October 16, 2010 2:13 pm

Airport activist posed as journalist


On Oct. 7, a freelance reporter from Seattle wrote about a scandal at the centre of the Edmonton municipal election.

It turns out the Seattle journalist, Darren Holmes, was as fake as the scandal he claimed to have uncovered: that Mayor Stephen Mandel was fighting to shut down the City Centre Airport so his friends in the development industry would profit from a massive redevelopment.

His blog, Darrensbigscoop, was posted on Oct. 7. A now-shuttered Twitter account, also in the name of Darrensbigscoop, linked to the blog on a page devoted to the Edmonton municipal election.

Soon the blog posting, "Developers on Final Approach for Downtown Airport Land," went viral. People all over the city were sharing the blog, curiously illustrated with a winter scene from the Aspen Parkland, and some no doubt believed the journalist’s claims.

Darren Holmes is actually Nathan Black, manager of the Envision Edmonton petition drive this summer to force a plebiscite on the airport issue, and currently a volunteer with the David Dorward mayoral campaign.

"I was just doing it for my personal knowledge," Black said in an interview Friday. "I did it because what I was hearing about Yes (for) Edmonton just didn’t seem correct or believable. I’m passionate about the airport."

Black admitted he registered a Seattle phone number on Sept. 15, with MagicJack, a product that allows users to choose from a number of U.S. area codes.

The two people he interviewed, councillor Amarjeet Sohi and Yes for Edmonton organizer Sid Hanson, claimed Black identified himself as a Seattle Times reporter. Black said he called himself a Seattle Hill Times reporter.

"It was a prank. It got out of control."

When I spoke to Black, he related the content of Darrensbigscoop with accuracy. He admitted to the interviews and the alter ego.

"But I didn’t write the blog." I expressed surprise, given the historical relationship between interviews, print journalism — even fake print journalism — and the writing of it. I asked him who wrote it.

"A lot of people knew about the interviews. My mistake was telling so many people, in detail, about my conversation with Hanson. But you know what: I thought it was important."

In the blog posting, Holmes referred to a tense conversation with Hanson, in which Hanson admitted Mandel was "a driving force in creating Yes for Edmonton."

Hanson remembers the conversation differently, admitting he said yes to something else — that they were inspired by Mandel’s vision of the city. He told me, on Tuesday, that Mayor Mandel had "zero involvement with Yes for Edmonton."

Darrensbigscoop was created on software called WordPress. It’s not difficult to build a fake identity and pose as someone else, on this or other blogging and social media tools. It’s relatively easy to find phone records and compare voice recordings, but an anonymous blog written on a public computer is, at the moment, nearly impossible to trace.

At a time when more and more people are becoming disillusioned with the political process, seeing scandal and greed where they ought to see sacrifice, hard work and sincerity, "pranks" and whisper campaigns like these are heartbreaking.

As the Internet transitions into an instrument for political and social activism, and citizen journalism, every Darren Holmes diminishes its progress.

Black is involved in other conservative political organizations in the city, as a campaigner and a strategist. His past belongs in a thriller; in the 1980s, under another name, he was a "mole" in a CSIS operation. He rose to senior positions in the white supremacy movement and ultimately exposed several leaders. His story forms a chapter of Canadian Security Intelligence Service by Peter Boer, an editor at the St. Albert Gazette. He volunteers the majority of his free time to politics.

"All my life I did what I did because I believed it was the right thing to do at the time," Black said.

The Darren Holmes adventure has not turned out right for anyone, certainly not for Black.

Mayor Mandel, whose lawyers had been considering legal action, seemed baffled.

"I understand passion and ambition in politics but I don’t understand this," he said. "I have always viewed politics to be about doing the best we can."

It’s turned out even worse for the Dorward campaign. His spokesman, David MacLean, was devastated by the news.

"It’s really disappointing.

"It’s disappointing because our candidate is a guy with integrity. This isn’t the way he wants to do this."

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