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Media not intimidated by premier's outburst

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones famously said, "I dunno I'm making this up as I go."

It seems that Danny Williams has seen the same movie. He's been erratic lately, zig-zagging from one position to another.

One moment, he was telling us that his preference was not to discuss matters before the breast cancer inquiry, the next emphatically denying that his government concealed patient health information. A day later, on April 9, he said in the House that "you have to walk a very, very fine line here in me putting my interpretation or expressing opinions and expressing conclusions on other testimony that occurs before the inquiry." Then, on April 14, he dropped the bombshell that Eastern Health was going to lose the class action lawsuit.

He wasn't speaking as premier, mind you. He was speaking as a lawyer. As if he had that luxury.

Perhaps the premier's unexpected legal counsel was an attempt to get back on the right side of public opinion, after a bad week that started with his red-faced rant in the House of Assembly on April 8.

The premier came out swinging, primarily against the CBC and CBC National in particular, for getting a key fact wrong and lectured the media on pushing too hard for information.

In a media scrum, he accused reporters of harassing patients, though he didn't offer specific proof. He even went after The Telegram for reporting the truth: the results of a consultant's report about the province's difficulty in hiring pathologists. He said it was "an accurate story" but reporting it would hamper the province's recruitment efforts.

It was a typical Danny Williams tantrum, but if it was intended to cow the media into submission, it didn't work. In fact, it backfired.

In the days that followed, a surprising number of columnists lined up to challenge the premier, and make it clear that they were not intimidated in the least by his vitriol.

It started with a scathing editorial in The Telegram, which is so seamlessly composed, it's difficult to extract a short quote. Click the link and read it all.

Brian Jones of The Telegram weighed in on April 11 with a typically scathing column, writing that the premier's behavior was "more expected of a two-year-old rather than a leader holding such a high political office."

Equally brutal were the comments of Bob Wakeham, writing in The Telegram of April 13. His column is not available online so here are a few select excerpts:

"It was nothing short of disconcerting, almost saddening, to watch Premier Danny Williams at his lecturing worse during the early part of last week, condemning tough and sensitive questions about his government's role in the cancer testing fiasco

"Taking the low road, shooting the messenger, is not a particularly original or shocking modus operandi for politicians; it's a ubiquitous ploy, in evidence whenever elected officials find themselves under the gun

"But if ever there was an issue that absolutely begged for straight-shooting, devoid of the melodramatic one-upmanship displayed by the touchy premier, it is this medical scandal."

On April 11, Ryan Cleary of The Independent wrote that, "Danny Williams may be well into his second term, but the breast cancer testing story is dealing the first real blow to his administration." (This editorial is not available at The Independent's web site, though I suspect it will be, as all previous editorials are posted.)

Sue Hickey of the Grand-Falls Windsor Advertiser also chided Williams. "The premier and his supporters, however, are forgetting one substantial fact," she wrote. "In this day and age, and especially in a province where dissenting voices are practically nonexistent in the House of Assembly, the media is the Opposition."

On April 13, Pam Frampton wrote a moving, more personal piece in The Telegram on this topic, and called the premier out for "pointing his own finger of blame at the media for doing its job and asking tough questions and trying to get information to the public."

In his April 13 column in The Telegram, Russell Wangersky was unfazed by the premier's temper, offering up some hard questions about who actually runs the day-to-day affairs of government.

I don't think I have ever seen such an intense response from so many commentators, to a single outburst from a premier. The premier fired a shot at media and the media, undeterred, took careful aim and fired back.

From many directions.

It was devastating.

The premier's response was to fire another round, a letter to the editor in The Telegram, aimed at Brian Jones but clearly talking to the media at large.

"I will accept responsibility when mistakes have been made, but I will not turn a blind eye to erroneous statements which destroy my reputation or the reputation of others," the premier writes, referring to the CBC error, which was corrected promptly. "And I will resort to legal remedies any time this occurs. If media organizations don't like this, then correctly report the facts and it will not be a problem.

"We, as political leaders, have an obligation to act responsibly and to be open and transparent. The media remind us of this all the time. Well, it is time for the media to remember that you, too, have an obligation to report facts, in an unbiased and balanced manner to help people form their own opinions.

"Fortunately, most reporters operate in exactly this responsible manner. But those who don't should seriously consider the repercussions of their actions on the patients and the public - who deserve better."

I am not aware of any significant factual errors that have been made in the local media, in their ongoing coverage of this story (please correct me if I'm wrong). Journalists are digging hard and asking tough questions, but there's no law against that.

There have strong opinions expressed in recent days, as shown above, but that falls under "fair comment". And defamation law in Canada entitles each of us to make "fair comment" on issues of the day. Lloyd Duhaime of Duhaime Law in Vancouver writes: "The rule of thumb is that the fair comment must reflect an honestly held opinion based on proven fact and not motivated by malice." ( Click here to read more on this subject. Reporters, in particular, need to know about this stuff.)

This is not the first time the premier has threatened legal action against his critics, and the repeated references to legal action in the letter to Brian Jones seem excessive. Is he trying to inject local media with a dose of libel chill?

One thing is for certain: the media aren't afraid to show their teeth, when someone snarls at them first.

NOTE: I do apologize for the dearth of posts this last week. I've been spread pretty thin by other work commitments. And it's been frustrating because, with the testimony coming out of the cancer testing inquiry, I probably could have posted something every day. I don't think I will try to write any comprehensive wrap of the hearings I will leave that to Justice Cameron though I intend to comment at some point on the Health Care Corporation's approach to "communications" and "public" relations. It was astonishing.

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Recent comments

  • Chris
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53


    I think that you're correct in stating that, right now, the real opposition is the media. Williams' distain for anyone who disagrees with him or his administration is almost legendary - at least a part of his legacy. When tough questions are asked, Danny gets pissed. We saw this when he was leader of the opposition. We see it everyday in the House. His wrath for anyone or anything questioning what he does is normally aimed squarely at the media local or national. I also suspect that there aren't many hands raised around the cabinet table when he asks if there are any questions. Don't get the boss mad. (Insert Elizabeth Marshall joke here.)

    But you neglected another source of Danny's angst. Bloggers local or national. I understand that they may not be considered mainstream media but they do add much to the discussion. They do get under his skin. And he responds only in a way that Danny can. At a news conference last year, I believe he muttered, under his breath, something along the lines of "Contrary to what some Liberal bloggers think" Bloggers, much like the CBC and Tely, do bother him. (At least the Liberal ones anyway). To my knowledge he has yet to threaten to sue any bloggers. But give him time.

    As you know, there are some excellent local and national political blogs. While some are Liberal, some Conservative, others non-partisan, they do ask questions and invoke debate, which is what we need. They are another voice some for, some against. Whether one buys into what blogs say or ignores them completely is up to the individual - much like the TV and print media.

    One of the problems with partisan blogs may be their perceived agenda. I don't think that the CBC or the Telegram has any hidden agenda by asking tough questions (others will disagree I'm sure). However, by not backing down, continuing to ask hard questions and make stinging commentary, the media rightly adds fuel to the flame. You can almost see Danny's face turn a deeper shade of red.