Is everybody in politics a crook and a liar or is that all the media understands?

“One hypothesis is that the ingrained cynicism of the media led Duffy and Pamela to believe that politicians normally cheat, so a little chiseling here and there was an accepted thing. If so, it is easy to see how this cynicism can be deeply damaging to Canada and its institutions.”

Dorothy Dobbie Issues in the News
Dorothy Dobbie
Issues in the News

Four senators landed in the soup for inappropriate use of their housing and travel budgets last month: Liberal Senator Mac Harb, a former MP who has been around long enough to know better; the native activist and leader, Patrick Brazeau, who has been in hot water before for issues surrounding his personal life as well as his spending habits; and Conservative-appointed senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

The amount of ink and hot air the media has expended on the “shocking” aspects of this issue has been enormous, but what is fascinating is that nobody among the chattering classes has had much to say about the fact that two of the four culprits are themselves from the media.

So how did these two neophyte senators, the least politically experienced of the four, land themselves in such a mess? I can only speculate, but the possibilities are quite interesting.

One hypothesis is that the ingrained cynicism of the media led Duffy and Pamela to believe that politicians normally cheat, so a little chiseling here and there was an accepted thing. If so, it is easy to see how this cynicism can be deeply damaging to Canada and its institutions. It implies that everyone in public office is lying no matter how unfounded the allegations or how sincere the answers given. If everyone believes this then it is not surprising that behaviour would dip to meet expectations.

Fortunately, I don’t believe this is true.  The vast majority of politicians are very sensitive to any behaviour or even optics that would put them in an awkward or embarrassing light.

Duffy’s “obfuscation” over where he got the money is a more troubling matter in some ways than that he misinterpreted the rules (as he says he did). His contention that he repaid his over-expenditures from his own pocket neglected to say that the money barely touched his pocket on its transfer from a friend to the treasury. Beyond that, however, I don’t understand the media’s case. The chief of staff wrote a cheque to overcome the difficulties of a friend. That he worked in the PMO has no bearing on anything – what more could the prime minister possibly do to enlist the loyalty of Duffy, whom he appointed to the position in the first place? Nigel Wright simply showed his inexperience in politics by dealing with the issue the way he did. Now he’s out $90,000 plus his job. (I haven’t heard anybody saying that the government should return this contribution to Mr. Wright.)

Pamela Wallin, for the most part, has kept her head down, and we must await more evidence to paint her as black as the others. She has repaid some thousands of dollars. At time of writing, there did not seem to be much evidence to support further allegations. Unfortunately, the members of the media who are scrupulous about using the word “alleged”, when speaking of a crime for which someone has been arrested and charged, seem quite willing to plunge ahead with full confidence of guilt when it comes to describing mere accusations against any politician or senator.

As for Mac Harb, he is doing his Liberal thing, in effect proclaiming that he is “entitled to his entitlements”, as did former federal Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall when
questioned about excessive expense claims as a post-politics appointee to the presidency of the Royal Canadian Mint. Come to think about it – that’s not a bad strategy. Dingwall ended up being entitled to over $417,000! Duffy should have consulted him rather than the PM’s chief of staff.

There is little more to be said about Patrick Brazeau, who has a history of bad behaviour, but it is interesting to note that he  is following the example set by Senator Harb in denying wrong doing and claiming his entitlements. It seems to work. Both appear to have slipped from the media scanner.

This brings us to Mayor Ford of Toronto. I have no idea whether or not he takes drugs or drinks too much. I do know that he has been the victim of media bullying since the moment he was elected. I didn’t understand how he could be put under so much pressure for using city stationary to fund raise for a charitable foundation. Whether or not he created the foundation was of little consequence, and yet he was almost hounded from office because of this.

Now his latest run-in with the media has me really scratching my head. I read the allegations against his brother, Doug, in the Globe and Mail and I have to say that I believe my friend John Stackhouse has made a very grave error in judgment by publishing what amounted to a pack of unattributed rumours and presenting them as proof of . . .I am not sure what. If it was to claim that the mayor’s brother took drugs as a 22-year-old (dealt in them, says the story), four decades ago, all I can say is that the writer didn’t prove the case and even if he had, it’s pretty old news and I don’t see how it proves him to be a rotter today. It seems I am not alone. On the Monday following the story, several letters appeared in the Globe saying the same thing.

Much of the media seems to be out of control on these so-called scandal issues. Is this because, for the average reporter, the perception of petty pilfering is something they understand when the big issues of the day are misinterpreted, wrongly reported and shockingly erroneous?

Sadly, a large percentage of the media today doesn’t do its homework, doesn’t understand many of the issues it writes about, repeats rumours without substantiation, sets itself up as a moral compass but doesn’t have a bearing on true north to follow and causes deep angst among a population counting on the news reporters to vet the information it prints and the editorial pages to have studied the issues before proclaiming an opinion. I am really tired of hearing about the “unanswered questions” as code for, “they answered, but I don’t believe them”.

We who wield the pen have an obligation to do better: we must report the known facts, fairly. Tackle the issues rather than the people. Do our homework. Avoid reporting innuendo and rumor as fact. Drop the adjectives from reporting (or edit them out). If we are skeptical about an answer to a question, we should investigate further and report only our findings – not our personal suspicions.

Our readers aren’t stupid. Let us treat them with the respect they deserve.

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