When your member of Parliament goes AWOL

Our Votes Count debate
Ed Holder’s seat sits empty at a London West candidates debate on April 26, sponsored by Our Votes Count.

When London insurance broker Ed Holder decided to run under the Conservative banner my riding, London West, in 2008, I was thrilled. I happen to be a big believer in the importance of integrity in local candidates, no matter their political stripe. Elect 308 scrupulous, principled and sincere candidates to the House of Commons and the rest, I figure, will take care of itself. It’s why, three years ago, I saw Glen Pearson, a Liberal in London-North-Centre, and Irene Mathyssen, a New Democrat in London-Fanshawe, as worthy contenders in their respective ridings.

I was especially delighted about Holder’s decision to run because I’d come to know him through my role as editor at The London Free Press. As chair of the newspaper’s editorial board, I kept a slot open for a community member, who would serve for one year. At one point, Holder was one of these.

I invited him to the post largely on the strength of his community involvement and leadership. He was regularly in the news, for all the right reasons — supporting important social causes, raising money to preserve a community tradition that was about to go extinct, and giving of his time in the service of local charities. I was pleased when he accepted and grateful for his sage advice.

What I remember most about his contributions to our meetings was his incisive mind and ability to probe, with business-like detachment, whatever happened to be the issue of the day. He was a stickler for precision, fairness and transparency. He insisted that politicians, chief executives and charities face scrutiny and be held accountable. He believed strongly in the importance of benchmarks and good, defensible standards by which to measure performance.

When voting day arrived in 2008, I was more sure of my vote than I’d ever been. His victory over longtime Liberal MP Sue Barnes, for whom I’d also voted more than once, seemed timely and deserved.

During the last Parliament, I called on Holder’s office for assistance on one occasion. I was serving as chairperson of charitable organization and was perplexed by some new rules being imposed by Ottawa. Within hours, Holder called personally to set me straight on a simple misunderstanding, brought about by a vacancy in our CEO’s office. Holder’s businesslike approach to the problem was exactly what I had expected of him.

Because he’d been such an proponent of accountability and openness, I looked forward to seeing him at candidates debates in my riding in the current campaign. I have been profoundly disappointed by his absences at many of them, including the one debate held specifically in London West riding for London West voters this week. Yes, he has participated in some meetings, such as the Rogers-sponsored debate that would be televised repeatedly through the campaign (best not to avoid that one). And he has appeared at debates in local high schools, where exposure to voting constituents with hard questions is minimal. He has not responded to my question about whether his absences are the result of a personal decision or party war room diktat.

I suspect it’s the latter. If so, London West’s MP must be chafing under the order. This is entirely unlike the Ed Holder I have come to know — the one who held up accountability in public life as an imperative. Absent other explanations, I resent the fact that the long arm of a control-obsessed prime minister appears to have absconded with my member of Parliament. He is absent without leave at precisely the moment — and I think he, in his heart of hearts, would personally agree — that he ought to be living out the notions he once so strongly advocated.

UWO debate posterUpdate: According to CBC.ca, Holder has also declined to attend the all-candidates meeting this evening at the University of Western Ontario, moderated by Huron University College political science professor Paul Nesbitt-Larking and sponsored by UWO’s Faculty Association, the Graduate Teaching Assistants Union and the University Students’ Council.

Update II: Indeed, Holder was a no-show at the UWO debate.

Update III (May 2): Holder was re-elected handily on election night, by a margin of nearly 9,000 votes over his nearest challenger, the NDP’s Peter Ferguson. Congratulations to Mr. Holder. Here’s hoping he finds effective and personal ways to stay in touch with his constituents.

Newspaper companies and elections: a modest proposal

Back in the mid-2000s, as federal lawmakers and bureaucrats were working out the details and regulations for the National Do Not Call List, the Canadian newspaper industry was in a bit of a tizzy. Telemarketing, after all, lay at the heart of every newspaper company’s strategy to build circulation and wage daily warfare against subscriber “churn” (the rebuilding circulation with new customers as the subscriptions of other customers lapsed and weren’t renewed).

As a result, the Canadian Newspaper Association undertook a concerted lobbying effort for an exemption. They argued for it on the basis that a well-informed citizenry was essential to the functioning of a vibrant democracy. And that, by the time the ink was dry on the regulations in 2006, was enough to earn them an out, alongside charities, pollsters and other organizations, on the exemptions list. (Plus perhaps the adage, ringing in the ears of federal politicians, that one should “never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel” — an aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain.)

The time has arrived for a quid pro quo. Newspaper companies have argued, successfully, that they are an essential gear in the clockwork of a healthy democracy. They’ve been granted special licence by the federal government in acknowledgment of that function. Meanwhile, voter participation rates in Canada have been plummeting. Voter turnout during the last federal election on Oct. 14, 2008, was a mere 58.8 per cent — an historic low. In Ontario, the rate hit an all-time low on Oct. 10, 2007, when only 52.6 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. At the municipal level, the news has been even worse. While high-visibility municipal campaigns last fall in places such as Toronto garnered participation rates that edged over the 50-per-cent mark, many cities, such as London, Ont. — at 39.9 per cent — saw a positively miserable voter turnout.

So here’s a modest proposal: During the writ period for federal and provincial campaigns, as well as the final weeks of municipal elections (between the close of nominations and voting day), publishers of Canada’s daily newspapers should provide their full electronic editions, to readers who request them, free of charge.

I’m not referring here, of course, to the websites maintained by most newspaper companies which are already free and carry a sampling of that day’s editions. Instead, I’m referring to the more comprehensive electronic editions published by many of Canada’s dailies and distributed on platforms such as personal computers and iPads, via apps and software such as PressReader. Postmedia Network Inc. provides iPad apps for all of its major dailies; PressDisplay.com makes dozens of additional titles available to Canadians and other readers worldwide, usually via subscription to e-editions. Titles such as The Globe and Mail provide their products in discrete electronic formats (e.g. Globe2Go).

If newspapers are indeed part of the national conversation that informs citizens in a viable democracy, organizations such as the Canadian Newspaper Association, part of Newspapers Canada, should seize upon such an opportunity to demonstrate that fact. Federal legislators would be very much interested in seeing whether the faith they placed in these companies, through the NDNCL exemption, continues to be merited. And it should be the aim of such an experiment to see voter participation rise.

There would be an upside for newspaper companies, too. Additional electronic editions would impose only marginal added costs. Yet what greater treasure trove of potential subscribers might there be than the account information of hundreds of seven- or eight-week e-subscribers — readers who have already proven their interest in civic engagement and dialogue through media that portend the future of the news business?

Egypt earns headlines around the globe

The front page of Al-Ahram, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 12, 2011

It was Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post from 1946 until his death in 1963, who coined the phrase that has since almost become cliché in the world of journalism and beyond. In a speech to Newsweek’s correspondents in London on April 29, 1963, he urged them, “Let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing, every week, a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

Yesterday was one of those days when it was easy for journalists in Egypt and around the world to feel as if they were, indeed, writing the first rough draft of history. And today is one of those rare days where one story dominates headlines around the world: Egypt. The resignation of president Hosni Mubarak inspired front-page designers on five continents to mark the day in unusual and special ways.

That makes it a perfect day to check out the website maintained by Washington-based Newseum. Sort through the world’s front pages by region, compare visual treatments of the story from continent to continent and notice the headlines, including their emphases and nuances. The Newseum’s newspaper front-page index is here.

Obama’s eloquent defence of religious freedom

During an iftar dinner last night with American Muslim leaders at the White House to mark the start of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama made an eloquent case for religious freedom. The immediate context was the controversy in New York over the proposed building of a mosque near Ground Zero. But his speech was an articulate plea for respect for the religious traditions of others, not mere tolerance of them. It’s the kind of speech more political leaders ought not to be afraid to give, rather than to pander to narrow interests.

Politics, journalism and Toronto’s G20 weekend

Quite the weekend in Toronto. As anyone who has followed the history of multinational summits and anarchical protest over the past two decades could have predicted (and did), millions of dollars worth of damage and hundreds of arrests accompanied the G20 meetings at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

In my view, face-to-face meetings of world leaders are a useful thing, both to promote discussion of foreign and fiscal policies and to advance rapport and understanding. Multilateral summits have always required extensive security preparations, but the large-scale protests that began to accompany them in the latter 20th century increased the costs enormously. For more than 20 years, anarchists have used large and well-meaning protests as cover for their own destructive and criminal activities. Any legitimate protest group or movement that thought things would be different in Toronto was simply naive. Essentially, large-scale protests and demonstrations provide the cover and anonymity anarchists need to operate. The Harper government, the province of Ontario and the integrated security force operating before, during and after the summit understood this; hence, the $1.2-billion security tab.

Given these realities, meetings such as the G20 ought either to go virtual (a severely limiting option) or be permanently located at purpose-build venues that can reasonably accommodate leaders and their accompanying delegations and hangers-on (which can number into the many hundreds per country). The United Nations comes to mind; in the world of graphic novels it might be a Fortress of Solitude. In any case, to spend more than a billion dollars on security for a one-off set of meetings is unsustainable and borders on immoral.

A few critiques of the news media, which on the whole provided fair and balanced coverage of events inside and outside the security perimeter.

First, the use of social media and new technologies as part of the news-gathering process added another dimension to reporting of events, especially on the streets of Toronto. Tools such as Twitter provided an immediacy in reporting that approached real time. Yes, some tweets and posts were inaccurate or misleading, but the work of journalism behind the scenes has always consisted of a process of sorting accuracy from fiction in the context of fast-moving events. With social media, it merely happens more publicly.

But there’s a downside too. Any reporter who has ever covered a rally or strike knows that the mere presence of a still or video camera can alter events. Where a picket line might be peaceful before the arrival of news media (or even after the arrival of a print journalist), it becomes noisy and agitated with the arrival of radio or television. The ubiquity of cameras in cellphones and webcams — in the hands of thrill-seekers, protesters, police and others — raises the stakes and exponentially distorts the event itself, as various actors in the unfolding drama seek their million hits on YouTube or an adrenaline rush they can take away as a virtual souvenir.

Second, the degree to which news media, mainstream and otherwise, provided any type of historical context for the mayhem that began to spill out onto the streets of Toronto was at first remarkably low. Not until Sunday did coverage more frequently begin to include mentions of multilateral meetings and their accompanying protests in places such as Seattle, Quebec City or Kananaskis (the latter as a setting where nature and geography did part of the work of security). Again, background and context seemed more afterthought than preparation.

Finally, there was a bit of a “homer” element to some reports, as national Toronto-based news organizations, with Toronto-centric news sensibilities, staffed by Toronto residents, wrung their hands in distress and worried aloud about the impression their coverage of violence in the streets of Toronto the Good was leaving on the rest of the world.

Can Sun TV provide a ‘third way’ in Canadian TV journalism?

As was widely expected, Quebecor Inc. CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau has announced plans to launch Sun TV News Channel across Canada beginning Jan. 1, 2011. Speculation that Quebecor would bid to become a national news broadcaster has soared in recent weeks with the appointment of Kory Teneycke, a former spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as vice-president development of Quebecor Media and seasoned multimedia journalist David Akin as Sun Media national bureau chief. Veteran Astral Media radio broadcaster Brian Lilley was named a senior correspondent.

The first few moments of the June 15 press conference, featuring Péladeau and Teneycke, follow below.

Media watchers have already dubbed the Quebecor venture “Fox News North,” given its declared intention to be decidedly colourful and provocative in its news coverage, along with a political orientation that will sit to the right of centre. As if to fire a shot across the bows of news channels operated by the CBC and CTV, Teneycke said he’s leave the “boring” and “condescending” approaches to news to his competitors.

Quebecor faces some difficult challenges in getting its proposed venture off the ground. The first is regulatory: The Category 1 licence required from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to compel cable operators across the country to carry the Sun TV signal on at least one of its tiers is by no means a lock. The second lies in the way of infrastructure: Although Quebecor runs newspapers and cable systems across the country through divisions such as Osprey and Sun Media, it has no video newsgathering apparatus with which to feed a beast as voracious for moving visuals as a specialty news channel. Finally, the experience of the National Post — at its inception, a national newspaper dedicated to serving readers with a conservative, right-of-centre orientation — has been less than a runaway success. Some media experts have speculated about the wisdom of building a TV news channel on the same down-market sensibilities on which much of Canadian talk radio depends.

And what of the Fox-News-North moniker? Here I find the Canadian media establishment just a little condescending. Yes, Quebecor publishes newspapers in which Sunshine Girls make daily appearances and in which reporters, columnists and editorial writers sometimes seem slavishly committed to the political right, no matter what the issues or the nuances within them. And yes, U.S.-based Fox News often seems to revel as much in its ability to provoke anger and controversy as in its ability to unearth and cover a great story with balance and integrity.

But let’s concede two things. First, another national news organization determined to aggressively compete with existing TV news franchises can be a very good thing, both for citizens and journalism. Second, let’s not pretend existing news channels don’t have their own political biases. The test of good journalism and public service should be on the quality of the stories they deliver: in their accurancy, balance and impact. Let’s not deny that the CBC sits slightly left of the political centre, and that CTVglobemedia tries to cover the great yawning middle ground, so long dominated in the political sphere by the federal Liberals. And that’s to say nothing of the Toronto Star, where the Atkinson principles and a left-of-centre sensibility still guide the newsroom — and produce some truly great journalism.

We should not allow political orientation to prejudge the issue of whether or not a new enterprise could make a significant contribution to Canadian journalism. Let the test be its performance.

Stephen Harper rocks the National Arts Centre

Well, now, that was different. And really quite refreshing.

As if any additional evidence was needed that the momentum in Canadian politics is shifting from Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals to the Stephen Harper Conservatives, the prime minister put on a little show at the National Arts Centre Saturday night, with a little help from his friends: the NAC orchestra, guest artist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Ottawa-based Celtic band Herringbone. There was likely also a little arm-twisting involved, courtesy of Harper’s spouse, Laureen, who was honorary chairwoman of the NAC gala to benefit Canada’s next generation of young artists.

As Ignatieff and his party continue their search for a salable rationale to bring down the Tories and send Canadians back to the polls, Harper continues his remarkable climb back from the political guillotine last November. The prime minister’s rendition of the Beatles’ 1967 hit With a Little Help From My Friends was a communications master stroke, putting him in the national spotlight at the kind of function he derided only a year ago as the domain of elites who don’t understand the issues facing ordinary working people.

An off-key performance would have spelled political disaster. But Harper, dressed casually and exhibiting his trademark emotionless nonchalance, carried it off remarkably well, his backup musicians nicely covering the song’s highest notes.

It’s fascinating to watch the continuing Harper metamorphosis. When he arrived in Ottawa, he was a Western populist and idealogue determined to radically reduce the national debt, abolish the Senate, repel gay marriage, build a strong economy and preside over a Conservative majority. He has become a Canadian nationalist and pragmatist, restrained by successive minority governments, who has presided over the biggest recession in decades, introduced unprecedented levels of deficit spending, appointed more than a dozen senators to the chamber he used to loathe, and reconciled himself to the reality of gay unions. He has cast off grassroots populism in favour of iron-clad party discipline to control his caucus. Yet he is also managing to reform his own image — slowly, incrementally — from “scary” automaton to a more human, pliant, even at times avuncular, authority figure.

Ignatieff’s Liberals, meanwhile, having emerged from their summer caucus meeting in northern Ontario vowing to bring down the government at the earliest opportunity, are beset by internal discord and the prospect of a Conservative government that, along with an improving economy, is rising in the opinion polls.

This weekend, Ignatieff is in Quebec City to try to mend the rift in his Quebec wing. Harper, meanwhile, playfully tickles the ivories in Ottawa, revealing yet another side of himself to Canadians. He stays on key. For now, at least, it’s advantage: Harper.