By Frank Moher
While you were enjoying the festive season, The Globe and Mail found itself disagreeing with one of its columnists about an item on its website. The Globe settled the matter with a keystroke. Both parties have since been studiously decorous about the matter, but it deserves a second look before disappearing down the memory hole.
On Dec. 24th, the Globe pulled from its website a blog post by Norman Spector, former Mulroney Chief of Staff and ambassador to Israel, now living in Victoria and making his way as a pundit. Spector had remarked on the unusual fact that, for the first time, Laureen Harper would join husband Stephen when he sat down for his annual Christmas chat with CTV. In fact, it would be “her first television interview with the Prime Minister since he took office in 2006.”
Why her sudden visibility? Spector speculated that it might have something to do with rumours circulating in Ottawa that the couple’s marriage is in trouble, and, more particularly, that those rumours had recently emerged in the Ottawa Citizen, albeit in veiled form. Wrote Andrew Cohen in the December 3rd Citizen: “In Ottawa, tongues have been wagging for two years about trouble in one political marriage. One of the partners is now said to have left the nest. It hasn’t made the newspapers, at least not yet.”
Specifically, the rumours have Mrs. Harper living in the Chateau Laurier while the Prime Minister remains at 24 Sussex. Showing more journalistic initiative than the rest of our press, Spector did some digging. “I checked out the rumour with two journalists in Ottawa. From both, I got the sense that it was likely true. And that it was not being reported because it was deemed to be a personal matter.”
In his forbidden post, which Spector immediately republished to his own website, he makes a reasonable case for why the matter, if true, would be more than personal. “If the PM’s marriage was in trouble, that was something that could affect his performance and lead to bizarre decisions. (Have you heard about the census being abolished?) And given the power of the office, the troubled marriage could impact all Canadians.” I’ll add another: if Harper and his wife were living apart, but he continued to issue Christmas cards like the recent one above, we would have to conclude that the Prime Minister is a big fat dissimulator.
Spector also politely allows as how zapping his post “is the paper’s right.” (I’ve had my own experience of being disappeared, in my case by the National Post; I wasn’t quite so polite.) But while the Globe may be within its rights — that is, they haven’t broken any laws — their boilerplate claim that they did it for reasons of “fairness, balance, and accuracy” is ludicrous. Does the Globe think publishing the rumour is unfair, imbalanced, and possibly inaccurate? Then let it do its job, particularly in matters of public interest: phone up the principals and ask them about it. Then do what Spector did, and phone up some informed sources and ask them about it. Then publish what you’re told. It’s called reporting.
What did the Globe do instead? Zap.
This sort of misplaced politesse is the reason that mainstream papers are increasingly obsolescent in an age of internet journalism and wikileaking, no matter how many iPad applications they produce. Readers are increasingly aware of how much the old-school media choose not to tell us, whether for political or financial reasons, or from some misguided notion that it’s for our own good. And increasingly we reply: We’ll be the judge of that. Tell us what you know, or even just what you’ve heard (where’s Frank magazine when you need it?), and we’ll decide whether it’s File 13 material or not. And if you won’t tell us, there are plenty of sources out there that will.
We don’t need mommies and daddies in our newsrooms. What we need are actual journalists — even if they must be drawn from the ranks of retired civil servants.