Columns

Do Canadians want to know?

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 9 1998
Columns

Do Canadians want to know?

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 9 1998

Do Canadians want to know?

Columns

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

When it comes to scandal, intrigue and wrong-doing in Ottawa, any journalist can identify obvious potential culprits. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien routinely violates established rules of grammar. Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, a rock ’n’ roll aficionado, is believed guilty of playing Hootie and the Blowfish on his stereo at unacceptably high decibel levels. Reform Leader Preston Manning, during visits to Quebec, systematically assaults the French language. All members of the Bloc Québécois commit verbal abuse of English Canada. The New Deihocratic Party has kidnapped the 1960s and holds them hostage in its political program. The Progressive Conservatives, who first reported all their ideas stolen by the Liberals, are now believed missing themselves.

In short, for better and worse, the history of political scandals reported by the Canadian media is small beer compared to that of the United States. That is mostly cause for satisfaction: the prospect of the Prime Minister or Manning engaging in an extramarital dalliance seems as unlikely as it is unappealing.

Ottawa’s dull air of probity allows Canadians to peer south at President Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual follies, secure (or perhaps wistful) in the knowledge that such things Could Never Happen Here.

In fact, there is no reason why they could not, although the volume of allegations against Clinton bears a typically American grandness of scale. But even before considering the possibility of similar scandal in Ottawa, two questions arise: do Canadians want to know salacious details about their political leaders—and, if so, would the media tell them? The answer to the first is maybe; to the second, probably not.

When it comes to controversies involving the personal lives of politicians, members of the parliamentary press gallery traditionally operate on two levels; there is the shortlist of scandals they publicly cover, and the much longer list of those that they privately speculate on. Sir Wilfrid Laurier had a mistress who bore him a child—but it was not until recent years that Laurier biographers mentioned that fact. William Lyon Mackenzie King’s fascination with prostitutes was not written about until the publication of his diaries long after his death.

In the 1970s, Canadians learned about Margaret Trudeau’s indiscretions only after they appeared in the American media; until then, Canadian journalists were aware, but silent. That restraint is the rule, not the exception; most journalists in Ottawa can, without breaking a sweat, recount rumors involving high-ranking cabinet members of every government of the past three decades. In the late 1970s, it was widely known that one member of the Progressive

In Ottawa, rumors of sexual follies are matters for private speculation more than for public consumption

Conservative caucus came home to find another member in bed with his wife. At least one member of a Liberal cabinet had a public affair while married. Both the Tories and the present Liberal administration have had cabinet ministers believed to have serious drinking problems. All such cases were virtually ignored.

There are a variety of reasons for that. Journalists can be reluctant to print information damaging to a confidential source. Reporters, MPs and their political aides often interact in the most personal ways—including times when one or both are married to others. And, although some politicians would be astonished by the idea, many journalists do not relish heaping embarrassment on them.

Another reason for silence is the explanation that the alleged ______ scandals are impossible to verify; often, however, this is because reporters only make halfhearted attempts at verification. Then, there is the notion that Canadians do not share Americans’ appetite for gossip and intrigue— and are, in fact, repelled by same. But journalist Stevie Cameron’s On the Take, a muckraking attack on Brian Mulroney and his government, has sold more than 250,000 copies. The satirical gossip magazine Frank sells a respectable average of 20,000 copies of each issue, despite the fact it spends next to nothing on promotion, is only available in a few cities, and carries content that even its publisher, Michael Bate, admits may be only half-true.

The strongest argument for keeping silent is this: private lives should remain so unless they affect the politician’s performance as a public figure. Someone who is, say, secretly homosexual should be allowed to stay in the closet—unless he or she publicly supports anti-gay actions and legislation. A politician with an alcohol problem is left alone until it appears that it is affecting his or her public performance. And a politician’s sexual affairs go unreported—unless he or she is vigorously espousing family values.

That is changing. In Washington, Newsweek—which had the original allegations against Clinton—delayed publication because of concerns about their veracity. But when details were released on the Internet in The Drudge Report—whose author had no additional means of determining if they were true—they immediately entered the public domain. Frank, in Canada, routinely does the same. One principle cited is “the public’s right to know.” The question is whether that should encompass things that are unproven, unsourced or untrue. Another justification is the age-old vow to “publish and be damned.” It sounds rather noble—except that the one most damned by gossip is almost never the publisher. Should journalists be expected to publicly declare all the speculation they make in private to one another? If so, the obvious answer is either to investigate a lot more—or to talk a lot less.