The calls are still coming, fast and furious, to VOCM Open Line and the listener feedback machines at CBC Radio, attacking the media for even asking questions about the premiers medical condition.
Last night, in a news conference, Deputy Premier Dunderdale described the premiers privacy as sacrosanct. This is a talking point that has been repeated ad nauseum on Open Line and elsewhere, and I am highly skeptical of its origins. However, I will deal with that shortly, in a subsequent post.
But for now, lets deal with the premiers privacy. Thus far, he has avoided describing precisely what his medical condition is, except that it involves his heart. And the premiers privacy has become the chief rallying cry in this governments attempts to mobilize the public against the media (more on that later as well).
So lets look at how carefully Williams guarded his privacy a while back, when doctors removed a mass of tissue from (the premiers) back that was believed to be the source of his pain.
Oh no a medical detail! A mass of tissue! What culprit revealed this? NTV? The evil CBC? Randy Simms?
No, its a press release from the PC Party, issued in 2003, just months before the election call that made Williams premier. Copied below are excerpts from relevant press releases and media coverage, courtesy of Wallace McLeans Labrador blog. You should read the full entry, once finished here. Its a real eye-opener.
While reading these excerpts, I ask you to consider two things: how forthcoming Williams is with medical information, and the fact that he is in pre-election mode.
From a CBC News story, May 16, 2003:
ST. JOHN'S Conservative Leader Danny Williams remains in hospital. He was admitted on Wednesday in severe pain. Initially, doctors thought he was suffering from kidney stones. Now they think he has an infection. A spokesperson in his office says Williams is waiting for test results, and he hopes to get out of hospital over the weekend.
From a PC Party press release, May 20, 2003:
The physicians and staff of St. Clare's have conducted tests to determine what is causing the pain. They believe it is the result of inflamed tissue in my back. Tomorrow, [May 21, 2003] they will perform back surgery to try and alleviate the pain, Williams said.
From a CBC News story, May 20, 2003
ST. JOHN'S Opposition Leader Danny Williams will have surgery Wednesday in an attempt to relieve the severe pain that put him in hospital on May 14. Williams was suffering from severe back and stomach pains. Doctors say he has inflamed tissue in his back. Williams says he was able to leave hospital over the long weekend, but his mobility was impaired. It's not known how long Williams will need to recover, but the surgery is not expected to have a long-term impact on his political career.
From a PC Party press release, May 21, 2003:
During the complicated operation, which lasted more than two hours, doctors removed a mass of tissue from his back that was believed to be the source of his pain. As a standard precautionary procedure, this tissue will be analyzed over the next 48 hours. Williams is now fully conscious and resting in hospital with his family.
From a PC Party press release, May 26, 2003
My physicians are very pleased with the surgery and expect me to make a full recovery. In fact, I am already able to take short walks in the hospital. All tests to date have been completed and the results were extremely favourable. Doctors say that I am making excellent and steady progress, but given the nature of the surgery, complete recovery could take upwards of six weeks. They have developed a rehabilitation program that involves rest, appropriate physical exercise and physiotherapy. I will strictly adhere to that program and will do everything possible to expedite my recovery, Williams said.
As a result of the surgery, Williams is experiencing normal post-operative pain. He is continuing to receive medical treatment in hospital and is being re-evaluated on a day-to-day basis to determine an appropriate discharge date.
Given that physicians are advising me not to travel in the immediate future, I will be asking a number of our MHAs to represent me and the party at various functions throughout the province. With the exception of travel, I expect to be able to conduct all of my duties as Leader of the Opposition, MHA for Humber West and Leader of the PC Party of Newfoundland and Labrador while working from my office at home.
From a VOCM News story, May 29, 2003:
Opposition leader Danny Williams is on the road to recovery. Williams was released from hospital yesterday after undergoing back surgery a week ago. He was rushed to hospital a couple of weeks ago suffering from severe back pain. Williams tells VOCM News there is still some pain, but he's feeling good. Williams says he will concentrate now on getting healthy for a possible fall election. He says a plan was in place had the premier decided to call an election while he was undergoing surgery.
The premier was completely open about his health care in 2003, and the matter was handled respectfully by local media. The proof is in the stories, even from the nefarious CBC. If Williams had handled his latest medical issues as openly, chances are this story would have attracted much less local, national and international media attention.
So what has changed since 2003? Back then, the Tories were in opposition, and an election was imminent. Based on these facts, one might conclude that the premier was using his medical condition to leverage public support. Based on the go for the jugular tactics weve seen since then, this is a credible point of view.
Note this line, from the VOCM story: Williams says he will concentrate now on getting healthy for a possible fall election. He says a plan was in place had the premier (Grimes) decided to call an election while he was undergoing surgery.
Sounds political to me.
The other big difference is that the 2003 operation was performed locally, so the matter of going elsewhere for care wasnt an issue. This time it was, and thus some clear communication similar to that of 2003 was even more important.
Dunderdales contention that the premiers privacy is sacrosanct is dead wrong. Williams is a public figure. He is our premier, the man accountable for this provinces health care system. And here is what the Canadian Association of Journalists says about public figures, in its code of ethics:
The public has a right to know about its institutions and the people who are elected or hired to serve its interests. Their role is public and in matters concerning these roles they are accountable to the public.
Furthermore, the premier has done everything to nurture the bizarre cult of personality now manifesting on Open Line and elsewhere. Here is how the premier described himself in 2007, in a national CBC interview with Rex Murphy:
I think our popularity is based not so much on me. It's based on the fact that I think I represent in my own heart and soul the hearts and souls of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians
Yes, everyone in this province has a stake in the premier. Therefore, they have a right to ask about his health.
The many, many people who are attempting to browbeat the media into dropping this story are seeking to inhibit freedom of speech, one of the cornerstones of our democracy.
They should be tolerated, but roundly ignored, because they are wrong.
We have a right to ask.
We had a right to ask before the Williams Government came along, and will have this right long after it is gone.