John Baird.jpg

The Unknowable Country: When personality trumps policy in political reporting

Canadian politics reporting helped turn a subject that should be the concern of the many into something that’s a concern for the few, writes Sean Holman. [[{“fid”:”3687″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”453″,”width”:”640″,”style”:”width: 400px; height: 283px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]] By Sean Holman Few Canadians can pick John Baird out of a lineup. Even fewer can be certain of…

Canadian politics reporting helped turn a subject that should be the concern of the many into something that’s a concern for the few, writes Sean Holman.

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By Sean Holman

Few Canadians can pick John Baird out of a lineup. Even fewer can be certain of the influence he had as our foreign affairs minister.

Yet many news outlets appear to have paid around the same amount of attention to his resignation as they did when the government’s controversial anti-terror bill was first introduced—another example of how our ailing and flailing media have a tendency to put personality and politics on par with or ahead of policy and the public interest.

News of that resignation broke on Feb. 2, with CBC News’s Terry Milewski getting the jump on the announcement.

Between that date and Feb. 7, at least 115 columns, editorials and reports were published about Baird’s departure by news outlets listed in the Canadian Newsstand database.* Eight of those articles were given front-page treatment.  There were also five segments on CBC’s The National covering Baird’s exit.

Yet, it’s likely that coverage was the first time many Canadians had even heard of the Ottawa-area MP. After all, in 2011, 64.6 per cent of the Canadian Election Study’s more than 4,000 respondents said they didn’t know who the country’s current finance minister was (Jim Flaherty, if you’re too embarrassed to ask).

The study didn’t quiz respondents about the name of our foreign affairs minister. But if a majority of Canadians can’t identify who holds the purse strings attached to their tax dollars, what are the chances they know who commands Fort Pearson?

Moreover, it’s unclear whether Baird was just another actor on the world stage, or if he actually got to pen his own lines.

Following his resignation, he was variously described as being a “transformative” foreign affairs minister, having “tilted Canada strongly towards Israel” and “played an important role” in “seeking warmer and more profitable relations with the Asian giant.”

But since much of our government is practised in secret—with policy advice and cabinet records being kept under lock and key—can we really be sure which parts of that supposed legacy were authored by Baird, and which parts were ghost-written by Stephen Harper or someone else?

What we do know for sure is the government’s proposed new anti-terror law has been described in the media as a “dangerous policy” that could create a “secret police force” and raises “worrying questions about freedom of expression.”

We also know that, between Jan. 29—when the bill’s details started rolling out—and Feb. 3, there were 111 articles in the Canadian Newsstand database covering it. Nine of them made front pages, while The National broadcast three segments on the law.

I make this comparison not to throw stones from my glass house, but rather to hold a mirror up to a habit that is also a dangerous addiction.

When I was at British Columbia’s legislature I, like many other political reporters in this country, spent too much time writing about personality and politics and too little time covering policy. It’s easy and of interest to the audience we’re most familiar with—the bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians and staffers we cover.

But the consequence is a public that’s decreasingly informed about our government and increasingly uninterested in what journalists report on. We’ve helped turn a subject that should be the concern of the many into something that’s a concern for the few—political partisans and profiteers.

In doing so, journalists are undermining both our audience and what passes for democracy in this country. And that’s a legacy that’s going to stay with us long after Baird is gone.



“The federal environment minister’s office tried to hide the fact a grizzly bear was struck on the Canadian Pacific Railway line in Banff National Park in May 2014,” according to the Rocky Mountain Outlook (hat tip: Ian Bron).

“With a $10,000 per week per reporter price tag to follow political parties on their election campaigns and limited access to their leaders who are tightly scripted,” the Hill Times reports, “media outlets are reassessing how they will report on the upcoming election with smaller budgets.”

The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that it took the Canadian Border Services Agency “826 days to respond” to an access request he filed on Oct. 30, 2012. The irony: that response stated the agency is “committed to providing the highest level of client service.”

Byran Smith, a former policy adviser to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, is looking to cash in on the open data movement. The Globe and Mail reports that Smith’s company, ThinkData, “collects and cleans up government datasets which in their raw state can arrive in any number of conflicting formats. The service parses each one, and hosts a clean copy on its servers, which clients can access.”

Maclean’s reports Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census was defeated “by a vote of 147 to 126. Every opposition MP voted in favour, but nearly every Conservative voted against—Michael Chong was the only Conservative to vote in favour.”



The Rocky View Weekly reports that Chestermere, Alta., officials are “working with a number of groups, including the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, to push through some changes” to the province’s freedom of information law. According to the newspaper, the proposed changes would allow governments to “recoup some of the costs associated with expensive requests.” Mayor Patricia Matthews is quoted as saying, “The average person like me wants to be able to keep taxes down, so we are hoping that by bringing this to the attention of our residents, it puts some pressure on their elected officials to say it can’t continue.”

The Globe and Mail reports police allegations that “former premier Dalton McGuinty’s chief of staff took steps to keep government information secret—‘double deleting’ e-mails and communicating by BlackBerry messenger to avoid leaving public records of his discussions.” According to the newspaper, “Livingston, through his lawyers, has maintained that he did nothing wrong. No charges have been laid and the allegations have not been tested in court.”

IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis writes that, since July 1, 2013, there have been only two references to “open government” on the B.C. government’s website—even though Premier Christy Clark promised she was going to lead the most open and accountable government in Canada.

According to The Province, the B.C. government “says legal and privacy considerations prevent release of a full version of a scathing report into the mistaken firings of several health researchers in 2012.”



Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets that Vancouver transit authority executives met to discuss its upcoming electronic fare card but “kept no minutes.”

Concerned Residents Association of North Dumfries executive director Tamara Brown tweets that Cambridge, Ont., is asking for more than $60,000 in response to an access request for “info that should normally be public” regarding urban sprawl.

CBC News reports several Winnipeg civic corporations aren’t subject to the province’s access law.

Surrey, B.C., is “rolling out its ambitious Open Data Calogue,” which “gives residents and business owners access to “economic indicators, business licences, commercial and industrial vacancy rates, population projections and availability of employment broken down into specific areas.” In an interview with Business in Vancouver, the city’s information technology Geoff Samson said the catalogue is the largest offering of this type of information by any city in Canada.

“On the heels of criticism of its secret budget meetings,” The Record reports Waterloo, Ont.’s local government is “pledging to get the public more involved in its 2016-2018 budget.”

* = Canadian Newsstand features articles from 270 of the country’s newspapers, as well as the Canadian Press wire service. Among the papers are those published by Postmedia Network Inc. and Brunswick News Inc., as well as FP Newspaper Inc., Glacier Media Inc., Torstar Corp.’s dailies and some of the properties owned by Black Press Group Ltd. Among those excluded are papers owned by Quebecor Inc. and Transcontinental Inc.

Photo by Andrew Rusk via Flickr.

[[{“fid”:”3363″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”3776″,”width”:”2555″,”style”:”width: 75px; height: 111px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Sean Holman writes The Unknowable Country column, which looks at politics, democracy and journalism. He is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, an award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline.