Column for Sept. 3, 2006: Politics and Privacy

Press, politicians and private lives

In last week’s letters-to-the-editor section, reader Chris Chisholm took me to task for writing a “pile of sanctimonious crap.” Which was how Chisholm ever-so-gently characterized my column from the week before in which I’d argued the public doesn’t need, or have the right to know the salacious details — if indeed there are salacious details — of Premier Rodney MacDonald’s recent separation from his wife.

In the letter, Chisholm raised a couple of inter-related points I think deserve to be explored.

The first is the privileged position of reporters, who often know things they don’t report. “Kimber implies,” Chisholm writes, “that while he is privy to the rumours, innuendo and perhaps even facts, we, the public, should not be afforded the same level of diligence.”

I’m sorry if I implied I knew stuff regular readers didn’t. I didn’t, and don’t. I only knew what I’d read in Frank, in the mainstream media and in some of the blogs I’d been sent. I’d seen nothing in any of them, however, that convinced me the intimate details of the premier’s personal woes — as interesting as they might be from a drive-by, train-wreck perspective — rose to the level of public interest.

That said, I take Chisholm’s point. Reporters often uncover shards of rumours, innuendo and “perhaps even facts” in the course of doing their jobs. Some of it is stuff voters deserve to know about. But too often it gets saved up for cocktail party gossip instead, because that’s easier than doing the due diligence required to put together a news story.

Over the course of my career, I’ve occasionally spent time tracking down and confirming what I thought was an important story, only to have other reporters dismiss it with an airy, Oh-we-knew-that-already.

Our job, I agree with Chisholm, is to “uncover the truth and report facts that will allow the public to determine if the reasons for the premier’s separation will affect his responsibilities.”

The question, of course, is where do we draw the line in publishing what we find?

Chisholm raises the case of Gerald Regan, our premier during the seventies who — much later — was charged with rape and sexual assault (he was found not guilty), as well as serial inappropriate behaviour with girls and young women he had power over. Chisholm suggests “the closeness of reporters and politicians… kept most of Regan’s purported transgressions secret for too long.”

As someone who covered Regan’s years in office and who — also much later — wrote a book about it, I know there is some truth in what Chisholm says. There were journalists who did try to tell that story, of course, but they were prevented from doing so, largely for legal reasons but also because their bosses (and many of their colleagues) took my current position in the Rodney MacDonald story that we had no business reporting on “that stuff.”

How do we determine when “that stuff” rises to the level of news?

I think, in the end, we need to ask our selves a couple of questions. Are the politician’s private affairs affecting her or his ability to do their public job? Is the person using their public position to reward or punish others — giving a cushy job to a lover, for example, or firing someone who refuses their sexual advances? Those are newsworthy.

The problem, of course, is that we first need to at least ask some unseemly questions to even answer those questions. But, having answered them, what then?

Many of my colleagues — whose judgment I respect — argue MacDonald brought this on himself by running an election campaign that revolved around “family values” and often featured his wife and child in photo opportunities. If Rodney’s own marriage was breaking down at that time and/or if — as the gossips have it — his transgressions led to the meltdown, then he is, at the least, a hypocrite who deserves to be exposed.

While I have some sympathy for that argument, my counter view is that it is, in itself, often a hypocritical argument. None of us ever knows enough about what goes on behind closed doors in someone else’s marriage to begin assigning blame for its failure. And shouldn’t we judge what a politician does in terms of “family values” by his or her public policy actions rather than the dubious evidence of their private peccadillos? (Consider Martin Luther King, or John Kennedy. Or consider Stephen Harper, whose apparent family-friendly personal life is counter-balanced by mean-spirited public policy decisions on child care funding, for example.)

I’m not sure there is a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to any of this but it’s important that we at least continue to have the discussion.

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