13 June 2013

Inquiring Minds? You don’t want to know. #nlpoli

Denial and evasion, wrote Andrew Coyne last week, are only making worse three political scandals. He’s referring to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and allegations of substance abuse, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Mike Duffy Affair, and former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and a police investigation into McGuinty’ s staff, missing e-mails and a gas plant.

Coyne is his usual insightful self.

What’s more, added Telegram editor Peter Jackson, these three have made matters worse by making “false or misleading statements”. Not a good idea, sez Peter, since people “are naturally suspicious.”  You can’t have a good conspiracy because people will sniff out the foolishness.

And in some cases, people will even make stuff up. Peter points to the 9/11 Truthers and the Obama birthers as examples of people who will connect the unconnected.
In short, it’s bad enough when irresponsible rumour-mongers start the ball rolling. 
The last thing politicians should do is feed the flames with fibs and subterfuge.
Wonderful stuff, that, if only we could all safely rely on those inquiring minds to quickly ferret out the truth. 

You see we live in a place with far too few of them.  The ones that we do have tend not to congregate in places where they could be useful.

Like say in the Auditor General’s office.  Peter notes the spending scandal at the House of Assembly as an example of how one snoop can bring down a scheme where “ Newfoundland MHAs were lining their pockets back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”  The pair from Labrador apparently escaped his notice, but what’s more that actually isn;t the main problem with the scandal.

You see the bigger story wasn’t the few crooks who filled their own pockets. It was the decade long vote-buying scam.  The original AG at the time – Beth Marshall – never went looking for those sorts of financial problems even though there was evidence of serious overspending by the time she went hunting for some wine and a few paintings.

Her successor finally got into the legislature and found a few crooks.  But the rest of It?  He either ignored it or buggered it up badly.  Remember the rings?  In his initial news conference, the AG made it sound like they didn’t exist.  The truth was his auditors didn’t look for them.

What worse, though, is that the second AG did the same as his predecessor:  despite evidence of overspending that should have raised red flags everywhere, he stayed silent as the grave.  If he inquired about anything, he apparently did so entirely in his own mind.

More importantly, what of the local news media once the scandal broke?  They followed the media line set out by the politicians who actively partook of the scheme, who allowed it to continue well after the 2003 election,  who actually increased the level of overspending, and who did all that despite pre-election promises to clean up the House.

We don't need to look that far back to find minds lacking in inquisitiveness.  The Premier made a statement of policy on trade talks with the Europeans a couple of weeks ago. Another minister stated a policy the opposite of that the Premier described.  A week later,  she made a second statement the opposite of her first one.

The local media focus for the entire week was on the supposedly untrustworthy behaviour of the federal government.  Before or since, there’s been virtually nothing on the talks:  no digging, no investigation, no assessment of the possible implications of what is on the table.  Not a peep.

There are others, as SRBP has noted in the past.  In late 2009, the provincial government launched a political attack against Hydro-Quebec and the Quebec energy regulatory authority.  Information available at the time didn’t support the government accusations. Those same accusations later turned up as part of the rationale for Muskrat Falls.  Local media didn’t look at any of it.

The 2008 expropriation [beyond the official line]?  Not a peep.

Interference in the selection of a president for Memorial University.  Best the locals would do is a few columns.  It took a mainland outlet to break the story.

The Premier’s secret heart surgery?  Someone dropped a dime on the scheme.  Local media covered it but backed off once an orchestrated attack on local newsrooms hit a fevered pitch.

Burton Winters? 

The ABC campaign? 


In each case, the places where you would expect to find inquiring minds turned up only the popular bogey-man:  evil Ottawa run by a Prime Minister who has nothing better to do than punish the benighted baymen of Newfoundland at every opportunity.  The story is as much a fabrication as the fish traded for Hyundai car plants in Quebec but it forms the narrative foundation on which virtually all stories involving the provincial government are built.  What evil is not the handiwork of  Ottawa demons is caused by Quebec imps.  All any Premier need do is utter the words  - no matter how preposterous - and they are repeated as if they were gospel, from the outset.

That’s not to say the local media hasn’t turned up the odd heretic.  Ray Guy was one.  When he passed away a few weeks ago, the local newsrooms sent Ray off to his eternal reward with the sort of relentless coverage you’d expect for the bastard celebrity love child of Princess Di and Danny Williams.

Ray deserved all of the praise and then some.  But through the sharp peel of all those bells, there was one that kept clanging off in the distance; a muffled, imperfect, dissonance that made you shiver.

It was the realisation that for the past decade,  Ray Guy could only find a voice in the smaller weeklies in the province.  It’s not like Ray didn’t have a target every bit the measure of the one he’d started in on 45 years ago, either.  But you couldn’t find him in any of the big halls. No sir. Ray finished his writing career where most people would start:  in what they politely call the smaller, more intimate venues. 

Whether that was his personal choice or someone else’s is really no odds. You see, Ray shouldn’t  be the only person who was inquisitive, doubting, and literate. You’d expect to find newsrooms full of those types.

You’d expect that, but you’d apparently be mistaken. There been little sign of that inquisitiveness for the past decade.  It’s only become somewhat fashionable again now that the polls have shifted.

“Sometimes you get the feeling,” Ray wrote in a June 1974 column, “that the newsrooms of the city are as divorced from reality as the earth is distant from the sun.”
Their almost exclusive stock-in-trade has become the reports of speeches, seminars, election campaigns, council meetings, legislative shenanigans, endless press releases…  All that is planned news, programmed news, bloodless mimeographed news, which touches not at all on the endless swirl of the sometimes-grubby, sometimes-heartening day-to-day life in the streets outside.
The only thing Ray could say about that sort of stuff was that it was cheap and easy.  Cheap for the owners and easy to churn out. These days, the problem with exposing the fibs and subterfuge some politicians get on with is not that most would disregard the politicians for the delusional sorts they are.  The problem is that the political foolishness gets in the way of the rehashed news release or the official explanation by Nalcor officials and their supporters of how Muskrat Falls could not possibly be the result of anything but genius.

Sheer, unmitigated genius.

And those knowledgeable people who dare to question this official utterance must surely be traitors, conspiracy nuts, or just simply wrong.

Inquiring minds? 

We don’t want to know.