Time for a war of words

Bob Wakeham
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Wade Locke's lecture at Memorial University on Muskrat Falls may indeed have contained a misspeak, and his relationship with Nalcor and its apparent influence on his post-presentation clarification may have prompted questions about credibility and objectivity.

And, it should be noted, as well (and not in any nasty way), that Locke is your classically dry, facts-and-figures economist, that he'll never win awards for oratorical skills, that charging up a crowd is not his bag.

But whatever flaws existed in his presentation, there's no denying the fact that Locke blocked the hall, as they say, and that his evening at the lectern provoked a fair amount of thunderous debate, evidence of the mounting intrigue and interest being generated (so to speak) in the proposed hydro project at Muskrat Falls. (Perhaps that was Locke's simple goal all along, to advance discussion on a development that could either be a godsend to Newfoundland's future electrical requirements or deliver us to into unequalled indebtedness).

In any case, the Wade Locke show begs the question: if he can draw a sizable crowd, and his lecture can put the bloggers into a finger-tapping fit, can you imagine the kind of province-wide audience a television and radio event, a full-fledged debate on Muskrat Falls, produced by journalists, could attract, would attract?

And it's why I think it's time for the CBC to take ownership of the Muskrat Falls issue, to wrench it from the hands of the professorial types at Memorial, a place where there's an ever present danger of Newfoundlanders being "lectured," to have an issue like Muskrat Falls bogged down in language that makes it even more complicated than it already is. (I don't make that point in a condescending way, suggesting the average person can't get a grasp on Muskrat Falls; it's just that the profession of journalism is all about passing on information that can be understood; it doesn't always succeed, but at least that's the goal).

And since Katherine the Mediocre has kept the doors to the legislature closed, it's even more crucial that the CBC take the Muskrat tail and swing it around its studio for an hour.

(If I can digress for a moment on that empty House on the Hill: back in the '70s, the irrepressible Donna Butt directed her acting troupe, Rising Tide Theatre, in a powerful production called "Daddy, What's A Train?" a condemnation of the near immoral way in which the Newfoundland Railway was deliberately downgraded by Ottawa to a point where hardly a whisper was heard when it was disbanded in the infamous "roads for rails" deal. Now that the Newfoundland legislature has the dubious distinction of having the second worst record in the country for legislative sitting time - second only to P.E.I. - maybe it's time for Butt and her crowd to write another play about an institution whose raison d'etre is being ignored. "Daddy, What's A House of Assembly?")

Meanwhile, back to the point at hand: there's precedent for the CBC taking control of a highly charged issue. For those of you weary of my newsroom stories, sick of "back in my executive producer days...", you can stop reading now, or, or, well, you know what you can do. But back in the '90s, when the Clyde Wells administration contemplated a privatization of Newfoundland Hydro, there was a grassroots movement of protest, and the pros and cons were debated in a CBC special moderated by Rex Murphy.

To tell the honest truth, I can't recall whether it was a four-star production or not, but I do know we felt an obligation to use the public broadcasting airwaves to allow for a full discussion of the matter. And this is another of those times.

And there should be no limp excuse that the CBC doesn't have the resources to pull off such an event. The personnel are there, and it would amount to a relatively cheap production.

Here's how I see it: convince the CBC brass in Toronto to provide an hour of prime time for television and radio (starting at 7 o'clock, right after "Here and Now").

Lasso for the program a journalist or journalists not intimidated by either the medium or the issue or the debaters, someone who can take control (David Cochrane, John Furlong or The Telegram's Russell Wangersky would be at the top of my list).

There's no shortage of potential debaters, from Nalcor's Ed Martin to people like Cabot Martin and Dave Vardy, and many others, from both sides.

And I'd give some flexibility to the rules and do whatever it takes to prevent the event from turning into one of those stifling election debates which handcuff interviewers and bore viewers. My advice to the producers: don't be afraid of confrontation. Encourage it. That doesn't mean that the participants should be allowed to out shout one another (thus the need for a strong moderator or moderators). But give the discussion some freedom to breathe.

Now I don't expect my suggestion to be front and centre at the next editorial meeting at Mother Corp's offices. I'm not that naïve.

But if the CBC isn't interested, perhaps NTV should give it a go.

One way or the other, journalists should be at the helm, and a debate would make for damn good television. And it beats the hell out of a pancake breakfast.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC, Memorial University on Muskrat Falls, House on the Hill Rising Tide Theatre Newfoundland Railway

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ottawa P.E.I. Toronto

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Recent comments

  • Capt.Craig
    January 30, 2012 - 09:00

    A couple of points. Having no clue about the logical fallacy, "begging the question" raises the question about your journalistic cred. Calling for the Communist Broadcasting Corp to be an honest broker is laughable. To imply that the Wangster would be an unbiased moderator really demonstrates that your brain could use a white cane. Perhaps Bob, you should work on that birch junk in your eye and soft peddle the mote in Locke's.

  • Corey
    January 28, 2012 - 19:01

    Paddy Joe: why don't just say you HATE CBC Here & Now. Just tell us how you really feel. You hate their production, you hate the way they present the news, well then, stop watching it & find something else on TV then.

  • HarbourMaster
    January 28, 2012 - 13:45

    Bring it on ! The more information we can find out on this project the better. Up to now we have been living in a vacum. For a bunch of politicians who usually have the Gift of The Gab they have grown selectively quiet. Maybe they don't understand the project enough to talk about it.

  • Ed
    January 28, 2012 - 11:12

    I agree with the overload on weather forecasting. I can look down on my phone and see what the weather will be like in 3 seconds...we don't need 25% of a news broadcast devoted to "Weather-Porn"

  • Townie
    January 28, 2012 - 09:27

    From what I have seen of "journalism" lately it is just a compilation of news releases. And as for a debate, I always thought that to have an informed debate you needed facts and this is exactly what is missing at present time. The Provincial Government is holding all the cards and using every trick in the book not to release them.

  • Pat
    January 28, 2012 - 09:23

    I find it nearly impossible to read the commentary by Bob Wakeham. He is definitely not my style. I look for informed debate, not jounalist entertainment. I disagree with Wakeham's call for a show packed with "he said- she said" attracting an audience looking for the equivalent of a boxing match. However, with respect to the same topic, I draw readers' attention to the Saturday Telegram and the commentary by John Savage, "A plea for respectful academic debate". While I am not a fan of sarcasm, I agree with his conclusions. The debate is valid. Those who trust the credentials of the debating economists can then draw their conclusions. Personality and professional attacks draw the public away from informed debate and cheapen the news. I would go one step beyond what was written by Savage and say that the public must consider what they receive in the news. When a case has thousands of pages of evidence and months, if not years of work behind it as is the case for Muskrat Falls, it frightens me that we satisfy ourselves with 15-30 sound clips and at best two pages of facts in a newspaper, half of which is a repeat of facts from previous articles.

  • MBC
    January 28, 2012 - 09:21

    Yes this would be excellent TV. Panel should included an expert engineer, economist, and media rep.

  • sealcove
    January 28, 2012 - 09:15

    Exactly not worth watching boring

  • paddyjoe
    January 28, 2012 - 08:55

    A CBC debate on Muskrat Falls would be great----but I wouldn't hold my breath. I used to tune into Hear and Now when it had some solid news and some " journalism "------All I see is now is weather hits ad nauseam, car accidents and turkey drives--