06 February 2010

The Screaming of the Banshees

This week Newfoundlanders and Labradorians found themselves embroiled in yet another political psychodrama in the endless series of psychodramas that are Newfoundland politics these days.

The members of the Fan Club -  the Cult of Personality - deployed, en masse, over the past couple of days all screeching the same tune of self-righteous indignation at that favourite target of the political right, the news media.

They started on Day One with a strike at Ramona Deering and John Soper in CBC radio’s lunchtime phone-in show.  Now there are two things to note here.  First of all, the show has ratings which – to be truthful – are nothing to write home about. This is not an opinion-driver of a show by any stretch.

The usual sort of call-in fare would be the show on Tuesday, the one pre-empted by the Premier’s health crisis.  It was about the challenges and choices for women in changing their name after they marry.  Not an insignificant topic, but not exactly one to raise the blood-pressure either or suddenly cause an outbreak of the vapours in Botwood.

Second of all, the topic for the show gave callers a chance to express publicly their concern for the Premier's health.

And do that they did.  Caller One.  Then Caller Two  - the now well-known Minnie, she of her own considerable medical burden and ardent admirer of the Premier - and then Three and then Four.  All as respectful and as courteous as the two hosts, both of whom – incidentally – are well known for their professional and sedate demeanour.

And then the fan-blades started spitting the crap.

Caller after caller and e-mailers to boot all lambasting the Ceeb for having the gall to invade the premier’s privacy by discussing the fact he had a health care problem in the first place.  What other people said didn’t matter;  these people were angry that “it” was being discussed at all.  They all used similar words and generally expressed similar sentiments in such a way that made it unmistakeable that every single one of them had been organized into some sort of vox putz.

One thought there should censorship of everything anyway. Another said  – with absolutely no sense of irony  - that there was too much focus on personality these days.  What should be reported was somewhere between nothing and what we see today.  Do not merely accept this characterisation of the show.  Listen for yourself.

What made the calls after Number Four stand out is that they all said the same thing, in so many words, and, what they said bore no resemblance in any way to what had actually been said by anyone else.

Incidentally, the only thing more amazing than the heaps of scorn these planted callers piled on the media in general is that so many people at the Ceeb still don’t seem to realise they were apparently the victims of a concerted attack.

The meek at the Ceeb aren’t the only ones to inherit a biblical whirlwind of vengeance from the local personality cultists.

Charter Fan Club member and alleged positive thinker Dave Rudofsky made at least one call  - to the drive-time show – to spew an amazing lot of negativity in curiously familiar words about something heard on the Morning Show from former CBC television producer Bob Wakeham.  Unconfirmed reports, by the by, have it that Wakeham’s temerity in mentioning a certain subject right up at the top of the cult’s extensive AbsolutVerboteneliste prompted a torrent of bile aimed solely at him via the Mother Corp’s local e-mail and telephones.

So intense is the anger among the Fanboys and Fangirls that even The Voice of The Cabinet Minister has been getting a heaping of orchestrated outrage and concern.  In the afternoon slot at the semi-official government information dispensary, Our Man in a Blue Line Cab: The Original Series found other things to talk about so  for the most part Lord Haw Haw of Hy’s has been relatively unscathed.

Not so Randy Simms.

Simms has been subjected to the barrage e-mails and telephone calls intended  - as with all the calls, e-mails and comments to and about local media – to bully him into silence.  The whole thing got so intense so quickly that by the end of the Wednesday show, Simms politely told the lot of them to shag off and just stop listening.

The most startling expression of the cultish line came bright and early the next day from none other than the guy who runs The Voice.  Broadcaster John Steele – also a cabinet appointee to look after those precious government oil stakes, by the way - shat on broadcasters for reporting stuff so that other people might know it.

Simms - a Williams target of old - handled him deftly and with undeserved restraint.  Simms posed a few simple questions to his boss which left Steele rather obviously stuck for an intelligent response.  He fell back on the talking points.

Now if the Premier and his associates genuinely didn’t want any attention drawn to his personal health problems, then they went about handling this in a way that seemed calculated to generate the maximum amount of attention and controversy. A number of news media editorials and comments – including ones from Simms – have noted this.

On the other hand, if they wanted to generate international media attention for some unfathomable and insane reason, then the way they handled this only guaranteed the story rapidly became a firestorm over which the people at the centre had no influence whatsoever. That is simply the way the world is these days;  to decry it is to waste energy complaining that dogs bark or that the sky is blue.

But if either secrecy or adoration was the objective, the media line fixed on Day One wouldn’t be to send out any and all Blue Dart Irregulars to pummel anyone who mentioned heart or surgery in a public forum.

Go back to that CBC Cross Talk and you can see exactly the point:  a respectful show in which the first four callers expressed nothing but concern for the Premier’s health followed by a string of pompous negativity from a bunch of planted callers.

Simply put, the two things don’t fit together at all.

What the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have seen the past few days, though, is not the product of any deep thoughts.  There are no complex plans at work.  There is nothing more substantive than what the legion of fanboys have consistently brought to politics over the past decade or so.

What there has been is what last fall’s political crisis brought:  fear and insecurity.

There was plenty to be jittery about.

Most obviously, someone with some pretty good inside information opted to bust the whole thing wide open.

On the face of it, it seems that those in the know hoped to scoot the Premier out of the country for one of his now legendary holidays this time of year.  If it had worked, the job would have been done and no one would have been any the wiser.

But that isn’t what happened.

First there was the leak to NTV – and not CBC – about the trip and the surgery in the first place.  Then a couple of days later, there was the leak about the date of the Premier’s surgery.

Bits and pieces of a story are now floating all over town but the sources are never traceable.  Make no mistake though:  the stories have – at their heart – some kernel of truth, some nub of authenticity which suggests that someone in the know is very consciously dripping information out.

What makes that all the more striking is that this was a story access to which was very tightly controlled.  
Even the provincial Conservative caucus didn’t hear about it until the day after the story hit the news.

Take a look at Kathy Dunderdale on Tuesday and you can see pure stress. The panicked look on the deputy premier’s face during the briefing told you the scrum was not not part of any plan. Gone was her usual – and always unjustified -  smug demeanour,  replaced by something that spoke of tension.  Her angst wasn’t caused by the nature of the news she was discussing. Something else was clearly bothering her as she delivered an ersatz Plan B to replace the Plan A that someone had blown to smithereens the night before.

The aggressiveness and bullying of the cult telegraphs their fear.  It’s like their reaction to the political turmoil last fall.

Some wag said this week that the Tory caucus Tuesday morning was  - like all caucuses faced with such news - likely made up of two crowds.  There were the rabbits huddled in the corner, shivering.  Those are the ones who took to the airwaves and helped bring out the other fanboys.

And there were others looking to capitalize on things if not now, then down the road a ways.

Like say the one(s) who spilled the beans to NTV.

Likely they can see how times are changing across the province, how things are just a wee bit closer to normal, how the same old schtick just doesn’t work any more.

They can hear that the tune from the cult now sounds less and less like hymns of praise and glory and more and more like keening.

Even the banshees themselves know  - in the dark places in their hearts where they are afraid to go - they know what their screeching means.