The shame of the fourth estate

Andrew Potter on the grouches, cynics, and professional complainers who dissed the Liberal thinkers’ conference

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CORRECTION: In the body of this blog entry I wrote that Tasha Kheiriddin called the conference “pretentious”. My mistake — the word does not appear in her column. It does appear in the subhed of the Post’s unsigned editorial. That was sloppy of me, and I offer her my sincerest apologies.


Journalism – especially the opinion-writing precincts of the biz – tends to be populated by grouches, cynics, and professional complainers. I should know, I’m one of them. As the lowest grade of intellectuals, we spend most of our time criticizing other people’s views, which means we tend to get anxious or frightened or confused when surrounded by serious thinkers promoting smart, challenging, or simply sensible ideas. We react badly.

That explains why virtually the entire opinion-writing class in the country managed to embarrass itself over the past week, as it tried to confront the fact that Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party of Canada were staging a serious conference devoted to long-term strategic policy thinking about the future of Canada. In the days leading up to the show in Montreal last week, columnists desperately tried to one-up one another in predicting the exercise would be a disaster. And now that it is over, it’s the same business in the rearview mirror.

The most shameful venue is, naturally, the National Post, whose editorial pages since its inception have been Canada’s one-stop shop for snide anti-intellectualism. And so today’s edition features Tasha Kheiriddin  telling the Liberals “you’re not in Kingston anymore,” though she can’t seem to decide whether the problem is that they have bad ideas, they have good ideas but a bad leader, or a good leader with good ideas with bad timing. She probably thinks it is all three.

Meanwhile, Kelly McParland leads off by calling the conference an unsurprising failure. Canada has challenges? Tell us something we don’t know, says McParland. Instead of talking about the obvious, he thinks the Liberal party should be focused on confronting its own moral bankruptcy and self-delusion. Following that theme, the paper’s unsigned editorial criticizes the party’s “continued belief in one-size-fits-all solutions to social problems, and their off-putting self-assurance that they alone possess enough love for Canada to determine what is good for the country.”

These are the precise commentaries you would have written if you hadn’t been there, or, having been there, hadn’t really understood all the big words and ideas being bandied about.

Look, the Montreal conference wasn’t some big-brained idea-laden jamboree destined to go down as The Weekend that saved Liberalism and Canada and What’s the Difference Anyway.  Like every other conference of this sort I’ve ever been to, it had a mix of everything: Great speeches, challenging speeches and boring speeches, useful panels and useless panels, and – as always – a whole lot of boneheaded and self-serving commentary from the floor during the Q&A sessions. Liberals are also an obnoxious bunch at the best of times, and they didn’t do themselves any favours with the trained-seal routine, standing and clapping along on cue during Ignatieff’s closing address to what was billed as a non-partisan conference.

But only someone completely immune to the possibility that good ideas have the power to do good in the world could come away from Montreal convinced that the conference had been a waste of time and a political failure. Is it really a bad thing to bring together people like Martha Piper, David Dodge, Dominic Barton, Derek Burney, Linda Hasenfratz, Sujit Choudhry and Pierre Fortin to debate the future of the country? Is it delusional and pretentious to think that something good might come of that? Is that the kind of country we have become??

In Canada’s newsrooms, the answer is yes, yes, and yes. Which is as good an explanation as any for why not a single working journalist was asked to speak at the conference.