far from the surface and BC Mary's conspiratorial musings about the motives of CanWest journalists are pointlessly distracting. Still, this is a case where even so sober a commentator as Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer warned the Premier earlier this month about avoiding “suspicions of cover-up.”
Mr. Tieleman has published online dispatches which, freed from the limitations of newsprint space or broadcast time, can run at length.
They also remain available for those select readers who become obsessed with a case also known as Railgate. They are a dedicated group of readers.
After sitting in court for hours, “I know people are waiting for me to file something,” Mr. Tieleman said. “I feel a fair bit of pressure from my blog readers to zoom down and meet deadline.”
He has been a columnist for nine years, including stints with the National Post and the Georgia Straight. Before that, he worked the morning shift at the Vancouver Sun back in the days when it cranked out three editions for afternoon sales. He remembers city editor Jack Brooks, a Fleet Street refugee, pointing at his wristwatch while barking, “Chop, chop, mate, where's the bloody story?!”
Mr. Tieleman knows a good story. He was born into one. His father, who fought in the Dutch resistance, was the navigator aboard the fabled RCMP schooner St. Roch on its final journey to Vancouver in 1954.
In between bouts of journalism, Mr. Tieleman worked as communications director for then-NDP-premier Glen Clark for six months and handled communications for the B.C. Federation of Labour for six years. He will mark the 10th anniversary of launching his West Star Communications consultancy later this year.
Mr. Tieleman was on holiday in Seattle in the last days of 2003 when his cellphone began ringing like a fire bell. The RCMP and Victoria police had raided offices at the legislature. A quick Google search of the principals involved brought up a Tieleman column from the Georgia Straight in which he described the connections between Paul Martin's federal Liberals and Mr. Campbell's provincial Liberals. Every reporter in the country wanted background for a story that, as we say in the business, has all the elements.
“It's got everything you'd want if you cover politics. Massive amounts of money. A billion-dollar privatization. Allegations of cover-ups reaching right into the premier's office. Missing notes, missing hard drives, secret witnesses. It has the potential to bring down a government.
“We just need to add some sex and it would be perfect.”
When the court debates lag, Mr. Tieleman allows himself to be amused by imagining what would certainly be a highlight of a trial – former finance minister Gary Collins in the witness box testifying about a meal with railway executives at the posh Villa del Lupo restaurant, during which he unknowingly was watched and photographed by RCMP investigators.
“That alone is worth waiting for,” he said.
In another bizarre twist to a story with no shortage of them, Mr. Tieleman went to work one day in December only to discover his office had been ransacked. Bookcases had been tipped over and papers strewn, but nothing was missing. To top it off, a press kit for the self-published novel The Raid, written by a retired military officer in Metchosin and featuring on its cover a photograph from the 2003 police raid, had been left in a conspicuous place.
That startled someone not given to conspiracy theories.
Another casualty of the never-ending case has been Mr. Tieleman's other blog in which he posts as the Wine Barbarian, an oenophile (which I believe is ancient Greek for wino) who helps discover “good, quaffable wine at reasonable prices.” The blog's philosophy can be summed up in a single paragraph in one of the only two entries he has had time to post: “Enough talk – let's have a drink!” That could serve as a motto for those die-hards following the strange case.
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