Curious Case of “Mandela’s Lawyer” Illustrates Media Bias

The story is not about Irwin Cotler lying. It’s about the media embracing a biographical detail because they support the US empire and Zionism.

Seven years ago, the South African ambassador to Venezuela Pandit Thaninga Shope-Linney stated plainly that “Irwin Cotler was not Nelson Mandela’s lawyer.” Three years later Max Blumenthal pointed out that “in Nelson Mandela’s memoir, The Long March to Freedom, there is no mention of Irwin Cotler.” Recently Davide Mastracci demolished the claim that the establishment’s human rights darling was a lawyer for the long imprisoned African National Congress (ANC) leader.

On its surface Mastracci’s deep dive into a decades-old biographical anecdote of an 82-year-old former justice minister may appear almost petty. But it actually offers an important window into Canadian media.

According to Mastracci’s search of the Canadian Newsstream database, there were more than 320 results mentioning that Cotler was Mandela’s lawyer. As time has passed, the mentions have grown with 164 stories noting the biographical detail in the 2010s. “Cotler has gotten far more press coverage crediting him with representing Mandela than he ever did while he was supposedly doing the work,” notes Mastracci.

But there’s little evidence for the Mandela lawyer claim outside Cotler’s own somewhat vague statements. In effect, the media is regurgitating a biographical detail that enhances the credibility of someone who challenges the human rights violations of enemy states.

Not only was Cotler not Mandela’s lawyer, thousands of Canadians probably contributed more than him to the struggle against South African apartheid, which played out over three decades of Cotler’s adulthood. I asked Joanne Naiman, author of the 1984 Relations between Canada and South Africa and a leading anti-apartheid campaigner in Toronto about Cotler. Neither her nor her partner remembers interacting with Cotler. “Neil and I discussed this, and we certainly have no memory of Cotler being his lawyer, or, indeed, in any way involved in the anti-apartheid movement,” she emailed. Naiman, who was part of group aligned with the ‘terrorist’ ANC in the 1970s, reached out to Lynda Lemberg, another prominent activist in that struggle. She immediately labeled Cotler’s claim “total bullshit”.

Even according to Cotler’s own telling he was late to the South Africa struggle. In June 1964, NDP leader Tommy Douglas told the House of Commons: “Nelson Mandela and seven of his associates have been found guilty of contravening the apartheid laws … [I] ask the Prime Minister if he will make vigorous representation to the government of South Africa urging that they exercise clemency in this case”? (Lester Pearson rejected the request) Yet, when discussing his involvement Cotler cites events that took place in the early and mid 1980s.

Still, Cotler uses his purported role in the South Africa struggle to defend apartheid today. When members of the Quebec Movement for Peace interrupted his 2019 speech on “Canada as a Human Rights leader” Cotler responded by saying that as someone having “fought against a real apartheid regime, South Africa, it is demeaning to make a comparison [with Israel].”

The Mandela anecdote enables Cotler’s vicious anti-Palestinianism. It also enhances the credibility of an individual who aggressively criticizes “enemy” states while largely ignoring rights violations committed by Canada and the US. Cotler’s activism feeds a propaganda system in which the media considers victims ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ depending on the prerogatives of US and Canadian foreign policy. Because he concentrates on the victims of enemy states while largely ignoring those victimized by friendly governments the dominant media regurgitate sympathetic biographical details. Sometimes they even embellish the former minister’s embellishment as John Ivison did when he claimed Cotler “was instrumental” in Mandela’s release.

The media’s reaction to “Irwin Cotler and the Mandela Effect” has been telling. More than a month after Mastracci published his investigation, I couldn’t find any mention of it by other media.

On Twitter Ivison, who recently published “A tireless pursuer of justice, ex-minister Cotler takes on Putin” on the front of the National Post, complained, “You’re targeting Irwin Cotler in an ‘expose’? Give me a break. If there was an Olympics for good human beings, Irwin would pip the Pope for gold.” Apparently, Ivison doesn’t believe journalists should investigate the claims of powerful figures and instead stick to fawning puff pieces.

At the more liberal end of the dominant media, ‘misinformation’ expert Justin Ling tweeted that Mastracci failed to mention archival articles, which were either in fact mentioned or irrelevant. For his part, the head of media watchdog group CANADALAND, Jesse Brown, called the investigation “pretty thin”. But the 3,500 word story, which includes an interview with Cotler, is anything but “thin”. Brown’s reaction reflects his refusal to seriously address the anti-Palestinian bias in Canadian media or its most flagrant deference to the US Empire. Instead of simply dismissing his work as “thin”, Brown should build on Mastracci’s research by interviewing the many grassroots activists who led the South Africa campaign in Canada to ask if they remember working with Cotler.

Irrespective of his Mandela lawyer tale, it’s long been clear that Cotler is a “fraud”, as I told him during the opening screening of First to Stand: The Cases and Causes of Irwin Cotler in December. Cotler has supported NATO’s destruction of Libya, bloodstained dictator Paul Kagame, and the ouster of Venezuela’s government. A staunch Jewish supremacist, Cotler justifies Israeli colonialism and violence.

Cotler’s a darling of the political and media establishment. At the end of last year NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson met with Cotler twice over a two-week period tweeting, “this afternoon, Professor Irwin Cotler and I spoke about how we can work together to protect human rights in Canada and around the world. I am grateful to him for sharing his wisdom with me.” Previous NDP foreign critics Hélène Laverdière and Guy Caron, as well as Green Party leader Elizabeth May, participated in press conferences organized by Cotler and a number of them joined the Cotler-led Raoul Wallenberg All-Party Parliamentary Caucus for Human Rights. After we interrupted Cotler for about 10 minutes at Concordia University in 2019 Conservative MP David Sweet asked the House of Commons to condemn the disruption and celebrate Cotler (pro-Israel media claimed it was unanimous).

It will be interesting to follow coverage of Cotler’s biographical anecdote in the coming months. With significant recent media interest in politicians and public figures making up biographical details, will an intrepid reporter build on Mastracci’s research? Or will journalists continue to refer to Cotler as Mandela’s lawyer?

My bet is the latter. The ‘Cotler Mandela’s lawyer’ claim is likely to continue appearing since it serves a media sphere steeped in imperialism and Zionism.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.