Eating Words

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Some comment on journalists entering politics

It's been more than a week since news broke that two well-known local journalists had entered the political fray.

Craig Westcott is running for the Conservatives in St. John's East, and Ryan Cleary for the NDP in St. John's South Mount Pearl.

Both journalists have a reputation as shit disturbers, so no one should be surprised that the media would make them run the gauntlet, putting them on the spot and forcing them to eat words they've said about their party leaders.

Here's a piece about Westcott and another about Cleary.

Some commentators have been shocked at how vicious these interrogations have been, but not me, and certainly not the journalists themselves, who knew exactly what they were in for when they signed on. They also knew, when their wrote those comments, that it was on the public record and could come back some day to bite their butts.

Former Independent reporter Brian Callahan weighed into this discussion, on the CBC Radio Morning Show last week. And on Sunday, at least one other media commentator the irascible Bob Wakeham made his disenchantment known loud and clear. He said that both journalists were essentially selling out and crossing over to the dark side.

If you agree that all politicians are scoundrels and scumbags, then Wakeham is right. However, I still think, naively perhaps, that there is room for honour and decency in politics. I also think that the journalistic skill set which includes research skills, a healthy amount of cynicism, and a good grasp of the issues would also make them effective as politicians. So it would be a shame to lose that resource pool.

As for the suggestion that journalists are compromised by running for a political party, I like what Mark Watton had to say about that, in the comments to the previous post.

"The presumption that people who throw their hat in the ring in any partisan endeavour are subsequently disqualified from having their own opinion is unfortunate," Watton wrote. "It keeps far too many sensible people from taking an active role in public life and leaves politics to the sheep and fanatics."

I understand that there's a certain amount of theatre in the commentary game; that harsh opinions are expected and thus dispensed. We are each going to have to decide, as individuals, whether to forgive Westcott and Cleary their previous comments (as will potential future employers in the media, should that day come). Personally, I've gotten past it.

But there is one transgression that I just can't let go. It's more than a few scattershot swipes at politicians.

It's a seismic shift in political ideology that is somewhat galling.

For the full four years that he served as editor of The Independent, Ryan Cleary has stuck doggedly to his nationalist ideals, making his beliefs clearer as time went by. For example, there is this quote from his editorial in The Independent from the May 3, 2008 edition:

"I don't want to seem ungrateful, but now that we're rolling in the cash it may be time to consider breaking away from the country of Canada. If we're teetering on the edge of economic independence anyway, why not go all the way and raise the Pink, White and Green outside Confederation Building? People are more open to the idea today; it's not sacrilegious to think outside the Canadian box, unless you're a columnist with the Quebec-owned local print competition."

You will find more, much more, if you care to browse their archives or read back issues. The paper had an agenda, and that was an independent Newfoundland. No one, least of all Cleary himself, would deny this point.

So I was appalled when Cleary said, during his first media scrum with Jack Layton, that he was not a separatist.

"Jack Layton asked me, am I a separatist," Cleary said. "No, I am not a separatist. Jack Layton asked me, do I believe in Canada? I believe in Canada. I have nothing to explain."

To the contrary, he has everything to explain. He drove The Independent into the ground not once, but twice because of his dogged devotion to the nationalist cause. I have had several conversations over the years with reporters at the paper, who spoke dismissively of Ryan's "nationalist thing." Far from supporting it, many of them merely tolerated his agenda.

This goes to the core of why The Independent twice failed. For one thing, I am convinced that the public appetite for the pink, white and green' flag, and the independence it represents, is vastly overestimated in this province. My guess is that less than 10 per cent of the population identify with it strongly (this is a topic for future discussion, I know).

Here is what I said about The Independent in my Media Spotlight column, in the October 12, 2005 edition of The Express:

And don't get me started on that Newfoundland nationalism stuff! Rather than move gradually away from it, the paper is running the flag even higher, as evidenced by the latest TV commercials, which are professionally-produced but conceptually flawed. I don't equate quality journalism with the waving of flags. This bias has no place in objective reporting and is holding the paper back more than anything else.

The Independent also has a marketing problem on its hands. Only a segment of the potential market, and possibly a small one at that, buys into the nationalist notion. Therefore, they seem to be pushing the pink, white and green even harder, as if hoping to convert new readers to their cause; a strategy that could backfire by further alienating those who are wary of the paper's overt patriotism.

I think Newfoundland nationalism is a worthwhile topic that merits objective discussion. Ironically, I don't trust The Independent to discuss the matter objectively. It's become an unhealthy obsession for the paper, and it's costing them big-time.

A few months after I wrote this, the paper folded, and was then resurrected, with Cleary and a few other staffers acquiring some shares in the operation. I know Cleary read my comments because he referred obliquely to them, before pronouncing that "the flag stays."

While I didn't agree with this decision, I did respect it. Cleary was going to stay the course, come what may, and that's something I have to admire. Unfortunately, the ship went under, taking a crew of talented people with it.

He could have changed course, modifying the brand and toning back the rhetoric, to produce a credible alternative to The Telegram. But no way. He believed in the separatist ideal enough to sink a newspaper for it.

And then, the Fighting Newfoundlander flip flops, and tells media that he is not a separatist.

Such a complete reversal in ideology is bizarre. I expect some of the former staff, and many loyal readers of the paper, were floored by it.

I know I was.

Cleary's reason for running in this election, as given in that scrum, was neither complex nor deep. He entered politics because "I didn't think I had any alternatives in journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador"

Cleary did make a characteristic reference to bringing Newfoundland and Labrador "into Confederation," but he must have near choked on the words "I am not a separatist." Four years of standing firm on the separatist ideal, tossed out the window in hopes of a well-paying job as MP.

Fighting Newfoundlander, indeed.

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Recent comments

  • Simon
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Amen brother.