Is Nothing Sacred?
A visitor to Canada questions the practice of judging politicians' private lives
The last time I was in church was when I was 14 in Singapore. On those Sunday mornings at St. Andrew’s Cathedral I always felt a sense of moral inadequacy as, from the pulpit, Father Thomas feverishly condemned the dishonesty and debauchery he was all around him.
The same feeling came back to me after an 11-year absence the night I was on the phone with Stevie Cameron, author and Globe and Mail columnist. I imagined Cameron stepping out of her photo on the back of Ottawa Inside Out and mounting the same white pulpit to extol the virtues of her religion-journalism. I was asking Cameron about the fairness of the news coverage of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and about the role of journalists in a democratic society.
“I don’t think we are nearly tough enough, nearly searching enough on politicians,” she said. “I don’t think the press on Mulroney has been nearly hostile enough. It is more than a simple question of morality or that we journalists are simply exposing tales of dishonesty. We are looking at politicians who are crooked and spending taxpayers’ money on themselves. The situation is quite cut-and dried.” Cameron’s conviction and earnest argument notwithstanding, I doubted that this issue was really this “cut-and-dried.”
Stevie Cameron was one of 20 journalists I interviewed over a month. I had set out to determine whether Brian Mulroney was being shortchanged by the media, to see if journalists were taking on the role of moral judge and jury and, in doing so, were overstepping the bounds of fairness. My simple look at Mulroney-bashing became an ethical dilemma, a pondering of the role journalists should play in society.
I was ill-prepared for the quest. New to Canada, I had spent the last two decades of my life confined to a tiny island, only 42 km east to west and, at its broadest, 23 km north to south, with a population of only 2.6 million. I left Singapore three years ago to come to Toronto to pursue a degree in journalism. When I arrived I thought journalism would be easy. To me the job requirement was about meeting people, gathering information, analyzing it, writing it well, and getting a byline.
I was jolted into astonishment and downright shock when I read some of the coverage on Mulroney in the Canadian press. I saw headlines like “Publisher picks Mulroney as worst PM” (Globe and Mail), and “Lying Brian image does not bother PM”
(Halifax Chronicle-Herald). Other reports that astonished me included stories that dwelled on what seemed to me were the personal and private aspects of the Prime Minister’s life. There were speculative reports about his drinking, his marital problems, and even his intellect. The Sawatsky affair last September was another example that shocked me. The sensational headlines allover the country showed me pack journalism in action. “Mulroney portrayed as treacherous in book” read one Toronto Star headline. “Book on PM has startling, damaging revelations” read another. The Chronicle-Herald’s front page chipped in with “Book charges PM was mean drunk; flunked Dal exams.”
All of these reports left me feeling that Canadian journalists were homing in on the slightest scent of immorality emitted by any high-level politician. It seemed to me that the press was setting the standards for the nation’s morality.
In Singapore, the only ethical issues I ever read about in the local newspapers were crime reports on people being sentenced to death for drug trafficking. Political coverage was simply the reporting of governmental issues, debates on bills, new political agendas for the nation, foreign relations, and visits by foreign envoys. Politicians’ lives are never held up to scrutiny. Personal attacks in political campaigning are non-existent. In Singapore, spit is a four-letter word and doing so in public will cost you a $720 fine; littering on the streets is a $110 fine; chewing gum or eating on the subway is an offense. So for me to come from a country like that to Canada, where individual rights reign, but where journalists are so judgmental, raised questions that I could not answer.
Do journalists have the right to pry into every aspect of the Prime Minister’s life, his character, his family and his past? Should we cast moral judgments on events as we see them, knowing the capacity we have to influence readers? I didn’t know the answers to these questions. That night on the phone with Cameron was just the beginning of a long search for answers My quest began with Stevie Cameron because of her series of “Gucci” stories in The Globe and Mail in 1987. The series was about the use of $308,000 of Progressive Conservative party funds by Mulroney, as a “private loan,” to renovate his official residences at 24 Sussex Drive and Harrington Lake. The stories also included an estimate on the 50 pairs of Gucci loafers Mulroney had and the exact size of his Sussex Drive closet-capable of holding 84 pairs of shoes and 30 suits. For Cameron, though, the stories were not merely about some pricey loafers.
“It was more a story of people not paying bills, cheating and lying and getting the party to pay,” she said. “It’s a story of deceit, dishonesty and extravagance.” Cameron took a lot of flak from the staff in the PMO for the stories, but I sensed she would do it allover again if she had the chance. I didn’t understand what drives journalists like Cameron to go mana a mana with the most powerful politician in Canada. Cameron said Canadians are just sick of seeing Mulroney’s friends becoming multi-millionaires with either federal contracts or jobs as lobbyists in Ottawa. She mentioned the numerous scandals that have rocked the Mulroney government since it came to power. As an outsider, I did not understand the connection between government scandals and news stories about Mulroney’s personal life. Did it mean that if you have corrupt friends, you are corrupt too? I was disturbed.
Most journalists I spoke to regarding Cameron’s “Gucci” stories thought her coverage was justified. Carol Goar, The Toronto Star’s national affairs columnist for the last seven years, is a good example. Though known in Ottawa press circles as being too fair and compassionate, Goar nevertheless reminded me of a rule in journalism: reporters aren’t here to be cheerleaders for politicians. She tried explaining the need to report on the private lives of politicians. “We need to know what goes into making up the man’s character,” she said. “And if an individual journalist thinks that his having 50 pairs of Gucci loafers tells voters something they need to know about what makes this man tick, I think it is legitimate. There are some things in the way a man or woman conducts his or her private life which give you an insight into the kind of national leader the person is.” Goar insisted that journalists are not setting moral standards or judging politicians: ‘We [the press] are just the mirrors in which these politicians are reflected.”
Goar’s explanation was not enough for me. I think the press does not simply reflect people and events. It is capable of influence and it can make any politician out to be a saint or a villain. Pierre Trudeau is a good example. When he came to power in 1968, he charmed the media. Later the press turned on him. At this point I was still unsure whether Mulroney was being beaten because he was down or was down because he was being beaten.
As I ventured deeper into the issue, the phone lines led me to Nova Scotia and into the home of George Bain. He has seen it all, including the changes in journalism and journalists in covering politics throughout the years. Bain now writes a column called “Media Watch” for Maclean’s.
He acknowledges that the present government and its leader have taken more licks than any other government in his time. He attributes this to the fact that the press has developed a more antagonistic attitude toward government. Bain explained to me his belief that Canadian journalists’ “commitment to anti-government fundamentalism” has reached its peak with the Mulroney regime, but that it will be a long way back to moderation.
Bain was leading me toward a more conservative view of reporting on the private lives of politicians. “I think politicians are entitled to their privacy on anything that does not bear directly on their handling of their office,” he said. “We as journalists can’t say ‘This person shouldn’t be prime minister because he’s vain’ or ‘because he’s going bald,’ These things have no bearing on the person’s capacity to perform in the office.”
After what must have been a two-hour conversation, I sensed little optimism in Bain’s parting shot: “I hope that the press would develop a greater sense of responsibility towards the readers, that certain information be presented in a more comprehensible manner. This means more work should be done instead of trying to titillate them with crap.”
Bill Fox, Mulroney’s press secretary and director of communications from 1984 to 1987, echoed the same sentiments. Fox, a friend of the PM, said the coverage has not been fair. He has no problem with journalists reporting the private aspects of a politician’s life as long as the reports are accurate. He was upset by the “Gucci” stories because they were based only on an estimate of what the Sussex Drive closet size can hold-and not on any other source. And to him that is “just plain shoddy journalism.”
After speaking to Bain and Fox, I was torn between the conflicting schools of thought that had surfaced in my quest. Here I had a situation where a group of intelligent men and women, all colleagues, could not agree on questions that arise every time they sit down to write. Of course I had no answers myself. I decided I needed to find out more about Mulroney, the man in the middle of my dilemma. So I plowed further on the phone to New Brunswick, to the Ill-hectare lakeside farm of Dalton Camp, former mover-and-shaker in the Tory Party.
We talked about Mulroney and his flaws: his need to be friends with reporters, and his “hyper-sensitivity” to the news media. According to Camp, Mulroney felt betrayed by the press as he moved into the adversarial position of prime minister. He was no longer “one of the boys.”
Camp didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with the “Gucci” stories since they did no harm; Mulroney won the next election anyway. Camp agrees that the public has a right to know what goes into the making of a public figure. But as to setting the standards of politicians’ morality, Camp says it is the public’s tolerance level-not the media-that becomes society’s moral gatekeeper.
Dalton Camp was the last interview in my quest. Through him, I’d learned much about Mulroney. I’d come to realize that since 1984, when he first led his party to victory, the media has played a large part in shaping our perception of him. At first, he was portrayed as a golden boy. Now, nothing he can do or say seems to please the press or the nation.
The launching of John Sawatsky’s biography last September did not help. Coverage by the press centred on controversial chapters about Mulroney’s past to the exclusion of everything else in the book. My conservative background and lack of exposure to this open journalism had not prepared me for the way the press covered the book. I spoke to Sawatsky when the furor had died down. He agreed that most of the press’s selective accounts had been unfair to Mulroney. I did not become a big fan of Mulroney’s after reading the book, but neither did I decide that he was unsuitable for office.
I realized that I had to look at the role and ethical codes of journalists in the context of a different political culture. What would be deemed taboo in Singapore-like reporting on the prime minister’s past drinking -may be justifiable here. I feel that journalists in Singapore are not capable of doing a good job because of the social and political constraints placed on them. When I see my home paper, The Straits Times, it now reads like something from Xinhua News Agency-an official communique.
If a story concerns the ability of national leaders to make decisions, it should not matter if it is being reported in Canada, Singapore or any where else in the world; the public has the right to know. It is also the journalist’s ethical duty to inform the public. But as to the invasion of privacy and dwelling on past behavior, be it drinking, womanizing or substance abuse, if the politician has overcome the problem, there is no need to dwell on peephole journalism just to titillate readers. There is a grey area where the press has to balance its responsibilities to the public and to the bottom line. Media outlets are, after all, businesses seeking profits.
On the question of character judgment, I think journalists in a way do become “moral cops.” If a journalist, based on his own moral code of ethics, believes that a politician b erred, he can pass that judgment his readers. Journalists can also exagerate the importance of situation through pack journalism or by cove ing a subject for days or weeks c end. Journalists can whitewash indicretions too, if they want to. I guess it all depends on how popular the politician is. Take John F. Kennedy In the early 1960s every reporter in Washington knew about his affairs but did not write about them.
As for Mulroney, it’s safe to say that he will never achieve the popularity of a J.F.K. I see Mulroney in a slump caused by bad policies, troubled economic times, national disunity, and widely-perceived character flaws like vanity, overriding ambition, smarmy persona, and pettiness. Not to mention a hostile press. It seems it is codified somewhere that one does not write good things about an unpopular leader. When someone’s down we love to add misery to his life.
Journalists like to use the excuse that we only reflect public sentiments and that we are merely being objective and fair. That is not true and we know it. If the public receives a constant feed of derogatory material about a certain individual or government from the press, when the press is seen as reliable, the public will form the impression that the individual is a scoundrel or that the government is corrupt. But when we hold ourselves up as moral judges, who will judge us?
At the end of my quest I found there were no answers, just grey areas which I still ponder. I am sure “gotcha journalism,” by increasing scrutiny on politicians, has helped to raise their ethical standards-or at the very least to make them aware that they’re being watched. But this kind of journalism may also have given us free licence to pollute the public with unproven rumors and hearsay.
by Gabriel Foo
Gabriel Foo was the Assistant Managing Editor, Advertising & Circulation for the Spring 1992 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.