Friday, May 26, 2006

Fleshing the press

The unseemly delight with which right-wing bloggers are celebrating Harper's on-going attack on freedom of the press speaks volumes about their hidden agenda. Remember that? It's not so hidden any more: this is a command-and-control government, led by a man with clearly authoritarian tendencies, and cheered on by all those erstwhile champions of freedom and transparency who have revealed themselves to be something else entirely. Indeed, as an Italian friend of mine said today, Harper is more and more coming to resemble the strutting and paranoid Silvio Berlusconi. As for his followers, the barking of trained seals is almost deafening.

What Harper and his supporters fail to understand
, in the final analysis, is how journalism works. Jeffrey Simpson, not a man I tend to admire, writes a commonsense column in today's Globe & Mail that's worth a read. Journalists ask hard questions to get public figures on the record and to elicit information. Simpson points out that various Canadian prime ministers of both Conservative and Liberal persuasion have considered the press biased against them. They are in fact engaging in an attempt at deflection, one that won't stand up to scrutiny.

Here's an extract from Simpson's piece:

He should ask Paul Martin or John Turner. Or Jean Chrétien, whose government was rocked by endless media coverage of scandals, real or imagined. Did not Mr. Harper's party in opposition feast on that same media coverage month after month? Was it not The Globe and Mail that broke and pursued the sponsorship affair long before the Auditor-General sank her fangs into it?

Not to mention endorsing Harper for Prime Minister back in January! Four months is obviously an eternity in politics.

And here's Harper himself:

Unfortunately, the press gallery has taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government and they don't ask questions at my press conferences now.

The PM's view of journalists, from this extract, seems to be that they ought to behave like Conservative flaks. Penetrating, probing queries annoy those who like to operate in the shadows, uttering imperial pronouncements from time to time that it would be treason to question.

But journalism isn't about showing deference. It's about eliciting information. When a fiercely partisan Conservative was proposed to head up a new commission on public appointments, supposedly put in place to ensure non-partisanship, a parliamentary committee had the effrontery to challenge the choice. Mr. Gwyn Morgan was grilled about his publicly-expressed views on immigration, and was pretty well accused of being a bigot. When CTV's Jane Taber got him on-air, her first question was, "Are you a bigot?" The howls of outrage from the right half of the blogosphere were something to hear. Yet her question was simply good journalism. It offered Morgan the opportunity to rebut, and to enlarge on his views.

Taber was blasted for a recent interview with Rona Ambrose on Kyoto, too: in spite of her questions, some commenters smugly noted, Ambrose came out of the interview looking calm, cool and well-briefed. In
spite of her questions? More like because of them. Who allowed Ambrose to shine from coast to coast to coast? Why, the evil "MSM," that's who.

Let me pause for a moment, though, to engage in a little self-criticism. Once upon a time, when I held senior office in a large public service union, I dealt with the media, national and local, on a fairly frequent basis. At first I reacted to pointed questions as though we were having an on-air argument. It took some growing on my part to realize that I was being given an opportunity to get the message out, and to counter assumptions that many held about unions and our position on issues of the day. Nor did it matter if my questioners--many of whom were members of the Canadian Media Guild--were "really" antagonistic to unions or not. The questions themselves were a jumping-off point.

That's not, of course, how Harper sees it. He wants to pick and choose the journalists he will deign to respond to. He has muzzled his own caucus. If the Parliamentary Press Gallery resists becoming in effect his personal PR outfit, well, he just won't talk to them, then.

The peevish and petulant little man who heads our government is demonstrating frankly dangerous tendencies. When he doesn't get his way, he tends to lash out like a spoiled child. It's becoming clear what he and his blindly-partisan supporters want: unconditional obedience and shows of respect, a lot of kow-towing and curtseying, a tame media and a tame electorate.

I am, for some reason, put in mind of W.H. Auden's poem, "Epitaph on a Tyrant":

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

A reporter once took on another imperial-minded prime minister some time ago. Here is the partial exchange:

At what cost? How far would you go? To what extent?

Well, just watch me.

Just watch Stephen Harper. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

No comments: