At the end of the classic movie Inherit the Wind, lawyer Spencer Tracy casts a skeptical look at the journalist played by Gene Kelly and remarks, “You never pushed a noun against a verb except to blow up something.” Even back then (1960) the media was seen as more interested in sensationalism than truth.
Politics in Canada isn’t so much like theatre or some kind of gladitorial contest; rather, the media has come to treat it as a kind of parody, which ironically it has become. It’s not real politics but a kind of diabolical stalemate of power. Observing this, Canadian media has resorted to reporting more on the shallowness of the current spectacle in Ottawa that on the price that is paid for such a naked pursuit of an absolute power in a minority context. While a number blame it on the twenty-four hour news cycle or the media’s attention to ratings, Oscar Wilde took to another interpretation: “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.” He might be proven correct. Pollsters inform us that the average Canadian spends, on average, eight seconds a day on politics.
Question Period these days is all about three things: avoiding any answers, labelling the opposition, and attempting to get key one-liners out into the media. For some of us, including some media types, this penchant for the immediate over the deeper story has played its own key role in the cycle of journalists chasing politicians and vice versa. The fact that all this has been occurring in an atmosphere where Parliament itself is rapidly losing its accountability through the sheer flagrant violation of historic governing procedure has been worrying. Politician and pundit alike share in the distraction. When Graham Greene observed that “media is a term that has come to mean bad journalism,” he was merely acknowledging a bias prevalent in society. Politician and pundit alike hover near the bottom of the lowest respected occupations for a reason.
Which makes the Bev Oda story so remarkable in its own way. I suspect it’s because the media itself dug deep enough to discover a remarkable tale. Perhaps it’s just me, but I get the sense that numerous Canadian journalists and pundits have been coming to grips with the reality that a larger story is developing beneath their endless round of coverage. It pertains to how we get information and it is quickly morphing into how we don’t get the accountability required to run a modern democracy. While many have grown upset at how the present government has stalled and overruled committees, turned every question into a slam, and kept the reasoning for important decisions locked somewhere in an ideological vault, the media often appeared more interested in the evasion than the accountability. The prorogation of Parliament last year changed all that, with much attention being paid to a government running by purposefully putting Parliament and its accountability process aside. But, overall, things then reverted to the normal.
The CIDA story about the altered document has captured media attention to the point of a fever pitch. The very fact a physical altered document materialized permitted pundits and media types to immediately leap from conjecture to fact, rousing their investigative instincts in the process. Of late, they are talking about hidden agendas and the avoidance of accountability. “This is just the way the PM operates,” they report, as before, but this time there is a smell of something of a more integral kind of journalism in it.
For the media itself, it buys and sells in information. Like politicians, it has wrestled to pry any kind of pertinent facts out of the present government and, like Parliament, has been stonewalled at every turn. Even press conferences are staged to the point never seen before – access, as well as talking points, are severely scripted. It seems to me that in recent days the media has grown concerned over what this means to open and accountable government, and, ultimately, what it means to their own institution. Without access to relevant information, media has been cycling endlessly around the panel shows, becoming like questioners in QP – asking but only getting frustrated and beaten up in return. When Jason Kenney remarked last week that the CBC are “liars,” he was categorizing the Conservative view of media itself. For journalists, than can never be good.
Troubling as it might sound, all these shenanigans have led me to an important conclusion: if a government is determined to keep its own dealings in hiding from the Parliamentary process itself, and opposition parties remain powerless to crack open the door of accountability, then only the media can alert the country to the danger to which we are descending. Put simply: if the media can’t get access and accountability, then democracy no longer has efficient oversight. The culture of secrecy and deceit is a threat to the media’s own estate and to the welfare of any open society. We require good journalism now for our very survival and it’s my sense the fourth estate is coming to grips with that reality. Time to push a few nouns.