BTC: Optimism alert

From the Globe’s Adam Radwanski.

“As it sinks in that minority parliaments are more than just a blip on the radar, Canadians may start looking for someone to navigate them with some semblance of magnanimity and a willingness to engage those with different perspectives. Mr. Dion — a poor communicator lacking in charisma — was clearly not the one to sell a new way of doing politics. But a more gifted politician may just find an audience.”

In this regard, that Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have apparently negotiated some sort of non-aggression pact is probably to be applauded. Of course, that two competing politicians would now have to negotiate such an agreement and that it would then be applauded as rare cause for hope is altogether depressing. 

But let’s say Adam, among others, is right and there’s a burgeoning desire among the population at large for something better than what we have. And let’s assume that, while it took the most disastrous presidency in half a century to get America to demand change and we seem to be approximately four years behind them at this point (our election just past was, in all sorts of ways, a re-running of the U.S. election in 2004), we can get there without something vaguely cataclysmic. 

Is that even remotely possible without at least a minor revolution in the way we (in the occupational sense) cover politics in this country? Or, put another way, wouldn’t that change be a lot more likely if we went ahead and dramatically overhauled the way we cover politics in this country?

For instance. On election night, Rick Mercer used his rant to propose more cameras in the House of Commons, with the explicit purpose of showing the heckling and cross-talk that is not currently aired. This will almost certainly never happen because no party, least of all the one presently governing, can claim to be without members it would prefer to remain unseen. But what Mercer’s plea generally spoke to was a desire for members to be held accountable for their words and actions while participating in the business of government—that we need more coverage of stuff like Question Period, not less.

The conventional gallery wisdom has it that QP is such pointless theatre, beneath serious journalism and unworthy of your attention. Of course, knowing they can say just about anything without wide notice only encourages our more enthusiastic politicians to work out their repressed emotional issues in public. Which only discourages serious coverage. Which ultimately manifests itself in an annual mope about the state of decorum in the House and not much of anything being furthered, aside from John Baird’s vocal range.

(It’s a basic system of reward and punishment. And if there’s no punishment for acting like an ass, and no reward for not acting like an ass, there’s no motivation to pursue anything but your basest instincts. In general, you see, it’s best to imagine the House of Commons as a class of kindergartners.)

Coincidentally, serious journalism has never been less serious. Imagine, for a second, how much happier a world we’d live in if the networks all agreed here and now to never again televise a panel consisting of party “strategists”*. Or if we generally stopped trying to pretend we’re all strategists**. Or if we spent 97% less time during the last election discussing poll numbers. Or if we imposed vaguely reasonable restrictions on the use of anonymous quotes, especially when used solely for the purpose of documenting internal party dysfunction. Or if we spent 84% less time documenting internal party dysfunction. Or if we updated our basic tenet of balanced journalism to make truthful reporting the primary objective***.

Granted, that’s probably a less interesting world.

Anyway. At dinner last night with a fellow resident of this place, we got to talking about what it would take to really “change” things. And this is, essentially, what I theorized. And then we both fought the urge to conclude this place is completely and irredeemably screwed.


*For the record, since coming to Ottawa, I’ve met approximately three people who regularly participate in these things. Each are intelligent, insightful human beings who I enjoy talking to. Unfortunately, those panels essentially demand that they put on suits and jell-o wrestle. And panels featuring three or four MPs commenting on the day’s events are only slightly more useful.

**At one point during the campaign, a reporter tried to explain to me that Stephane Dion was a failure because his campaign couldn’t stage a proper photo-op. Now maybe his campaign really wasn’t very good at setting up particularly meaningful backdrops, but where should that rank on the average campaign reporter’s priority list? Is it even a top-five consideration in judging a political candidate?

***The Bush-Rove administration understood very well that journalism’s focus on “balance” meant your viewpoint, no matter how flawed or dishonest, would, at least initially, be given equal standing and any future correcting of the record would receive less attention than the initial report. Then Iraq happened. And now CNN spends great amounts of air time fact-checking what politicians say and, in the parlance of Anderson Cooper, “keeping them honest.”

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