Canadian Association of Journalists
I have a message for you, from my leader, Jean Chretien. If any of you have heard me use this one before, too bad.
“Dear Friends,” writes the Prime Minister. “Despite all of your efforts, I am still Prime Minister. I hope you have a shitty conference. Kiss my ass. Sincerely, Jean Chretien.”
I’m kidding, of course. That’s a fake letter. The Prime Minister would obviously never address any of you as friends.
Let me start with an amusing anecdote. Because we don’t have a lot of time together – something for which both of us, for different reasons, are probably grateful – I’ll keep it brief.
During the federal election campaign in the Year of Our Lord 2000, a very senior Liberal – one whose first name starts with a “J” – asked me why I then socialized with people at the National Post. “They’re a bunch of,” and then he used a very naughty word. Let’s just say he called them “jerks.”
“Yes,” I said. “I agree. But they are also jerks who own a daily national newspaper.”
That’s a true story. If, however, you press me for a lot of details about it, I’ll deny everything.
The point of my little joke is this: in the mad scramble for control of the public agenda, political people like me always think reporters control the agenda. Reporters, meanwhile, think political people own the agenda. We’re both wrong.
The real truth, probably, is that voters – our voters, your readers – own the agenda, and they are mad at us both. They are mad because neither side, political people or media people, pays much attention to what real people want. And they are mad because political people and media people are too often preoccupied with each other – and not with the preoccupations of real folks, who cast ballots and buy newspapers.
That’s why fewer of them are voting, and fewer of them are paying attention to what you guys write.
Okay. By my watch, I’ve now killed off a couple of minutes with that pious little sermon. In the remaining ten minutes, I thought I would continue our mutual navel-gazing obsession, and to Hell with the public, in the immortal words of a now-departed CUPW boss.
The subject I want to talk about, today, is the political impact of the National Post. The way I figure it, most of you are also talking about the Post, this weekend, so why should I deny myself some fun?
At the outset, let me declare a conflict: way back in the last millennium, when the Post got started, I wrote the occasional pro-Liberal column for them. I was under no illusions as to why I had been permitted access to the neo-con sanctum sanctorum: they needed a Liberal as an excuse. One pro-Liberal column, thus justifying 15,000 anti-Liberal columns. In the news business, that’s called balance.
Anyway. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not invited to too many parties by folks at the Post, these days. I can’t say I blame them.
They seem to be mad at me. On just one day, recently, the Post published that I was “Canada’s Al Sharpton,” an “asshole,” and – my personal favourite – a “jerk off.” This, from the same group of folks who used to call me, when I wrote for them, a “scholar.” Go figure.
My neutrality thus established, I will make three observations, all of which are the product of the feverish imagination of a partisan Liberal big mouth. Feel free to heave things at me at the end.
Observation one: the Post is toast. The 127th re-launch of Saturday Night is a hopeful sign. But, generally, I think the odds are excellent that the Post will go the way of the way of the Montreal Star, the Ottawa Journal and the Telly in the next year. What do Liberals think about this? We don’t think about it at all, actually.
When the Post was launched by Conrad Black’s ego, about three years ago, it probably made some Liberals nervous. It was so obviously designed to propagandize on behalf of the Reform Party, then the United Alternative, then the Canadian Alliance, that I actually referred to it as “the pamphlet.” As in, an election pamphlet. Someone should have declared it as an election expense, in fact. In retrospect, it is amazing that we would even listen to lectures about the deficit from people who were pissing away $100 million a year.
What will Liberals think when the National Post slips this mortal coil? Again, not much. In election year 1997, when the Post didn’t exist, we won a lot fewer seats than in election year 2000, when it did. You can plausibly make an argument, I believe, that the Post actually helped us.
Here’s my theory on that, in two parts. Part one: most voters hate politicians, but they’re apparently not too wild about the journalistic class, either. So the Post’s attempts to demonize Jean Chretien and the Liberal Party couldn’t ever be effective, no matter how much Conrad Black tried. There was no way Andrew MacIntosh could overcome, in 36 days, the tons of goodwill that Jean Chretien had built up over 36 years. No way.
Part two: voters aren’t stupid. They know when someone is trying to bamboozle and beguile them. They knew Conrad Black hated Jean Chretien over some knighthood thing, and they weren’t about to let his grudges become their own. The fact that Mr. Black had become a bit of a caricature of a rich guy didn’t help his newspaper’s case much, either.
In politics, unlike in life, it’s usually a good idea to have an identified enemy: it helps to identify you. So we nasty Liberals made Conrad Black and the Post our adversary. It worked.
When and if the Post buys the farm, I guess we’ll have to find a new enemy. In the meantime, I’m lobbying for a Royal Commission to investigate whether Stephen Harper has a personality.
Observation two: the National Post’s Shawinigate obsession didn’t hurt Jean Chretien and the Liberal Party. It helped Jean Chretien and the Liberal Party.
I won’t bore you with all the details, because you’ve already been bored by them. Hotel, golf course, BDC, RCMP, CBC, BBC, ABC, blah blah blah.
Shawinigate was called Shawinigate because opposition parties, or hostile media, always glue the suffix “gate” to the tail end of some scandal, real or imagined. Irangate, Filegate, Travelgate, Nannygate, Zippergate in the U.S., Bingo-gate Hydro-gate in B.C., and so on and so on.
Therein lay the mistake. Never, as my hero James Carville once told me, criminalize your political differences. Politicize them. Politicize, don’t criminalize.
The Post threw more ink at Shawinigate than any other public policy issue has recently commanded. No adjective was spared. No insult was left unused. If Jesus Christ Almighty had returned to Earth at the height of Shawinigate, the National Post would have placed the resulting story below the fold. Unless the Messiah had something to say about the Affair Grand-Mere, of course, in which case he would have been the line story.
Was the Shawinigate stuff over the top? Is the Pope Catholic? Does a Bear shit in the woods? Does a one-legged duck swim in circles? Is a frog’s ass watertight? Does a one-legged Pope with a watertight ass shit in circles in the woods?
Well, yes, in a word. Don’t just take my word for it. Some days, I think the Aspers actually bought Southam simply so they could do Canada a service, and put that Shawinigate non-story out of its misery. That may even be why they hired me to write a column for a few months in the Ottawa Citizen, in fact – until I was summarily fired after I refused to apologize to Mark Steyn, having pointed out that Steyn calls Chinese people “chinks.”
Chinks isn’t a racist term, an editor of the Citizen told me. The only time “chink” isn’t racist is when you are talking about imperfections in suits of armour, said I.
I digress. What happened, at the end of the Shawinigate Swindle? Well, let’s see. Jean Chretien’s popularity went up – and 81 per cent of Canadians wanted the subject dropped. The popularity of Stockwell Day and Joe Clark went down – and in Day’s case, it actually never recovered. The Liberals got re-elected with a bigger majority than it had in 1997.
Moral of the story: the scandal-fabrication machine at the Post must be kept alive, at all costs. The government could fall without it.
Observation three, and the final one: I loved the National Post in its heydey. Loved it. Sure, it was fanatically anti-Liberal, and anti-Medicare, and anti-poor people, and anti-feminist, and anti-immigrant, and anti-affirmative action, and anti-tolerance, and anti all of those things bleeding hearts like me care about.
But I’m an avid consumer of political news. And getting surprised by a newspaper is a rare event, these days. Back when Conrad owned it, the Post was often mean, and miserly, and misogynistic, and maddening. But it was never dull. It always contained a curve ball, tucked away in one of those well-designed pages. It was cheeky. It was snotty. It was well written – even if Mark Steyn was allowed to call Chinese people “chinks,” and Japanese people “japs.”
The big question, at the end of the day, is whether the National Post did what it most wanted to do – which is in some way alter or affect Canada’s political scene.
Political hacks like me believe the Post had, and still has, some outstanding writers and editors. Political hacks like me loved the fact that the Post gave over so many column inches to politics – even if, for Liberals, the coverage was usually slanted. Political hacks, like me, will probably miss the Post if it goes.
But it did not do what it set out to do – which was render Canada a more politically conservative place. It did not persuade voters that only conservatives belonged in government, before they set about dismantling it. It failed at those things, utterly.
The conservative guy who created it, who was its soul, has fled to Europe and is named after a train station or something. Many of its top conservative writers and editors have been let go, or have quit. And – this is the most significant thing of all – conservative parties like the Canadian Alliance and Tories remain far less popular than they once were.
Conservatism, as a political choice, ain’t dead. But its most enthusiastic champion, the National Post, probably is. It just doesn’t know it yet.
I will now step away from the podium so that you have a clear shot. Fire away.