Media Watch

Are the kid gloves finally coming off?

A little more acid has begun to dribble into news coverage of the Chrétien Liberals, three years after their election

George Bain October 21 1996
Media Watch

Are the kid gloves finally coming off?

A little more acid has begun to dribble into news coverage of the Chrétien Liberals, three years after their election

George Bain October 21 1996

Are the kid gloves finally coming off?

A little more acid has begun to dribble into news coverage of the Chrétien Liberals, three years after their election

Media Watch

George Bain

The most pained responses to my book Gotcha! How the Media Distort the News, published in 1994, came not in formal book reviews-which is not to say there were none there-but in personal notes from journalists who were contemporaries in the parliamentary press gallery at different stages in the previous 40 years. The notes were just a few, but poignant, poignant.

It seems that in the writers’ eyes I had done a Roberto Alomar, if not in the face of authority, at least in the face of the rules of media etiquette. I had said the political journalism community in Ottawa had a prejudice, long-ingrained, against Conservatives in government, and that the Mulroney years had seen the most intense and unrelenting campaign of denigration any government had faced at least this side of the Second World War.

What I heard back, all stated more in terms of sympathy than of

rage, was that a generous-minded guy like me ought to know better than to say a lot of things I’d said, including that in 1993 we had a seven-party election and a one-party press.

Really, I was told, reporting from Ottawa was as free of bias in the Mulroney years as it ever had been, which as a single argument didn’t to my mind destroy my case, far less make theirs.

In that 1993 election campaign, reporters interrogating the Hon. Jean Chrétien were about as skeptical of anything he or the Liberal party manifesto, the Red Book, said as our Airedale would be in confronting a dish of sautéed liver. As a country, we went from that unnatural state of placidity during a campaign to an even more unnatural one—the longest political honeymoon in our national history, perhaps in any country’s, as reflected in the high standing of the Chrétien government in the polls even after three years.

But just lately something has been happen-

ing. A touch of the old stick-it-to-’em attitude has been showing up here and there in the news, although never so savagely or so insistently as in the Mulroney years.

Consider the recent resignations of the minister of national defence, David Collenette, and chief of the defence staff, Gen. Jean Boyle, within the span of a few days—to the remarkable convenience of Chrétien—with just one small glitch.

In the formal, spin-treated account of events, the minister resigned because he recognized a transgression against a clause in an unpublished code of ethics had been made in his behalf by an underling. Notwithstanding that he hadn’t done the thing himself, he felt honor-bound to resign.

But, as came out only a little later, the Prime Minister had received advance warning through the Privy Council Office that Collenette’s slip was about be made known through the release of documents pertaining to an unrelated application under the Access to Informa-

tion Act. The release at that point was delayed a few days.

A paragraph from a Globe and Mail story by Hugh Winsor, Susan Delacourt and Jeff Sallot tells the rest: “It meant that instead of being forced to react to bad news after the fact, the government could put the best possible light on it by portraying Mr. Collenette’s departure as a matter of principle.” That was the glitch; the secret manipulation wasn’t secret any more. Subsequently, almost as a reflex to the defence minister’s departure, Boyle also resigned, also on a matter of principle—so as not, he said, to have his part in the Somalia affair, within defence headquarters and in the subsequent inquiry, impose a burden on the new minister of defence.

Thus two embarrassments were removed without a spot left on the government, the PM, or the embarrassments themselves for their parts in the whole screwed-up Somalia issue. And the Prime Minister was relieved of having to listen to daily howls in the House

of Commons that he fire them, which he couldn’t do without giving a reason, which he shied away from.

Jean Chrétien in office has been highly sensitive to the old, old proposition that whatever sins, failures and mistakes may be charged against a government, the Prime Minister must be protected. He himself has dwelt too often on ministers in the Mulroney governments who left office for cause—cause mainly defined by the media—not to know a) that damage control is an essential of today’s politics, b) that the worst damage may be done at the top where the appointments are made, and c) that being able to impose the government’s spin on events depends on the media being willing to accept it.

Within a year of another election, the government remains cozy in that last respect, although a little more acid may have begun to dribble into the news mix than Chrétien would like—which obviously would be none.

But the change has been to a more skeptical sort of reporting than to an accusatory one.

For instance, more than he would like has been written and broadcast about his variable hard-line, soft-line, no-line policy towards Quebec; the wisdom of his asking the Supreme Court to say what the Quebec government may legally do or not do to bring about separation; the usefulness or idiocy of spending millions to give away flags to inspire a subsidized patriotism; the recreation of a national propaganda agency, which was done away with years ago precisely because it was a national propaganda agency; and dozens more matters of the same sort.

Still, no one writes about his every appointment as wicked patronage, or blames the CBC’s hard times with reduced government funding on a vindicative government deliberately trying to starve it to death. The PM could ask Brian Mulroney about that sort of reporting if Mulroney weren’t busy with a lawsuit.