I was to have spent part of this afternoon participating in the Public Policy Forum’s Back to School celebration (Kady’s there), specifically as part of an afternoon panel alongside Don Newman, Ian Brodie and Carleton’s Katherine Graham on the topic of how we might “improve the Canadian political system.” Suffice it to say I would’ve been the least insightful of the panelists and it’s largely for my own good that a scheduling conflict means I can’t be there.
All the same, here is what I would have said were I to be there.
I’m tempted here to simply steal Rick Mercer’s idea, expressed during an election night rant last fall, that we turn the cameras in the House of Commons around. That we start showing the country what goes on when no one at home is watching—the yelling, screaming, heckling, gesturing, spitting and other such traditions that MPs feel safe to indulge in so long as they can be confident the general public won’t ever see it. That doing so would immediately bring an end to the awfulness. Or at least cut down on the spitting.
Thing is, that would spoil my fun. My editors at Maclean’s sent me to Ottawa with a very specific mandate—to behold the pageantry of Parliament and sketch the grandeur of it all to my readers each day. At present, I am a regular witness to a circus of human emotion, a parade of fear, a carnival of arrogance and folly. And, quite frankly, my afternoons would suddenly be quite boring if Marlene Jennings and John Baird were compelled to stop screaming at each other. I’d end up standing outside Centre Block each day, pushing opposing MPs into each other and trying to encourage fisticuffs. Eventually I would have to go back to writing about professional sports.
Less selfishly, I will say that turning the cameras around would likely be for the betterment of our democracy. But it would only go part way to addressing what is perhaps the larger problem here: namely, the way in which we cover, chronicle and report politics in this country. Indeed, at the risk of assigning far too much power and influence to the press gallery, I would argue that nothing in this town will change until that changes.
For the sake of argument, I’ll say that, in this decade, there have been two new phenomenon that have reshaped the way politics is covered and discussed in the United States.
The first is the web, which has allowed for far more comprehensive, extensive and constant scrutiny of all the forces involved in shaping the national discussion. Not all of it, of course, has advanced the ideals of their Holinesses Woodward and Bernstein, but on the whole, the United States is better served today than it was a decade ago. I dare say, while we have, as a general, unwieldy group, made great improvements, we in this country lag behind on this count.
The second phenomenon is The Daily Show. Setting aside whatever else The Daily Show does well, it’s primary contribution to American political discourse, especially in recent years, is very straightforward: It calls people on their shit. Each night, Jon Stewart spends ten minutes exploring contradictions, half-truths, overstatements, lies and diversions. The worst behaviours are called out and mocked, simply and glaringly. All involved are called to account for the words that come out of their mouths in the most blunt and straightforward way.
This is not to say that we need our only Daily Show. This is not a call for the CBC or CTV to begin developing their own nightly knock-offs. Nor, for those who consider Jon Stewart to be just another whiny liberal adored by the East Coast media establishment and followed primarily by pot-smoking college kids, is this a case for more “crusading” journalism. I mean, more simply, to wonder whether there is something in the basic motivation. That as much as the press needs to, and must, act as a forum and conduit, as much as we may also like and need to entertain, we might also be mindful of both how our readers and viewers are best served and what expectations and accountability we create for the political system we take great pains to grouse about at every opportunity.
Rick’s idea was genius in its simplicity, but also in its implicit purpose. With little to no effort it would change, quite literally, the way politics is covered in this country and, in the process, introduce a new level of accountability and expectation. Perhaps because it’s a technical change, it’s easier to contemplate than asking the humans involved why they cover what they cover and how they cover it. For sure, politics in this country can change, but it won’t unless and until there is an incentive for it to do so.