IF PREMIER Doug Ford ever ponders the historical relationship, in a democracy, between politicians and the media, he might come to understand that any attempts to control the latter have been utterly futile, and always will be.
Last week, Ford drew the ire of the ever-shrinking Queen’s Park press gallery by employing a bunch of Conservative flunkies to loudly applaud or cheer whenever a reporter tried to ask a question that might knock Ford off script.
It was all very Trump-ian. But many will remember that another Conservative politician who tried to control the media — a Calgary guy named Stephen Harper — ended up in the political dust bin.
In the early days of his tenure as prime minister, Harper infamously staged an invitation-only media event — a ridiculous concept. Only hand-picked reporters were allowed to go. The trouble was, some of the reporters who did receive invitations informed the ones who didn’t. Harper’s gambit wasn’t just silly, it was futile.
How a politician deals with the media is often reflected in relations with his own caucus. Harper’s need for complete control extended to his MPs, some of whom were not permitted to attend all-candidates meetings in the 2015 federal election. Some long-time Tory supporters — including those old enough to remember loved ones who had died for freedom in the Second World War — saw that as a galling effrontery to democracy, which it certainly was. Many voted Liberal instead.
Former U.S. president Richard Nixon loathed the Washington Post, even before the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation. Prior to Watergate, the Post was banned from attending the wedding of one of Nixon’s daughters. But the Post, operating in a free, democratic society, found a way to cover it anyway. Nixon fumed; the Post survived and continues to do so.
Similarly, a veteran Washington journalist once reminded John F. Kennedy that the New York Times had been around long before Kennedy became president, and would remain long after that.
The late Canadian political columnist Scott Young — yes, Neil Young’s dad — was a Second World War navy vet whose closest friends included some tough customers, including Toronto Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe.
Despite his many contacts at high levels, Young rarely missed a chance to tweak the noses of politicians, including the time he duped a Toronto mayor into posing for a photograph with a convicted murderer. That was dirty pool, but in a free society practical jokes against political muckamucks won’t land you in a Gulag-style jail cell. (Don’t try it in Russia, whose leaderhip Donald Trump apparently adores.)
Like Nixon and many, many politicians before him, Doug Ford famously doesn’t like the media. Some might say he has an axe to grind. While a Toronto city councillor, he railed against the constant, sensational coverage of his erratic brother, Rob Ford, that city’s late mayor. It wasn’t the media’s fault — or Doug’s, for that matter — that Rob would sometimes saunter very wobbly down a main city street late at night in a severely intoxicated haze.
Then the Globe and Mail published a major feature that alleged that Doug Ford had sold drugs as a young man. Ford, who was never charged, vehemently denied the allegations, but never sued the Globe. The Ontario Press Council ruled the Globe’s coverage was fair and ethical.
In the Trump era, some believe the relationship between journalists and politicians has never been worse. Current Times publisher Arthrur Salzberg recently told Trump during a White House tête-à-tête that the president’s disdainful tone towards the media was harmful to a society that puts a high premium on freedom in general, and freedom of speech in particular.
Perhaps that tone is especially worrisome, given the media’s revenue shortage and reduced resources for reporters who seek to report the facts, however imperfectly.
But even when newspapers and other media agencies were flush with cash, the relationship with politicians was never entirely smooth. It’s better that way. The news, as one veteran Canadian editor once put it, is what the muckamucks don’t want us to know. Trump-ian lap dogs need not apply, in other words.
Trying to drown out reporters with loud clapping by party hacks, or putting journalists behind barriers, as Trump has done, won’t change that.
That’s one thing worth cheering about.