Danny's thin skin

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Freezing out journalists will backfire eventually

Today, a few observations flowing from Email Trail, my previous post.

Not surprisingly, Ed Hollett thoroughly dissected it in his blog. I am generally fine with what he has to say, and will let it speak for itself.

I break this down into one main issue, which is the premier's inability to brook any kind of serious criticism. It is left to Elizabeth Matthews to defend a policy that, in all likelihood, she would normally advise against.

Quite simply, you cannot decide to freeze out a reporter because they've been sharply critical in their commentary, as Westcott has been with Premier Williams. This is what Westcott does, as evidenced by his harsh treatment of the previous Liberal administration. Tough questions are essential in journalism, and provocative opinions are what make commentary interesting.

How else do you explain Westcott's popularity, in a province where the premier enjoys an 80 per cent approval rating? Since the premier's embargo, Westcott has become a weekly columnist on the CBC Radio Morning Show, an occasional commentator on CBC TV Here & Now and his magazine continues to grow (despite the lack of provincial government advertising). Newfoundlanders and Labradorians love their politics and adore their premier, but they enjoy caustic opinions too.

The last email from Matthews is quite revealing in that we see numerous examples of what this administration views as "malicious". So, right off the top, let's poke a pin into that balloon. Those quotes are not malicious. They are, rather, fair comment, meaning that Westcott assessed the facts and offered an informed opinion. He expresses his views in a colourful way, but they are honestly held.

For example, here is a Westcott quote to which Matthews and presumably the premier took offence:

"But Williams political skin is as thin as an onion's and he is used to getting his ass kissed, insists on it too, I think."

If you strip away the colourful language which should not be mistaken for malice you get this:

"Williams is sensitive to criticism and expects total loyalty from his caucus."

Based on recent events, such as Shawn Skinner's embarrassing clarification' for daring to suggest that some levels of government were working with the feds, that is indeed a fair comment.

Matthews also flagged the phrases "a small man" and "cowardly and self-demeaning." I do believe Williams himself used "a small man" to describe the Prime Minister, during the equalization dispute, whilst accusing him of "preying on the weak" a direct slap against Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald (never mind that MacDonald was correct in accepting the deal, as Williams seemed to accept in yesterday's scrum by pointing out that their situation is "apples and oranges" compared to this province).

Williams has been known to blurt out things in the heat of battle that are not exactly diplomatic. I can list examples, but you get my drift. He's a fighter and many people expect this from him. But if he can dish it out, he should learn to take it as well.

It is colourful and sometimes crude, but Westcott's political commentary has become an important part of the intellectual ferment in this province. We need people like him, and Ray Guy, and Bob Wakeham, and anybody else who is not afraid to say what they really think.

After all, this is the province that gave birth to This Hour has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer, and more. We like spicy, saucy commentary. Come to think of it, didn't the premier recently appear on both programs, mocking Stephen Harper?

I spoke with Craig briefly on the telephone yesterday, after receiving his string of emails, and he revealed that the premier's interview embargo dates back even further than December of 2005.

"It dates back to when I was working full-time at The Express," he said, "but those emails were on my computer there and I don't have them anymore."

Westcott said that, early on, he had a decent relationship with the premier. "Williams used to call me up from time to time and respond to stuff I wrote he talked to me as if I was one of his buddies. The first time I think I drew fire from him was when he lowered the flag during the Atlantic Accord stuff. I said he was going overboard. He called me up and tried to convince me of his position, and we were still communicating after that. But then after the vote on the FPI Act I wrote a column, saying that the rest of caucus won't take a pee without his permission and how disingenuous it was for them to vote one way and him to vote another. If you listen to his speech from the House of Assembly that day, he spoke for a very long time and it really sounded like he was going to vote the same way as the rest of the party. But then all of a sudden, after giving this big long speech, he threw in two paragraphs at the end saying But I can't support any of that and now I'm going to vote this way'. It was ludicrous, and I called him on it. And they were not pleased."

Perhaps not. But based on Westcott's account, this phrase, one of those that Matthews was upset about, is an apt description: Williams was "doing the dirty work for the likes of Risley and Rowe."

So is this one:

"That his minions on the government benches were made to vote for the disastrous idea while he voted against it to save face was beyond tawdry."

Based on events as they unfolded, I would call that fair comment - strongly stated perhaps - but not malice.

The fact that the premier refuses to deal with a strong voice of dissent, despite his high approval ratings, is absolutely Smallwoodian. It should be cause for grave concern, not just for journalists, but every free-thinking citizen of this province.

Newfoundland and Labrador has had a history of poor political leadership, rip-off deals and failed industrial developments. For me, there are two big lessons we can draw from that.

The first no more giveaways is one we've already taken to heart.

The second no more messiahs well, we're still working on that one.

I could end the post on that wry little remark, but that would be simplistic. The premier is a complex individual with a lot of qualities. He is doing many things right, and is massively popular for it. But his inability to tolerate tough criticism will be his eventual undoing, because the criticism and abuse will inevitably intensify the longer he is in power. It is no place for a thin skin.

And freezing out journalists doesn't work, because they don't go away. They are free to continue with their scathing commentaries.

Craig Westcott is proof of that.

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Recent comments

  • Mark
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    It will be interesting to see how this relationship between media and the Premier (read government) develops, given the new composition of the House (if it ever sits). While it's easy and legitimate to criticize media for not challenging the government at times, it's similarly a mistake to place on the media the lofty expectation to fill in for a weak, directionless Opposition.

    But as long as the Opposition remains it in its weakened state, the Premier is going to have to get used to the fact that questioning and criticism will and should come from the province's reporters. Some would argue he's had a relatively free ride to date.

    Given his own propensity for insults and indignation toward others, he is on weak ground complaining when it's thrown at him.