MEDIA WATCH

Striking an imperfect balance

George Bain July 21 1986
MEDIA WATCH

Striking an imperfect balance

George Bain July 21 1986

Striking an imperfect balance

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

In a June 30 column in the Financial Times, Don McGillivray of Southam News called the House of Commons a Jekyll and Hyde. Mostly, he said, it was the “Mr. Hyde [or bad] side . . . that we see these days.” But there was another side, a side on which a lot of legislation had been introduced. He cited particularly a new competition law, which he had become skeptical of ever seeing, having watched for nearly 20 years failed attempts to pass such a bill. Also, away from the spotlight, MPs had worked diligently on committees. But, he went on, there was little reward in this Parliament for good work in committees or in substantive debates. The raucous daily Question Period was everything—a situation, he allowed, that might be “partly the fault of the media.”

The day before Claire Hoy, whose stock-in-trade is to be continually in a boiling rage, said in his column in The Toronto Sun: “Fact is, a lot of work was accomplished during the session. One hundred and twenty-six bills were introduced, and 89 received royal assent, 25 more than the previous session. The Commons tackled major issues such as free(r) trade, pornography, electoral reform, the sale of Crown corporations and reform of the Commons itself. But most of that got lost in the uproar over Mulroney’s personal style.” Here, Hoy reverted to his own personal style and raged against the Prime Minister’s spending on travels abroad.

Last Jan. 6, when Ray Hnatyshyn, then government House leader, now minister of justice, mildly complained on the CBC’s Sunday Report of too little attention to the government’s legislative record, host Peter Mansbridge replied: “You’re talking, Mr. Minister, about the agenda and how you want to get things up front. You did mention— and I think it is difficult for some of us to argue—that some of your legislation didn’t get a lot of coverage last fall while we were focusing on other things. But we in the news business focus on other things because other things are happening, especially in Ottawa, where there are scandals on Parliament Hill, ministers in trouble, all sorts of different things.”

Mansbridge’s “other things” included the collapse of the Canadian Commercial Bank, which the government ill-advisedly, or at least unsuc-

cessfully, tried to save, and, more notably, the foofaraw about rancid tuna that should not have got to market, a decision for which fisheries minister John Fraser resigned. Essentially, Mansbridge’s message was the same: yes, there was a constructive side to what was going on in Parliament that perhaps suffered from the focus on the side filled with tumult, but the government was to blame for allowing itself to get into difficulties that seduced the media from matters of greater substance. But even McGillivray, who accepted that the media might be partly at fault—“as the Tories claim”—for the preoccupation with the excitements of Question Period, scarcely dwelt on that side. From the passing reference to the media, he hastened to say that the cabinet was too publicity conscious and veered too much on policy, “trying to catch what it thinks are

If Parliament has two sides and one is allowed to dominate, can the media claim to be presenting a true picture?_

the varying winds of public opinion.” That, he said, had the ironic effect of making the government look worse than it otherwise would.

But accept that explanation and even buttress it with the present government’s faculty for making worse whatever troubles it gets into, and the media are not off the hook. If this Parliament has two sides—one earnest and productive, the other raucous and sensational—and the one is allowed to dominate, can the media claim to be presenting a true picture? Is it enough to argue in justification of neglect of what Parliament actually exists for—to transact public business—that “we in the news business focus on other things because other things are happening” or that “major issues” get lost “in the uproar over Mulroney’s personal style”? Does that mean that in the competition within news organizations for column inches or minutes of air time, entertainment values count most? And, if so, is the right of the public to be informed less where the subject matter is dry and difficult—difficult for the reporter to make instantly readable —than where it is titillating?

Mike Cassidy (NDP, Ottawa Centre), a former Ottawa bureau chief for the Financial Times, finds the Jekyll and Hyde reference apt. It is evident that he, as an MP, sees the place almost as two worlds: one, Question Period, where the MP looks for exposure, and the other, the Commons, the rest of the time, and particularly in its newly strengthened committees, where the serious work is done with little reflection outside. Cassidy does not decry Question Period, which provides a forum in which MPs can gang up to pressure government to think again—as in the case of the government’s subsequently withdrawn partial deindexing of old-age pensions. But he finds the balance of media attention between the two worlds to be out of whack.

One journalist who chortles at media references to a neglected other side is Douglas Fisher, Hoy’s scarcely close colleague at the Sun. Fisher, a former MP who maintains good contacts with MPs and with what the House of Commons and its committees are doing, has been making the point himself for some time and got for his pains accusations of being uncritically pro-Mulroney. He says three things: one, that the broadcast media and what he calls “the thinkers” in Toronto at The Globe and Mail, the Star and his own paper have made this Parliament the Parliament of the loudmouthed twit. Two, that some MPs, working hard and constructively, are left almost pleading for notice. And, three, from a recent survey of the printed record of several committees, that there is “some excellent [news] stuff there” that has been ignored.

Charles Lynch, now a freelancer since retiring from Southam News, sees things in a similar light. He says “the TV and radio brigade” now leads the way—do any print journalists still think newspapers set the agenda for news coverage?—and is totally absorbed by Question Period to the exclusion of the rest of the parliamentary process. Also, he finds that news stories in whatever medium “all have a spin on them,” a phenomenon he illustrates with a burlesqued intro: “The government that gave you tunagate, Robert Coates and Mulroney’s expense account now tries to bring you free trade with the United States . . . .” That is to say that the reporting itself has become highly political.

We, the media, must stamp out this creeping self-examination before word starts to get around that we’re fallible.