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January 4, 2010

Harper in the media

Geoffrey Stevens

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We are going to talk today about Stephen Harper and his abuse of Parliament, but kindly bear with me for a moment.

Geoff StevensWe are going to talk today about Stephen Harper and his abuse of Parliament, but kindly bear with me for a moment.

We live in a time when journalistic conventions aren’t what they once were. The Chinese wall that traditionally separated news and opinion has crumbled. Fact and commentary are presented on the same page and often, too often, in the same article. The reader is expected to divine where the facts end and where the writer’s or the newspaper’s slant begins.

All newspapers do this.

They do this because they believe busy readers in this age of 24-hour news don’t simply want to know what happened – they want to know, instantly, what they should think about whatever happened. (Some editors also find it easier to jumble fact and opinion than to try to keep them separate.)

The Globe and Mail is far from perfect. Its standards have slipped – or, to be charitable, evolved – over the last few decades. When I was writing the Globe’s Ottawa column in the 1970s, I once phoned my boss, the editor-in-chief, Richard J. Doyle, to tell him I had a scoop for my next day’s column; I suggested he might like to run the column on the front page instead of in its accustomed spot in the lower left corner of the editorial page.

Without a second’s hesitation, Doyle refused. If the Globe put my column on Page One on days when we thought its content was important, we might as well tell readers there was nothing important on days when it appeared back in its lower left corner. He was right.

(Doyle’s law is defunct. These days, columnists appear on newspaper front pages even when they don’t have anything important or even relevant to say.)

Although every newspaper’s standards have slipped/evolved, the Globe has made an effort to preserve the Chinese wall as far as the paper’s editorial opinions are concerned. News goes in the news pages; editorials stay on the editorial page.

The wall came tumbling down last week.

Under the headline, “Democracy Diminished, Accountability Avoided,” the Globe published a front page editorial excoriating the Harper government for again abusing the royal power of prorogation to get itself out of a mess of its own making.

A year ago, Harper went to see Governor General Michaëlle Jean, cap figuratively in hand, to persuade her to prorogue Parliament to save his government from a confidence vote that it would have lost.

This time he simply phoned her to send Parliament away so that the government could avoid further embarrassing questions about its knowledge of the torture of Afghan detainees.

In the Globe’s opinion, this was “an underhanded manoeuvre to avoid being accountable to Parliament. In the interests of political expediency, the government will diminish the democratic rights of Canadians.”

What made the Globe editorial remarkable was not the strength of its condemnation – many writers chose harsher language – but the fact the Globe published it on its front page.

This happens once in a blue moon.

I remember when it happened in 1964. The infiltration of organized crime was a very big concern in Ontario. The attorney general, Fred Cass, introduced what became known as the “Police State Bill.” It would have given the Ontario Police Commission the power to summon citizens, question them in secret, deny them a lawyer and hold them indefinitely if they refused to answer. Even Cass acknowledged that his legislation was “drastic” and “dangerous.”

The Globe was outraged. Next morning’s front-page editorial – “Bill of Wrongs” – marked one of Doyle’s finest moments as editor. It caused a sensation in the media as other publications scrambled to catch up. It created an unholy uproar in the Ontario Legislature. Conservative Premier John Robarts restored order by firing Fred Cass and withdrawing the bill.  

That, of course, was then and this is now.

Stephen Harper seems immune to outrage, whether from the press, from parliamentarians or from the public.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

(Published Jan 4, 2010, in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)

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