By Frank Moher
Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin offered an unfortunate comment during last night’s broadcast of “At Issue,” The National‘s equally unfortunate political affairs panel. Discussing the Conservatives’ plunging poll numbers, Martin derided the “line of pale male faces, with one exception” on their parliamentary front bench. He was sharing the screen at the time with three other white guys and a woman. None had the presence of mind to look embarrassed.
Here’s a look at the wall of white that greets you on the “At Issue” website:
Lotta testosterone happening there, too. But just as strikingly clueless is The National‘s practice of rousting Andrew Coyne (he of Maclean’s), Chantal Hébert (she of the Toronto Star), and Alan Gregg (he of whatever it is he’s doing now) from their various central Canadian redoubts each week and then tossing in, usually, one guest panelist from not Central Canada. This is how they prove they’re a national newscast, y’see.
It’s kind of like Survivor and other reality shows, only here, instead of your token gay guy or black woman, you have your token westerner or Maritimer. Mind you, sometimes one of the Coyne/Gregg/Hébert troika will be visiting the colonies — Gregg in particular seems to get around — in which case they get to fill the role of regional correspondent that week. It’s all much more pleasant when it can be kept within the family compact.
The funniest attempt by the “At Issue” producers to appear national without actually having to be national occurred when they took the show out to Vancouver for an extra special panel discussion from the Chan Centre at UBC. This, of course, was an example of the CBC fulfilling its mandate: Getting out there amongst the people! Taking the temperature of the nation! Reflecting Canada to itself! So, did they, say, use the opportunity to bring on four B.C. pundits? No — instead they flew Hébert, Gregg, and Coyne (or “Chalandrew,” as I like to think of them) out to Vancouver as well, there to instruct the locals on matters of state and entertain their questions. On this occasion, the role of regional ringer was filled by Kirk LaPointe, who was introduced as the managing editor of The Vancouver Sun and “adjunct professor right here at UBC.” LaPointe is both those things; the fact that he is also the ultimate example of a Canadian parachute journalist, having arrived at the Sun in 2004 after a few decades spent in newsrooms in and around Toronto, was, naturally, rather too much to get into.
With a militant regionalist occupying the Prime Minister’s Office, and a family from Winnipeg running most of the country’s media, it’d be unseemly for those of us outside the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal vortex to feel hard done by. It’s just not necessary at the moment. What’s nettlesome, then, about CBC’s “At Issue” panel is its absolute tone-deafness to the changes in Canada over the last 20 or so years — not just the spread of political power to the West, but also the increasing place of what used to be called “ethnic” communities in our national affairs (communities that have become so central to the conduct of the country that the ethnic label, like the old “The West Wants In” slogan, is simply irrelevant now.) And yet here they are, Coyne, Gregg, Hébert, and their hapless sidekicks, still floating about the airwaves like the unsettled ghosts of the old Morningside political panels of the 1970s. It’d be appalling — if it weren’t so inadvertently entertaining.
The “At Issue” panelists have left personal video messages on the show’s website. Inspired, I’ve created this special plea to the “At Issue” producers: