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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Marit Stiles and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

The recent Ezra Levant-Justin Trudeau incident raises some important issues for our democracy. How entitled are media to comment on a politician and his or her family? How obligated are politicians to answer the media's questions?


Marit Stiles:

Looking back at the last week, there are some interesting take-aways. First, let's look at the latest "Trudeau Kiss-bomb"... or rather the now infamous moment when Justin Trudeau kissed the bride in a wedding party, it was photographed and shared, and Ezra Levant decided to make some rather tasteless comments about it. Trudeau then said he would not speak with Sun Media again, and an apology was eventually issued.

Look, this is Ezra Levant we are talking about. I am not fan, at all, ever.

And I am very, very sympathetic to any one who enters political life and public service, and then finds their personal life the topic of debate and criticism or ridicule. Want to know why so many really great people, smart people, particularly women, don't run for public office? There you go.

On the other hand, politicians should speak to the media. A free press is fundamental to democracy and plays an important role in keeping government accountable.

With the rise of social media, talking to 'conventional' media has become even more important. Much information is passed off as 'news' when it is really opinion. Mainstream media are held to higher standards of accountability and this is essential.

But media wield enormous power and should follow the 'rules.' They do most of the time. To that end, you can't blame all journalists for an employer's screw up (in this case, the Sun's failure to censure Levant). So, Trudeau's boycott I think ultimately was a bit silly.

Yet we have a Prime Minister who has proven that you can snub the media -- well the national media anyway - and continue to reach your #1 objective  - winning elections.


John Capobianco:

Marit makes a very good point about the rough and tumble world of public office and the reason why good people - men and women - decide not to run for office.

However, when one decides to run, then that person is in full understanding that their life will essentially be a fish bowl. You don't have to agree with it, or accept the fact that there will be public scrutiny, but you should not be surprised by it.

The story about Ezra Levant and Justin Trudeau is yet another example of freedom of speech, which everyone is entitled to and values - especially the media - going too far.

However, the response from the Trudeau team, which was to boycott Sun Media - was that going too far? To prevent a media outlet from participating in the democratic right to cover issues of national significance until they receive an apology - who loses out on that? The public.

As Marit points out, with social media as it is today and with it only getting broader in its appeal, mainstream media becomes more important in people's lives as they sort out what is news and what is pure back and forth nonsense. Everyone says that the media need to be more responsible in covering politicians and politicians need to be careful when talking to the media, but in my many years watching politics, this has not been the case as yet.


Richard Mahoney:

This is a fascinating topic and raises a whole bunch of interesting issues.

First of all, Levant's comments were, typically, infantile, insulting and irrelevant to any serious issue that is before the country and the (few) viewers of his show.

His bizarre obsession with Justin Trudeau is one thing - we are all free to ignore that, and most do, judging by the ratings his show receives. His outrageous slurs on Justin Trudeau’s mother and father were deeply offensive to many.

Was Justin Trudeau right to suspend dealing with Sun Media until an “appropriate response” was made? Levant’s employer, Sun Media seemed to think so and did the right thing by apologizing quickly. So I think the case is closed on that.

The wider question of what is the obligation of politicians to talk to media is more complicated.

First of all, politicians should, as a rule, be available to media on a reasonably regular basis on issues of importance to their constituencies.

I think of media as a public space that allows us access to those whom we elect and those who govern us.

That said, that does not mean that media, owned in this country by a few very large corporations, get to decide on their own when and where that obligation arises.  


Marit Stiles:

Good points. I also think we could spend a whole chat session debating where Ezra Levant and his ilk - a political/PR flack with his own show - fit into all this. By the way, where's my show? ... but I digress. I just think we should be careful not to equate him with 'real' journalists, covering the issues and the news of the day.

I've been privy, as I'm sure Richard and John have as well, to many a nasty scrum where media smell blood and start tearing away. The key is that politicians can and do pick and choose which questions they will answer. And they also choose how they respond.  It's hugely frustrating for reporters to constantly receive those 'bottled responses' from politicians, and they become focused on jostling them off message.

The media has a right to ask and a right to make it public when a politician refuses to answer a question related to public matters. If Mr. Harper won't take questions after an announcement, it's fair and indeed essential that be reported. If Rob Ford picks and chooses which mainstream media get into his press conferences, also fair game. When a reporters asks a dumb question about something personal and not relevant to a matter of public interest and a politician ignores it or refuses to answers ... well, move on.

And on that note, I'd like to offer up one final 'Paul Dewar Face Plant' for every non-answer Paul Calandra has ever given, anywhere anytime.

John Capobianco:

We have been in 'gotcha' politics for sometime now where media outlets and their journalists trip over themselves to get a story to make the above the fold headline.

There absolutely is a responsibility for every media outlet to report facts and news that the public needs and deserve to know.

But as we have all seen recently, especially over Mayor Ford, at which point does that news and information become 'noise' to readers and they simply tune out? That is never a good thing. There has to be a balance.

I agree with both Richard and Marit about the media's right to ask questions and to inform the public when a politician doesn't answer. As well, the politician should be available to the media to ensure information is exchanged for the public good. The reality is that the politician will have set lines and message to deliver and the media when asking questions, will likely not be satisfied with the answer. This is where is goes all bad - it now becomes a battle of wills.

Marit brings up Paul Calandra and Question Period on Parliament Hill. Well, as we all know - and it doesn't matter which party is in power - questions are asked, but whether or not answers are provided is another story and perhaps another topic of discussion.

I applaud Paul for having the guts to realize what he did and apologize for it. More politicians should do that when mistakes are made.

Richard Mahoney:

Politicians are ultimately accountable to the public. One of the ways we exercise that accountability is through news media.

That said, there is little we can do to hold media accountable. We can stop watching, reading or listening. While we turn over governments fairly regularly, it is not uncommon to see journalists who cover politics stay in the job for 30 or more years.

The advent of online outlets and social media has helped expand access, but we live in an imperfect world.  Our reliance on media for quality information on issues of public policy and governance is huge. The large media corporations who provide us with much of our information are understandably governed by their need for revenue and that guides their coverage and their increasingly limited ability to invest in covering governments and public policy issues. This is a strong argument for a continued role for a public broadcaster.

But the challenges presented by all of this mean that this government can get away with ignoring media and behaving in the way they do (Calandra, Poilievre): ignoring all questions they do not wish to answer, including fundamental issues.  None of their predecessors, Conservative or Liberal, have behaved in this way to this extent.

The combination of this behaviour with the weaknesses in the current state of news media represents an ominous threat to the health of our democracy.

About The Salon

Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; and John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties
Posted date : October 02, 2014

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