09 May 2010

The Same and the Different

Bob Wakeham may find this irritating or revealing but, contrary to Wakeham’s conclusion, there is nothing ironic in Danny Williams’ letters to the CBC ombudsman complaining that CBC producer Peter Gullage is biased.

First, here’s Wakeham’s comment from his Saturday column:
The irony in all this is that Williams has absolutely no need to stoop to this thin-skinned foolishness, turning molehills into mountains, and portraying himself as a mannequin for diapers.
The premier is still immensely popular, has done more things right than wrong, and should keep his disgust with journalists like Gullage (and commentators like me) buried.
Perhaps it’s part of the addictive power trip.
Now here’s a definition of irony:
Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.
There is nothing about Williams’ action in the Gullage complaint that is different from what occurred before.  So if one expected Williams not to moan, whine, bitch and complain, then one has not found irony, but blindness on the part of the observer.

Williams’ relentless negativity is legendary.

His capacity to slag off anyone, friend or foe, is equally legendary.  Take friend George Baker, for example, who has nothing but Bill Rowe-like praise for the powerful Premier and his amazing awesomeness.  The senator was not immune to Williams’ wild accusations, as labradore recently noted:
What about George Baker who got muzzled after they bought him off? What happened to him?
George Baker:  bought, i.e. corrupt as in bribed into silence.

Nothing could be further from the truth – to borrow one of Williams’ ironic phrases - and at the same time, nothing could be closer to Williams’ hyperbolic ranting.*

Nor is this the result of the supposedly usual addictive power trip that seduces Premiers. Wakeham tells a story about Clyde Wells complaining  - legitimately - about Wakeham’s crowd, the ombudsman ruling and Wakeham ignoring.

Yes, folks, Bob’s balls are legendary, at least in his own mind even if, as it turns out, his memory isn’t.  There was another episode in which the Ceeb buggered up a story about expenses.  They thought that the amounts to be spent went up when -  in fact – the administrative rules had changed on how much entertainment needed** pre-approval from treasury board.

That’s as arcane an issue as it gets but it was also a highly contentious one at a time when the government is hurting for cash and laying off workers.  And, in the case of the Ceeb, the story was totally wrong in the implication that cabinet ministers and senior executives were whining and dining better than ever before.  They aired a nice correction to that once the ombudsman ruled.

The lesson there is not what Bob would like us to focus on. The story here is not of sameness but of differences.

For starters, the complaints to which Wakeham refers were ones where the issue was about specific incidents and actions by Wakeham’s crowd with specific details anyone could look at and judge.  The complaint was not about Bob Wakeham but Williams’ bitch about Gullage seems to be characteristically personal in all its dimensions.

Then, the complaints to the ombudsman followed a series of calls and letters (no e-mail in those days) trying to resolve the disagreement in that way.  One gets the sense the Gullage episode was basically a letter straight to the Big Gun.

Then, it was all perfectly normal stuff in the dance between politicians and government on the one side and news media on the other;  pretty much indistinguishable from what happens between reporters and other people being reported on.  No screams  - necessarily - of “your mother wears army boots” or “you don’t have the balls for it”.  Just disagreement, heated or otherwise. Not personal; just business.

And the most important distinction of all:  it wasn’t Wells, if memory serves, who penned the missives and made the phone calls. He knew to leave decisions to the people he hired to do specific jobs.  He had staff and in particular senior staff who were seasoned enough and capable enough to talk him out of doing the sorts of things that Williams is now famous for.  Refuse to let him do the things that would damage his reputation in the community.

As much as something got up Wells’ nose, he – and they – appreciated that becoming the butt of jokes, even if confined to the newsroom, diminished not him but his entire administration and the people in it. Once you’ve become a mannequin for diapers, to borrow Wakeham’s phrase, it really doesn’t matter that you’ve “done more things right than wrong”.

They knew that if Wells spent huge chunks of his time and all that emotional energy chasing after every little thing, there’d be crap-loads of work that simply didn’t happen.  There’d be projects delayed by years with all the cost over-runs  - wasted public money - associated with the sluggishness.  Legislation would get lost in the bureaucracy.  Other laws would be passed but not enacted.  Staff appointments would be delayed and at times there’d be an enormous turn-over in a short period.

And that was at a time when government wasn’t run, in detail, from the Premier’s own office.

Wakeham’s basically out to lunch on this one:  Williams behaviour in going after Gullage is exactly what anyone who has watched the man for more than five minutes would expect.  Everything about the episode is typical.

It isn’t confined to people of Gullage’s stature.  Judges are a favourite target, usually because Williams has lost yet another legal case. Even a letter from Ordinary Joe to the Gulf News or some other of the weekly organs across the province can net an unhappy call from the Old Man.

At some point, mainstreamers like Wakeham will start noticing there’s much more to this than an addictive power trip:  If Hisself is writing letters and making phone calls about this trivial stuff, what is it that he isn’t doing?