The Big Interview Part 2

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The questions were asked, but were they answered?

(This is the conclusion of a two part series. You can read part one here.)

We are roughly halfway through the interview at this point.

Hutton remarked on the amount of coverage the premiers surgery received in the U.S., and how it became ammunition for the conservative right, who are opposed to health care reform. Williams deflected this question by saying it was specialized surgery that was not available here he did not address the point that his own inept communications caused the uproar in the first place.

Williams agreed that he did become the poster boy for the American right, but then says this: The irony here is that Ive actually set up a foundation which takes my salary, which primarily assists young children to go out of the province for surgeries. So theres really kind of an irony here.

This seems to be a shallow attempt by Williams to use his foundations assistance to young children to somehow justify how he handled his own situation - as premier. Whether Hutton should have challenged him on this point is debatable its so tawdry, Im not sure I would have touched it either.

And then theres this: I didnt give away my right to try and find the best health care possible, to enable me to get well in order to lead the people of the province.

So, yeah, he didnt do it for himself, he did it for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Hutton didnt ask how that jibes with my heart, my health, my choice and looking out for number one.

The premier replies with typical bravado, when Hutton asks if he was scared going into the operation.

You know something, Fred. Im being dead honest with you I wasnt. I was probably more nervous getting the back surgery done (because there was greater uncertainty around it).

Hutton circles back around to the controversy that erupted in national and international media. The question was 155 words long and rambled quite a bit, but heres the gist of it:

Aside from the fact that some people were picking at your personal life and that kind of thing, there was sharp criticism that you had left your health care system to go and get it done somewhere else. Were you surprised by that?

I was probably surprised by the magnitude of it, Williams replied. But at that point in time, that was really the least of my concerns. I was focused on what I had to get done, I was focused on getting the surgery, healing, recovery and getting back to work As for the impact it had on me, it had absolutely no impact on me personally. You know, if the people in health care debates want to make a political football out of this, so be it. Thats their right, and their right to do it. Its some of the people at home who have agendas that disappoint me. I was really disappointed in Yvonne. I have a good relationship with Yvonne Jones, but Yvonne talked about her right to know what my condition was at that particular point in time. I was disappointed in that.

It would have been nice if Hutton had challenged the premier on this one. Jones did a rather lengthy interview with Radio Noon on February 2, during which she was polite, caring and respectful. The only thing at all political in the discussion was her suggestion that we should know what the premiers procedure was so that we can look into providing the service here in this province. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Hutton asks Williams if he plans to run for a third term. The answer is absolutely, and possibly another one after that. Then the premier wanders back to the topic of health care in Newfoundland and Labrador, offering up this ditty:

Through our various ministers, and now Minister Kennedy, were doing everything we can to make sure we have the utmost confidence in our health care system. I certainly do (have confidence). Its a bum rap for someone to say Williams doesnt have confidence in his own health care system, because he had to leave his province. Well, I had to leave the province because it was recommended to me by own doctors for this particular type of surgery... Health care is a big challenge for us but were putting a lot of money and energy into it.

(I just thought youd appreciate that quote in light of the premiers latest round of insults against doctors in this province.)

To his credit, Hutton does challenge the premier on the way his heart surgery was kept quiet, versus the open way he communicated about his back surgery in 2003.

Those were my decisions, the premier said. I work with my staff, my chief of staff, my communications staff and everybody else in my office to make informed decisions about the best way to go. When it comes to health care I do kind of override as much as I can, to say okay, fine, heres the way Id really like this to happen. In the case of the back surgery, I was leader of the opposition. Thats not to demean that position but I was not premier of the province. My scenario was not incidental but it wasnt as important as it was this time around. I also knew the back surgery was what it was. This time around I was getting heart surgery, a very delicate heart surgery as well.

Possible question: You say circumstances were different as Leader of the Opposition, and the role of premier is more important. But doesn't that indicate a need for more information, rather than less? To put it another way, why is privacy less important for the opposition leader?

Also, the premier contradicts himself here. Minutes earlier, he said he was not scared going into the heart surgery, because he had a clear diagnosis of his condition, and was more scared during his back surgery, because it had more uncertainty. Now he is saying he knew the back surgery was what it was. This time around I was getting heart surgery, a very delicate heart surgery as well. (I point this out for the record, but I don't think Hutton - or any journalist - could be faulted for missing this inconsistency during the interview itself.) Anyway, the premier continues, uninterrupted:

And in fairness to all the other people who are sick in Newfoundland and Labrador, I didnt want this big media frenzy about me going off to get a surgery it wasnt the fact that I was going away to get a surgery, it was the fact that I was getting a surgery, and I would draw all this attention. And all these very sick people who were out there, saying, Whats Williams getting on with here? Hes just getting a surgery that hes going to be fine afterwards and Im here somebody who possibly could have a terminal illness. So I was trying to actually minimize attention, quite frankly.

Here is a clear test of Huttons willingness to come back with a supplementary question, as there is no shortage of holes in the premiers logic. Alas, it was another opportunity lost. All Hutton had to do was repeat the premiers statement: So you are saying the secrecy had nothing to do with you leaving the province? That you kept your surgery secret because you didnt want to upset other people who are sick?

Even the premier would have laughed out loud, on hearing that one played back to him. Then the premier plays the privacy card again:

And as well, Fred, when it comes to your own personal health, you do have a right to a certain amount of privacy. Theres absolutely no doubt about it. And I think the people of Newfoundland and Labrador get that. I think they understand it. Theres a very, very small percentage that dont, and theres a certain very, very small section of the media and I dont want to tag the media with this theres a few jerks out there who decided they were going to make an issue out of this, because Well get Williams while hes down. Well, they got a lot of gall to do it, I can tell you that much.

Since I wrote a seven-part series about this controversy, I can safely assume Im one of the jerks.

I dont mind, really. If anything, this is a badge of honour. I join a long list of people many of them fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have been smeared and insulted by the premier because we dared ask a probing question or two.

Hutton sticks no pins in the premiers self-serving logic and doesnt follow up on the jerk comment either. He concludes this way:

Hutton: So it seems like you still got a bit of spark there.

Williams: Yeah, you can take that to the bank.

If this was a fireside chat sort of interview, the kinder, gentler kind you see at the start of the new year, all would be fine. But it was no fireside chat. It was presented as an NTV exclusive, with hype that played to the controversy around this story. Therefore, I viewed it with increased expectations.

Lets not beat around the bush. Danny Williams is not an easy politician to interview. He has a short fuse, and has been known to get angry when reporters ask tough questions. Fred Hutton knows this. Every journalist in the province knows it. In order to get the interview in the first place, there had to be an agreement tacit or otherwise that certain topics were off limits. Judging from this interview, it seems that persistent supplementary questions were also not on.

An exclusive with the premier at this time was a major coup. With NTV still way out in front but slipping in the ratings, you can appreciate that they were eager to talk to the premier. But under what pre-conditions?

Hutton did ask some challenging questions. But the premier answered as he pleased, seemingly aware that his responses would not be debated. As a result, many questions were not answered satisfactorily.

Yes, I was being facetious in pointing out some of the questions that could have been asked, or probed further. I didnt expect Hutton to pick up on all of these. But there was at least one area where he should have probed, and insisted on an answer.

After the interview, we still didnt know why the premier refused to explore the option of having the surgery done in Canada (if indeed thats what wasnt offered means). This is where Hutton needed to say, Please explain that, Premier. This is where he fell down, and the entire interview suffers because of it.

As I said, I do have a lot of respect for Hutton. I think he takes his integrity seriously. And it would be unfair to suggest that he has compromised it by this interview. I dont think he sold himself out in any obvious way. But he was soft on his subject when hard questions needed to be answered, so I do think his credibility has taken a hit.

NOTE: You can still watch the edited version of this interview online, in two parts, by going to NTVs web site and clicking the video vault.

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  • Darrell
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Finally....I have my Meeker fix back.

    At the outset of this debate, I was annoyed by the 'jerks' (yes, you included) jumping all over Williams given that it was/is a private matter and we didn't have all information.

    I said at that time that once more information was released, we'd all be in a better position to understand his decision. Unfortunately, nobody has been 'allowed' to ask the toughest of questions (clarifying offered ) and I'm 'quite frankly dissapointed' in the Premier's coy response and by Fred's soft approach on this one.

    Nice piece Geoff.