The best tool against Poilievre is what any slippery witness deserves: aggressive cross-examination

Like trial lawyers, reporters need to bring evidence and prepare for a counterpunch

The best tool against Poilievre is what any slippery witness deserves: aggressive cross-examination
Michael Spratt

In the world of law, John Henry Wigmore is a name every lawyer knows. Or, if we’re being honest, every lawyer pretends to know the guy inside out. So, who was this Wigmore character?

In 1904, our friend John Henry Wigmore, an American lawyer and a legal scholar extraordinaire, unleashed upon the world his most celebrated work, a massive treatise that he called, perhaps modestly, “Wigmore on Evidence.” It’s the Citizen Kane of legal literature. This hefty tome is the cornerstone of the legal world, a work so foundational it’s practically the DNA of the legal profession. It’s so significant that even in the past year, Canadian courts have cited this guy hundreds of times. It's not too shabby for an American whose last earthly legal argument was made over 80 years ago.

Wigmore once famously said, “Cross-examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” And while we’re not here to debate the truth of that statement, one thing we can all agree on is that it’s high time someone subjected Pierre Poilievre to some serious cross-examination.

Yes, we’re about to dissect the whole apple video debacle.

As Andrew Coyne astutely pointed out last week when he helpfully ripped some thoughts from my brain, Pierre Poilievre seems pretty pleased with himself for the video where he schooled an unsuspecting journalist.

Imagine this: Poilievre, casually munching on an apple, dishing out snarky responses, refusing to play nice, and bending the truth like a guy in hot pants swinging from a telephone wire.

Poilievre managed to bulldoze his way through this interview and turn it into a fundraising goldmine because, well, some basic rules of cross-examination were nowhere to be found.

So, let’s play teacher.

First, cross-examination 101: Preparation is everything.

That apple-munching reporter didn’t just stumble upon Poilievre in an orchard by accident. He knew he was about to spar with Canada’s slipperiest politician. Plus, he should’ve known that Poilievre’s relationship with the press is about as cozy as a porcupine’s embrace. This is the guy who once tore into a reporter for asking if he has a “responsibility to distance himself from anti-democratic movements” and labelled another journalist a “liberal heckler.”

If you’re stepping into the ring with Poilievre, you better be prepared for a full-blown brawl.

Next up, questions. Keep ‘em short and sweet, folks. No need for a Shakespearean soliloquy that gives room for deflection and equivocation.

Look at this little gem of an exchange:

Reporter: “In terms of your strategy, you’re clearly following a populist approach…”

Poilievre: “What do you mean by that?”

Reporter: “Well, it seems you’re appealing to people’s emotions…”

Poilievre: “Could you clarify?”

Reporter: “I mean, you often use strong ideological language…”

Poilievre: “Such as?”

Reporter: “Like left-wing and right-wing labels...”

Poilievre: “I don’t typically use those labels.”

Reporter: “Many Canadians believe you’re borrowing tactics from Donald Trump...”

Poilievre: “Who, specifically?”

Reporter: “Well, I’m sure many Canadians do...”

Poilievre: “Can you name some?”

Reporter: “I can’t provide specific names...”

No concrete question, no preparation for the counterpunch. Poilievre excels at using loaded language, but our journalist friend showed up empty-handed. In the legal world, you wouldn’t cross-examine a witness without having evidence to back up assertions of fact. But here, that fundamental principle was nowhere to be found. Of course, Poilievre has a history of using loaded language regarding the “left” and the “right” and, of course, has embraced Trump’s approach of challenging the media, emphasizing culture war issues, demonizing his opponents, and dabbling in conspiracy theories. When you interview Poilievre, just like when a prosecutor cross-examines an alleged criminal fraudster, show up with the receipts.

Now, let’s address the big question: Why even ask the question in the first place? What’s the significance of Poilievre adopting a populist stance?

Populism is divisive. It seeks power through the undermining of democratic institutions. And it leaves the door open for the authoritarian abuses of civil liberties.

A seasoned cross-examiner would start by making Poilievre agree that all this is terrible news. Even Poilievre can’t argue against undermining democracy or encouraging human rights abuses.

And then, hit him with a definition of populism: the use of simple policies and common language that pits ordinary people against gatekeeping elites and argues that politics should express the people's will.

And remember, a skilled cross-examiner is also a darn good listener. In the same breath that Poilievre denied being a populist, he trashed elites, presented himself as a down-to-earth hero, went all “jail, not bail” on us, accused his opponents of sending money to foreign dictators and terrorists, and even suggested that Beijing’s pulling the strings of our Prime Minister.

So, if you argue that Poilievre is a populist and populism is a wrecking ball for democracy, don’t expect him to serve up those admissions on a silver platter.

Lawyers live for those courtroom Matlock moments you see on TV, but they usually only come through hours of preparation. And an apple orchard isn’t exactly the stage for a legal thriller. But if you ask the right questions, you never know.

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