Friday, June 15, 2012

Happy Anniversary, adversary

Stephen Joseph Harper, photo courtesy
The typical Canadian newspaper is honest. The typical politician is not.


C'mon, listen to your gut. Most of you feel this is generally accurate, right?

It comes down to having skin in the game. The politician has his self interest at heart. The newspaper's thrives on its reputation for courage and honesty. Oh sure, some haters fall back on the old chestnut, "It's just trying to sell papers," but, these days, such blather seems more than a little trite.

Nope, the better newspapers generally want to get to the bottom of things. And to back up arguments with facts. And the best of 'em challenge authority.

They leave the empty rhetoric and falsehoods to politicians.

Except when they don't.

And when a newspaper knowingly dabbles in falsehoods, it is a terrible breach of public trust - an awful thing to behold.

Which brings us to Conservatives, the Globe and Mail and the anniversary of doom.

I wanted to talk about Stephen Joseph Harper's first year of unfettered power, but it's already more than a week past it's best before date.

So, instead, I will talk about newspaper editorials. Specifically, a recent Globe joint about Harper's first year (link below).

But first a little background, something to set the scene.

Harper hasn't had a good year. And you would know that, unless you have spent it spectacularly drunk. Or on a far-flung Pacific atoll without electricity. In fact, I believe it has delivered a trainwreck that, my fellow citizens, we'll be cleaning up for decades.


Well, for starters there is the muzzling of our world-class scientists and the dismantling of Statistics Canada, an institution that has a global reputation for excellence and one that has allowed our leaders to make well-informed policy decisions.

This is supposed to be the information age. Instead, Canada is being kicked back to the Dark Ages by a bunch of ideologues. I think this is a very big deal.

And, call me crazy, but the Harper government's conscious decision to mislead the public about the cost of its new F-35 jet fighter squadron is ... well, it's also big deal.

We are talking about Harper and his cronies delivering a pre-election whopper. A book-cooking scam worth more than $10 billion. And the lowball cost delivered the public was a calculated decision made by the federal cabinet, according to the minister at the centre of this scandal, Peter MacKay.

This makes the former Liberal Sponsorship imbroglio look like a childhood prank.

Who has resigned? Who has taken responsibility?


In fact, just last week National Defence, which is hopelessly besotted with its new jets, tried to maintain the farce by insisting the federal auditor general and parliamentary budget officer don't know how to cost stuff like, say, high-tech weapons.

'Scuse me if I tilt towards skepticism bordering on the hostile.

I may be a nutter, but deceptions on this scale - historic - matter to me.

So does the theft of elections.

In 2006, the federal Conservative Party was caught exceeding spending limits - that is, they broke the law. And that illegal spending may have earned them a few seats in tight ridings.

In 2008, Harper broke the law again, tossing aside his fixed election date and calling a snap election.

Now, in 2011, we have a new election theft through robocalls that systematically misled and discouraged voting in tight races across the country.

This isn't some tin-hatter conspiracy. There's very good evidence that it happened, documented by election officials and journalists across the country.

I'm irked by the spending on jails and the ramming through Parliament of tough-on-crime omnibus bills that will needlessly cost us billions in a time of falling crime. I am similarly irked by ill considered tax cuts and runaway spending that have, combined, created a structural deficit after years of surplus.

Parks Canada, gutted. Environmental oversight, abandoned. Charities threatened unless they work "in the interests of the nation." These things are similarly troubling.

Is this good government? The markers of a jolly good year?

Call me mad as a hatter, but I don't think it is. I think it is vindictive, small minded, and petty. And reckless.

Which brings me to the recent editorial in the Globe and Mail.

It has been "a year in which there have been plenty of ups and downs," the fawning piece begins. "The latter including the robo-calls controversy and the Auditor-General’s scathing report of mismanagement and a lack of accountability on the F-35 purchase."

Those, in case you were wondering, are the downs.

And then it continues, "But on most of the issues that matter ..."

Really? The issues that matter?

As if these other issues - electoral fraud, conscious deception of the electorate and financial fraud to the tune of billions - are mere trivialities. Things to dismiss.

Of course, they are not. These things matter. They certainly are important to me, and, I suspect, they are considered outrageous acts to many, many thousands of my fellow citizens.

In fact, you have to wonder what sort of person would pooh-pooh these things, would dismissively call them "downs," as if they are merely forgettable low points in a long, long game.

Does the writer have any moral fortitude? Does the publication?

The Conservative Party of Canada wants you to think all this "small stuff" doesn't matter. They want people hoodwinked because they want to be elected again. They are motivated by self preservation.

But what's the Globe and Mail's excuse?

In slapping a wafer-thin vaneer of credibility on the Harper government's obvious failures, to the point of ignoring the accepted facts - There's no evidence it was required to change Old Age Security (see links) , it created a structural deficit through its dogmatic insistance on low taxes and irresponsible spending habits and, through that recklessness, forced massive layoffs in the civil service - the Globe actually damages its own credibility.

The reader begins to wonder why the paper is zooming them. And how is it doing so? If it got this so wrong, what else is it distorting? And why?

This is not an insignificant problem because once a paper gets a reputation for writing for someone other than its readers ... well, in the words of Lou Reed, stick a fork in its ass and turn it over. It's done.

Of course sometimes when a writer sits down and drafts an editorial, the whole beautiful dream goes off the rails. That marvellous hypothesis doesn't prove out. Sometimes, as the words hit the page - thwack, thwack, thwack - you hit a soft spot, or an enormous sink hole. You can't miss it because the words immediately start ringing hollow - Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

That's the editorial writer's "uh oh!" moment.

Cold, light of day, baby! There is no avoiding it.

Now you've got a decision to make. Do you ignore it and keep on rollin' along, falling deeper into the hole in the vain hope the reader doesn't notice the obvious flaw or gross negligence.

Or do you rethink, regroup and rewrite to fit your troubling epiphany?

Or do you spike the whole project? Screw the anniversary, scrap the effort and find a decent letter, a generic column or a big mother photo to fill the hole?

What you do often depends on time, the resources at your disposal and what sort of publisher you are working for - what their agenda is. Because sometimes you are ordered to do proceed with the crap, the lie, which presents the writer with a much deeper crisis and some personal decisions.

But, if you have a choice, papering over the obvious flaws and hoping the reader doesn't notice is never the right answer. Because if the dumbass editor hit upon the problem, the reader certainly isn't going to miss it. No way, Jose.

If, as a writer, you are dishonest with your readers, you are finished.

Bottom line, the guy shilling' out a loonie for a bundle of newsprint still expects honesty from the thing. Crazy eh? But that's the way it should be.

The paper messes with this sacred trust at its peril.

Which is why it was so surprising to see the Harper tripe on the editorial pages of the Globe.

Because, it renders the paper indistinguishable from a lying politician.

And that's a heavy fall, indeed.