Last week was a strange, spooky time in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Entire segments of the population were rushing to their phones and computers, telling the rest of us that freedom of speech was dead. They said we could not ask questions about Danny Williamss health; that the media did not have a right to even discuss it.
The story broke February 1 on the NTV Evening Newshour, and was confirmed the next morning at 9:30 am by Acting Premier Dunderdale. There were plenty of headlines, of course, and Radio Noon devoted its full program to the subject. There was tape from Dunderdales media scrum, followed by an interview with Yvonne Jones, Leader of the Official Opposition.
Jones was genuinely caring and respectful. The only critical statement if you can call it that was a suggestion that we examine the premiers treatment requirements to see if the procedure can be made available here. Thats a constructive idea.
Radio Noon then started its Crosstalk program, and this is when all hell hit the fan. The subject was What do you make of the premiers health situation? The first few callers were respectful, offering best wishes to the premier on a speedy recovery. But then the tone became nasty, and the callers started attacking CBC some quite aggressively for even talking about the subject.
Here is a paraphrased summary of a typical call:
I think journalistic integrity at CBC is on the wane. This is tabloid journalism What business is it of ours, where the surgery is being done if its not coming from the public purse? I dont know what theyre teaching you in J-school but its not integrity.
That evening, Randy Simms discussed the matter in his Straight Talk segment on CBC Here Now. Simms was respectful, but did raise the point that more information up front would have answered questions and prevented any controversy.
The next day, on Wednesday morning, the CBC Radio Morning Show presented a media panel of Bob Wakeham (former CBC executive producer) and Peter Jackson (a Telegram editor) talking about the premiers privacy versus the publics right to know. The discussion was about fairness, balance and how much the public should know about politicians personal lives. At one point, Wakeham pointed out that, if politicians use spouses as props, in photos and on stage during election rallies, then we have a right to know if that marriage ends not in a sensational way, but as a simple point of interest. Similarly, if a premier is in charge of the provinces health care, we have a right to know if he seeks medical care elsewhere not in an invasive way, but merely to know why this was necessary.
Then, at 9 am on Wednesday, VOCM Open Line went on the air. That was when we entered the Twilight Zone.
Almost all calls were about the premiers heart surgery, and every one of them defended the premiers choice to leave the country for medical care. The vast majority of callers attacked the media for overplaying the story, or even reporting it at all. It came down to an issue of privacy, and everyone felt the media and thus the public had no right to even ask about the premiers health care choices.
For those who still believe in freedom of speech, and the importance of critical thought, this was more than a little disorienting. But it got worse. We had the spectacle of Tom Hedderson, a minister in the Williams Government, calling to encourage the population to rise up against the media. I recorded the conversation, so I can bring you excerpts here. First, Hedderson fired a shot at the Opposition Leader, before lacing into media.
Its disgusting Randy whats transpired over the last couple of days, and I will begin with my own colleague, the Leader of the Opposition. Now I know her, I know she is generally concerned about the premiers health, but again you cant say that in one part of an interview, and in the next part come out blazing, saying we need full disclosure, we need this, we need that, and we need the premier to say exactly, and privacy, and that sort of thing.
Yeah, its gibberish. Short on specifics with a lot of this and that. But the only critical thing Jones said in that interview was a suggestion that we consider making Dannys procedure available here. For that reason, we should know at some point what the procedure was. There was a lot of empathy expressed but no attack on the premiers privacy. Go listen to the interview to see for yourself. It seems that Hedderson used public sympathy for the premiers wellbeing to lever a political attack on Jones, which is pretty low, in my view. (Did you play the Jones interview? Go! Listen! Ill meet you back here.)
And then Hedderson tore into the media, accusing them of going into the stratosphere in its coverage of this story. Simms suggested, correctly, that coverage might have been minimized if the premier had offered more information at the outset.
What kind of information are you talking about? Hedderson asked. As far as Im concerned, the acting premier yesterday certainly outlined the information that is necessary for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and if thats what we consider necessary for the people I consider that necessary for the media as well.
Simms pointed out that the premier is a special case, as a public figure, and premier of the province, as I said in part one of this series. Hedderson reiterated earlier points, but became frustrated when he couldnt punch through Simmss wall of reason. Heres a chunk of the transcript:
Hedderson: What Im saying to you is that when you get the likes of CBC, who are going away off on a tangent, and linking all of this to health care, and not a commitment from government and so on and so forth, that is basically escalating (the story) and we want it to stop Its not the faith in the health care thats shaken here, its the faith in the media, and their ability to make sure that they certainly are reporting, but again reporting in accurate ways and really truly reflecting what is going on driving a story.
Simms: Has anything been reported inaccurately?
Hedderson: What Im saying Randy is that the connections that are made here
Simms: There may be connections made but you cant expect the media to become a state communiqu office.
Hedderson: Absolutely. I wouldnt want it. I dont know if youve been listening, Randy
Simms: I have been! I have been!
Hedderson: What Im asking, I should go beyond you and I will speak to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Im asking the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to do what Im doing this morning and get on the Open Lines, make sure that theyre making representation to the media and telling them how they feel about what the situation is. Again, the bottom line is Im asking the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to again express their support for our premier who is ill, who is out of the office right now, and certainly you know we are hoping that he will be back as quickly as possible and again asking them to make sure that they keep him in his prayers.
Simms: Tom Hedderson, Minister of Transportation and Works You dont really want to mount a campaign against the media here do you?
Hedderson: Randy, what Im saying is that there is responsibilities of all of us. We all have responsibilities and Im asking the media to take some responsibility here and to make sure that the support that is necessary has been given to our premier
I will have more on this in part four, coming soon along with a little reality check.