MEDIA WATCH

The tricky pitfalls of name-calling

The trouble with muscular, hard-hitting, forthright journalism is that it may be the writer who winds up looking, ah, stupid

GEORGE BAIN May 21 1990
MEDIA WATCH

The tricky pitfalls of name-calling

The trouble with muscular, hard-hitting, forthright journalism is that it may be the writer who winds up looking, ah, stupid

GEORGE BAIN May 21 1990

The tricky pitfalls of name-calling

MEDIA WATCH

The trouble with muscular, hard-hitting, forthright journalism is that it may be the writer who winds up looking, ah, stupid

GEORGE BAIN

Allan Fotheringham in the April 30 issue of Maclean ’s was preoccupied with stupidity—“the galloping stupidity infecting those who are paid to lead,” “the stupid utterances being uttered,” a supposedly stupid utterance by Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan, which ranked “right up there with the previous recordholders of stupid utterances: Lucien Bouchard of Ottawa and Gil Rémillard of Quebec City” and, again, “the stupidities” of all three. Muscular journalism, that. Hard-hitting. Forthright.

The trouble with muscular, hard-hitting, forthright journalism that denounces political, or other, stupidity on the basis of information of which a writer has neither firsthand knowledge nor documentation is that it may be the writer himself who winds up looking, ah, stupid.

Did Premier John Buchanan of Nova Scotia actually say “the Atlantic provinces would have little choice but to join the United States if... Quebec were to leave Canada”? Having reviewed the applicable portion of the transcript of his interview with Alan Jeffers of the Halifax bureau of The Canadian Press, one thing of which I am sure is that the concept of a lack of choice did not originate with the premier. That was the reporter’s. The section begins with the premier’s saying, “Canadians will have to wake up and be aware of the serious consequences of what might happen here.” Jeffers asked if he had seen a column written by Pat Buchanan, a former White House aide, now a print and television commentator in Washington, who had said that, if Canada came apart, some of the parts might gravitate to the United States. The premier agreed that he might be right.

Therefore, if he didn’t originate the phrase, he endorsed it, no? Well, yes, but he postulated along with Quebec’s separating, which he called a big if, Western Canada’s perhaps proving susceptible to a southward lure. He cited the recent rise there of a thoroughly alienated Reform Party. Could the Atlantic provinces, he

asked, “form our own country?” Absurd. Stay on, “the rump of Canada,” isolated, dependent on Ontario? A possibility, but no more. Or be part of the United States? At that the reporter interjected, “It’s almost no choice, isn’t it?” The premier was undeniably quick to say, “No choice, that’s right.” But, again, the original proposition he was responding to was that, if Canada broke up, the United States might pick up the pieces, hardly a new or outrageous bit of constitutional what-iffmg.

It seems to me that the story was not made to look bigger than it was by deliberation on the part of the reporter, although more of the context might have given it better balance. Where the stupidity occurred was in the play given it—top of the news on The National on CBC TV, top of page 1 in the Toronto Globe and Mail (“Buchanan raises spectre of joining United States”), to which the stocky little fellow on the back page of Maclean’s added the unique insight that it was “like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre in the present fetid atmosphere.” Ye gods.

What also stirred his choler was the comment attributed to Rémillard, Quebec’s minister for intergovernmental affairs, that Canada

could survive without Newfoundland. Wowie According to Fotheringham, that was not jus stupid, but the stupidest comment of the yea before Buchanan’s. How so? Surely Rémillan was speaking no more than the truth and equally surely, all of us journalists are eternal) committed to the unfettered expression of the truth? Marjorie Nichols made the point recent ly in The Ottawa Citizen: the three anti-Meec! provinces (Newfoundland, New Brunswick anc Manitoba) together reap about one-third oi all equalization payments, $2.8 billion worth this fiscal year, and without ths big province of Quebec, “equalization will be history.”

On top of that, if it is unstupid of the premier of Newfoundland to treat the risk of bringing Quebec closer to separation as an acceptable part of the price of his having his way, why isht objectionably stupid of a Quebec minister to reply, in effect, “If it comes to them or us, which is the more expendable?”

And, then, there was Lucien Bouchard, “an otherwise intelligent man,” who “confesses that he is in the Ottawa cabinet to represent Quebec’s interests.” This, in the parliamentar J world according to Foth, “is indeed quaint, since there is this old-fashioned theory... that federal cabinet ministers . . . are there to represent Ottawa’s policies in Quebec—or Alberta, or wherever.” What is wrong with that is most of it.

First, Bouchard did not say (or “confess”) that he is in the cabinet to represent Quebec’s interests. Second, the old-fashioned theory referred to is rubbish. What Bouchard said (Hansard, p. 10441, April 10) was that he was elected as MP for Lac-Saint-Jean riding and had been “sent here with fellow federal membeis from Quebec to represent the interests of Quebec within the national government.” Any MP, from anywhere, would say very much the same.

The MP who becomes a minister represents government policies in his or her province— and everywhere else. But there is representation the other way round as well. Anyone who thought that Allan MacEachen, to pick one, did not also represent Nova Scotia’s interests in the Pearson and Trudeau cabinets was thoroughly out of touch. Now, John Crosbie is frequently, and correctly, referred to as Newfoundland's minister, as Donald MazankowsH is Alberta’s.

To say that Bouchard “confesses” to representing Quebec’s interests suggests one of two things—trashy innuendo, hinting at something improper, or an unawareness of elementary facts of Canadian politics. I am inclined by Fotheringham’s recent book to the second, or more generous, view. Anyone capable of misplacing C. D. Howe in the Pearson cabinet (Howe had been defeated, quit politics and died before there was a Pearson cabinet to be in) and of saying that Pearson’s first-ever speech in the House of Commons was as opposition leader in 1957 (Pearson had been elected nine years earlier and been a scarcely silent External Affairs minister) is entitled to indulgence on grounds of historical and political naïveté.