Did "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" really cross a line?
October 26, 2011 - It was one of those flash-in-the-pan stories that everyone talks about for 15 minutes, then drops out of sight.
On Monday morning, Mary Walsh ambushed Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at his home, to videotape material for the next edition of “This Hour Has 22 Minutes”. Walsh was in her role of Marg Delahunty, Princess Warrior, which involves wearing a Xena-type costume and sporting a fake sword.
Apparently, Mayor Ford was not amused. He called 911 and asked for police protection. Ford claimed that Walsh came toward him, yelling “we got you Rob Ford, we got you,” a spectacle that frightened his young daughter. The mayor said he had received death threats, and was frightened by the situation.
Video from the incident was widely viewed on the Internet on Tuesday. It ignited discussion in Facebook, with a lot of people agreeing that “This Hour” had crossed a line. People said that everyone, even politicians, are entitled to their privacy, and that Mary Walsh and her colleagues would be equally upset if media ambushed them at their own private residence in the wee hours.
I weighed in with a contrary point of view.
I explained that this happens all the time. Rob Ford was already infamous for not giving access to media, and there were plenty of issues that reporters wanted to ask him about – including a September poll showing that his popularity had nosedived by more than 50 percent.
Marg Delahunty was there ostensibly to offer advice on how to get his numbers up, and no doubt inject a few jibes at Ford’s expense. Other politicians have taken similar treatment and rolled with it, often making themselves look good in the process. (Peter McKay was ambushed recently on the same show for his Gander helicopter ride incident, wisely going along with the joke and handling the situation reasonably well.) And don’t forget that “This Hour” is more than a comedy program. It’s also an excellent parody of broadcast journalism, with comedians acting as reporters for much of the show. Part of the back story for this skit, and the reason for the ambush, was Ford’s media inaccessibility.
In such situations, the ambush is a commonly used technique. Media deploy it when someone refuses to return calls - you see it all the time on "Marketplace", with the crooked telemarketer running to his car and driving off, reporter and cameraman running in hot pursuit. But it happens in politics as well. In this case, a bumbling politician figured he could go silent on hot issues, and media would roll over and go away. And where else are you going to find him, than at his house? At the time he usually leaves for work?
To those who hold fast to the belief that a boundary was crossed, I remind you that this happens all the time. This may seem excessive and unfair, but it’s true that privacy is sacrificed when one enters public life. Ambushes happen to politicians rarely, usually only when they are being reclusive. Frankly, I'm surprised there wasn't a mob of reporters outside his house. Perhaps the rest of them are lazy. (This would also happen to Stephen Harper, who is notorious for his attempts to limit and control media access, but the prime minister is surrounded by a security detail.)
And consider this: what are the alternatives? If a politician shies away from the limelight when there are important questions to be asked, should the media say, “Okay, sir, no problem sir, we'll go back to our office and wait until you're ready”? That would make for a pretty doughy, acquiescent media. No, the process of getting an interview is not always a matter of making the request. Sometimes, it is rough and tumble, and there are no hard and fast rules.
There was one aspect to the story which troubled me. Ford said his six-year-old daughter was frightened by the sight of Delahunty approaching with a sword – this I can appreciate – and ran back indoors. He also told reporters it was dark out, and this would certainly make for a more alarming encounter.
However, in an interview Tuesday with CBC’s Ted Blades, Mary Walsh said she saw no small child. She also said the event happened at 8:30 am, in full daylight, and not in the darkness of early morning, as Ford claimed.
If what Ford says is true, then I sympathize with him – there is no need to frighten children, in the dark. But if Mary Walsh is telling the truth, then Ford is embellishing the story.
Looking at the video, you can see the ambush takes place in broad daylight. The darkness is a fabrication. How much more of Ford’s story is contrived?
And, really, was it necessary to call 911 – a life or death emergency number – when it was clear that this was a media encounter? Reporters can be a nuisance.. They might even write bad things about you. But they aren’t going to beat you up or kill you. This was a blatant abuse of the 911 service, and police should consider laying charges against the mayor (especially if it can be demonstrated that Ford is embellishing his story).
Be that as it may, Ford is getting some much-needed positive coverage from this incident. A political science professor at the University of Toronto told media that this incident is the best news Ford has had in a long time, because it generates public sympathy for the mayor while his numbers are down.
So there you have it, a new tactic for the politician’s public relations playbook: When a reporter surprises you with a camera and microphone, call 911.
It worked for Rob Ford.