Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Do political journalists need informal time with politicians?

Certainly, many retired journalists think so. Their memoirs invariably include charming stories about relaxing and recreating with the powerful, and expressions of regret that relations are more formal these days. In his review of the autobiographies of Canada’s Allan Fotheringham and Craig Oliver, Hugh Winsor offers an emphatic defense of the intimate mode.
He dismisses the idea that journalists should only be “peeping Toms, that nothing is off the record and that any personal contact must be confined to the journalist-newsmaker paradigm.” Winsor exclaims:
           “Inappropriate contact? Nonsense!
“Serious political journalists should share with politicians and bureaucrats an interest in the values and overall health of the democratic society in which we operate. That does not mean supporting any particular political or partisan beliefs or taking sides in the game. But our ability to understand, evaluate and describe the game can only by improved if we spend some time in the dressing room as well as watching the play from well above the ice in the press box.
“That means we have to trust that serious journalists will have enough intellectual honesty and judgement to not be co-opted or corrupted by the better understanding that comes from personal contact and knowledge.”
Winsor’s personal civility and integrity are real. His appreciation of what’s going on, however, is worryingly generous.
The politician and the journalist actually don’t get up in the morning to serve the overall health of their democratic society. One gets up to advance his or her political agenda and the other gets up to inform the public. Political leaders would like people to readily agree with them; the good journalists often make that difficult.
This tense picture of their relationship isn’t an artificial construct to keep them out of each other’s beds. It’s in the nature of their very different occupations.
Of course, politicians will take a few risks to win deeper understanding, even a little empathy from journalists. Leaders all want to be fondly remembered and journalists write history’s first draft. Furthermore, incumbents eventually come to think that they will benefit by being better understood—that the most worthy observers will naturally be on their side. As John Adams warned, “Power always thinks it has a great soul.”
Nevertheless, the politician surviving in office doesn’t spontaneously do down-time with the press. The journalist may relax, but the best politicians—the one’s that must be most carefully watched—never stop playing politics; never stop looking for advantage or, maybe, for a decent break on an awkward story sometime in the future.
The danger in Winsor’s point of view, however, is the expectation that that informal time in the dressing room ensures better journalism. That what power grants to the few, makes superior journalists.
Surely, the socially maladroit journalists who secure superb sources, expose skimpy reasoning and falsehood, and literally disrupt the bonhomie of political capitals with substantive leaks are as essential as the well-rounded lovers of the game. 

1 comment:

  1. Trouble is Les, that even for the most virtuous journalists truly dedicated to the strict separation of Church (journalism) and State (our political lords and masters), proximity to power is strangely seductive.

    It is exceeding hard to write nasty things about a powerful politico who, over a couple of drinks and fine sushi, has once charmed you with inside tales of (other) politician's abuses and misuses of power, particularly if said abuses and misuses are sordidly sexual and/or result in career-warming scoops for you.

    When I was Executive Producer, CBC News in Ottawa, I made it a point to refuse invitations to dine or drink alone with any politicians, diplomats or bureaucrats who might be trying to influence the news.

    Going to formal receptions was, of course, part of the job. Huddling in a corner with the lobbying powerful eager to explain the magnificence of his/her latest project, was certainly not.

    However, I do miss the occasional midnight exchange of scandal at the bar of the now defunct Press Club …