Politicians and columnists

Bob Wakeham
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I gather from reading one of his columns a couple of weeks back that Trevor Taylor is upset.
And, by God, you can’t really blame him. 

The poor thing.

After all, commentators, columnists, pundits, the media as a whole, have been mistreating and abusing for way too long those dedicated and principled individuals making a tidy salary in the same racket he did, those who give it their all in the glorious, misunderstood profession of politics.

The latest holier-than-thou vulture to get Taylor’s dander up is Telegram columnist Brian Jones, who dared to question the types of people attracted to politics.

Taylor, the former cabinet minister, has had enough. He’s fed up. And not just with Brian Jones. You can sense in reading his column that he might have a dartboard in his house with mugshots of various members of the media attached, full of small holes angrily put there by Terrible Trevor, the drool dripping down over his chin as he fires projectile after projectile into those once lovely snapshots.

You can almost hear him screaming, like the character played by Peter Finch in that Academy Award-winning movie “Network” (this is, after all, Oscar month): “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” 

Taylor is so beside himself that he even wishes at times — when he’s not defending members of his own herd, especially Kathy Dunderdale, the martyr of Newfoundland politics herself, hounded into retirement by reportorial dogs — that the media would give politics a shot.

In case you missed his column, or chose not to read it, Taylor, at one point, wrote: “Some days, they make me think the governing of the province should be turned over carte blanche to commentators, open line shows, the media generally.” It read like one of those schoolyard taunts: “Oh ya, oh ya. See how you’d like it. See if you can do any better.”

Now, I was shocked, taken aback. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Imagine: a politician — OK, a former politician, but with the Kool-aid still flowing through his veins — taking umbrage at the media. Have you ever heard the like?        

Of course, Taylor has a decided advantage over his fellow politicos: he had himself a column, a grand platform for political spin-doctoring.

Don’t get me wrong; Taylor is entitled to his opinion — that’s what columns are all about, but it’s more than worth noting that he’s hardly objective on the subject of politicians. 

As I’ve noted in this space many times, I’ve been a close observer of politics and politicians for more years than I even care to admit. And not just covering news conferences or the legislature. I’ve been in politicians’ bedrooms and bathrooms, sometimes with cameras rolling, have seen them in their housecoats, half-shaved (long stories all, perhaps for another day), travelled cheek-by-jowl with them in helicopters, small planes, buses, boats, even komatiks, in just about anything that moved. I’ve shared lots of meals with them, even got drunk with a few. I’ve had box seats, the best available, to get a sense of what makes them tick, what turns their cranks, how they’re wired. 

Some of the politicians I’ve known were decent folks. More than a few were not.

But what they had in common was a philosophy, inherent in the political profession, of selling themselves.

Crudely put, it’s a whorish way to make a living. Just about everything the politician does, everything he or she says, is self-serving. They have to get elected, they have to get re-elected.   

And the public has to be reminded of that constantly. By the media. If not us, who then?

As to Taylor’s half-facetious suggestion that the media scum get a chance to govern, to see just how tough the politicians have it, to sit in the same seats as those unselfish, modest souls who have no other motive than to improve the lot of their fellow Newfoundlanders: well, thanks, but no thanks.

And I would decline not because I couldn’t stand the workload or tolerate the criticism; I just could never gravitate towards a business where survival requires an elastic conscience, a flexible set of scruples, where compromise is ongoing, where party loyalty trumps independent thinking, where babies and arses have to be kissed.

I preferred to observe, as a reporter, as a newsroom boss, as a documentary maker and, in retirement, as a columnist. I’ve made mistakes along the way, some of them not of the minor variety. But I was never trying to sell myself.

Journalists are not paid to be cheerleaders, or to do unofficial public relations for politicians (or anybody else for that matter). We’re not supposed to get onside. Sometimes it happens and it is not healthy.

But politics is a cheerleading business. Caucus and cabinet solidarity is part of the business. And anybody who attacks one, attacks all. Super sensitivity comes with the territory (after all, Taylor’s boss was Danny Williams, arguably the most thin-skinned premier we’ve ever had).

I’ll end with this anecdote: many Newfoundlanders of a certain vintage will remember the colourful and popular Telegram editor and columnist Wick Collins. Wick and I were at a press conference some time in the mid ’70s when Frank Moores and then-fisheries minister Harold Collins were trying to defend what was referred to as the fishing gear replacement scandal. Wick was asking tough questions of both Moores and Collins throughout, and just as the press conference concluded, Moores, beet-red and barely able to contain his temper, stood and shouted at Wick: “Why don’t you try it yourself sometime, Wick? Come out and run against me in the next election?”  

Wick responded: “No thanks, Frank. I’m not a politician. I’m an honest man.” 

Couldn’t have said it any better myself. 


Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Wm Coaker
    March 09, 2014 - 21:43

    Wakeham is right - we get way too much righteous indignation from our past and present politicians. Unfortunately we have a political culture big on hubris - not so much on humility. Which is frankly one reason I like Dwight Ball. He's not a chest thumper. Perhaps he understands that while politicians need to sell themselves, it doesn't have to be a 'hard' sell. You can sell yourself without being full of yourself, without taking umbrage every time a reporter asks a tough question. Been there and done that with far too many politicians over the years. A little patience, sensitivity, humility - even a little self-effacing humour goes a long way with the public. It was something Dunderdale never mastered. If you spent any time in the House, you'd know how ugly it got when Dunderdale would let unleash the hounds - which was just about every time the opposition asked a question the Tories didn't like. Ball showed much more restraint and I think we can look forward to more civil discourse in the House should he become premier. He doesn't wilt when he's cross-examined by the media but he certainly doesn't get in your face either. It isn't the pit bull terrier that was Williams nor does he fein the 'How dare you question my integrity? You should get down on your knees and thank God that I'm here to save you from yourselves. If I hadn't taken this thankless job I could be the head of IBM!'

  • Just wondering
    March 08, 2014 - 13:46

    Bob, I guess that honesty, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. It could also be argued that the media is every bit as whorish as politics as a profession. After all, haven't the likes of Brian Tobin and others done a remarkable job of selling themselves while members of the media, translating into very successful political careers. But I digress. In my opinion, you've misrepresented Taylor's article. He was responding to a nonsensical article by Brian Jones arguing that certain "occupations" were not suited to political life, not "types of people" as you have stated. There's a huge difference, but please don't allow the facts to stand in your way. Also, isn't it ironic that your trashing of politicians is printed on the same day as the apology from the Irish Christian Brothers. While government, clergy, the church in general, and government, are being, rightfully, vilified because of their complicity in this horrible tragedy, is it possible that the media can walk away from their role by saying "oops, just a mistake"? Just wondering.

  • Pierre Neary
    March 08, 2014 - 08:24

    Looks like Taylor picked up the thin skin from Williams. Journalists jumping into politics and politicians jumping into journalism hasn't always worked out so well. In any event Taylor should consider himself told. Ouch.

    • Peter
      March 08, 2014 - 10:20

      It looks like the thin skin is also found on columnists.

  • Chris Callahan
    March 08, 2014 - 07:54

    I agree with most of what you say Bob – that politicians are in the self-serving business and Taylor is way off base with his sookish attitude towards the media. Politicians know what to expect when they sign up. And your’re right, the job of the media is to report – good or bad – what happens in the House or the bunker on Gower or whatever hamlet they are assigned to cover. But to say that “it’s more than worth noting that he’s (Taylor) hardly objective on the subject of politicians" is self-serving. That statement pretty much sums up the continuing themes of your columns. So it’s fine for you but not him? Pot meet kettle.