The six men wearing combat gear are posed beside a helicopter in Kuwait, weapons in hand and Christmas hats on their heads. In the centre is a person with a passing resemblance to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
The photo might've become no more than a curiosity – forwarded among political junkies or perhaps becoming part of a "separated at birth" feature – had it not been fed to Sun Media by a former senior Harper staffer as part of a supposed scoop.
The person in the photo was not, in turns out, Mr. Ignatieff. And now Sun Media president and chief executive Pierre Karl Peladeau has unleashed a blast of righteous indignation at how he says his company was played.
"Over 1500 years ago it was the Greek dramatist Aeschylus who said that in war truth is the first casualty," he wrote in a piece that appeared Wednesday. "This is about politics as war by other means, and a lie that might have claimed our company as a casualty."
Mr. Peladeau said that the low-resolution photo was part of a package of information given to Sun Media honcho Kory Teneycke, a former Harper spokesman, by Patrick Muttart, once deputy chief of staff in the Prime Minister's Office.
"He claimed to be in possession of a report prepared by a 'U.S. source', outlining the activities and whereabouts of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the weeks and months leading to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003," Mr. Peladeau wrote.
The bombshell allegation was that Mr. Ignatieff had a much greater role than he'd admitted in the planning for the Iraq war. And in fact had spent time on a U.S. base, where he was supposedly cozy enough with his hosts to pose wearing their uniform and holding one of their assault rifles.
But definitively identifying the person in the low-res image was impossible and, after what Mr. Peladeau characterized as "much pressure," a better image was coughed up. It revealed "without a doubt" that the man in the picture "could not be the Liberal leader."
The Conservative Party said in a statement the photo had been dug up through Internet research and they had admitted being unable to determine the identity of the person resembling Mr. Ignatieff.
"Sun Media informed us that it would conduct its own verification and due diligence," the party said in the statement. "Sun Media concluded that the identity could not be verified. The Sun made the right decision. "
The media mogul's public lambasting comes after days of swirling talk about Mr. Ignatieff's supposed role in the unpopular war. Last week Sun parliamentary scribe Brian Lilley wrote that the Liberal Leader, then a prominent scholar at Harvard, "was on the front lines of pre-invasion planning" because of his role on an academic advisory team that "helped U.S. state department and American military officials conduct strategy sessions."
On Wednesday, even as Mr. Peladeau blasted dealing in misinformation "when the future governance of country is on the line," he found a silver lining for his company's credibility.
"It is my belief that this planted information was intended to first and foremost seriously damage Michael Ignatieff's campaign but in the process to damage the integrity and credibility of Sun Media and, more pointedly, that of our new television operation, Sun News," he wrote.
"If any proof is needed to dispel the false yet still prevalent notion that Sun Media and the Sun News Network are the official organs of the Conservative Party of Canada, I offer this unfortunate episode as Exhibit A."