Cover

A Poisonous Atmosphere

The press and politicians are locked in a bitter embrace

David Mitchell August 30 1999
Cover

A Poisonous Atmosphere

The press and politicians are locked in a bitter embrace

David Mitchell August 30 1999

A Poisonous Atmosphere

Cover

Essay

The press and politicians are locked in a bitter embrace

David Mitchell

Consider the life cycle of a typical B.C. premier. Stage 1: election victory/personal triumph. Stage 2: political honeymoon. Stage 3: political scandals. Stage 4: more political scandals. Stage 5: calls for resignation. Stage 6: personal humiliation and resignation. Then, it begins again, with the next unfortunate politician struggling through the same predictable cycle.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, there once was a time when the relative stability of B.C. politics belied its reputation for volatility.

Think back, for instance, to the time of W.A.C. Bennett, who served as premier for two booming decades (19521972). Although Bennett had his fair share of controversy and lost more than one cabinet minister to ineptness—and one to a corruption charge—scandal never touched him personally. In recent years, however, Canadas most westerly province has actually lived up to the rhetorical excesses of its dwindling political class.

Consider: The last time a B.C. premier actually served a full term in office was 1979-1983, under Bill Bennett (WA.C. s son). With the resignation and replacement of Glen Clark, the province has now had five premiers in fewer than nine years—with only two elections. And while this may not surpass the turnover rate in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, it is unprecedented in 20th century Canada.

Why are British Columbians so hard on their leaders? Sure, we’re living in a cynical age when it’s all too fashionable to revile politics and politicians. But residents of Canadas Pacific province seem unusually eager to dismiss their leaders, even when the memory of electing them is embarrassingly fresh.

Many observers subscribe to the notion that British Columbia’s political misfortunes are the product of the calibre of the folk who are attracted to public office. After all, it is difficult to ignore the fact that politicians who are continually embroiled in controversy, conflicts or criminal investigations are their own worst enemies. But there is another, largely unexplored explanation. Most British Columbians,

including politicians, receive their news and information about public life through the media. And the B.C. news media, particularly those journalists who cover the provincial political beat, are among the most aggressive and bloodthirsty in the country.

In the post-Watergate world, political journalists are on constant alert for scandal. But in British Columbia, this tendency has been taken to extremes, with journalists assuming the role of grand inquisitors or attack dogs, often seeming to enter the partisan fray themselves. During former premier Mike Harcourt’s travails, a radio reporter took a complaint direcdy to the province’s conflict of interest commissioner rather than reporting on someone else’s initiative. In the Glen Clark case, lawyers representing the news media were fighting it out in court almost daily with lawyers for the premier over police information. The news media have now decisively emerged as the selfappointed but unofficial opposition in British Columbia—regardless of which political party is in power.

This has had a dramatic impact on political discourse in the province. Elected representatives cannot compete against the pervasive influence of media that drip with sarcasm and sneer at every announcement. More than elsewhere, B.C. politicians are subjected to ubiquitous media scrums; often, they seem like caged or cornered animals, with reporters shouting questions in rapid-fire. There is little, if any mutual respect in the relationship and little reporting about anything other than personality or conflict.

For months prior to Glen Clark’s resignation, the province’s major media outlets had his political obituary ready. Political reporting degenerated further into a protracted death watch, a morbid daily update on the prophesied demise of a premier. A gripping, if brutal, story to be sure; but is this actually journalism? Or could it be more accurately described as well-choreographed character assassination?

It matters not whether the name is Clark, Harcourt or Vander Zalm. If the news media in British Columbia believe their mission is to declare politicians folk heroes one day, only to tear them down the next, then the tyranny that is ingrained in West Coast democracy may be more insidious than the foibles of any single, temporary leader. Politicians can eventually be driven from office. The media, however, know no master. EE

David Mitchell is a political historian and a former independent member of the B. C. legislature. He is currently a vice-president of Simon Fraser University.