A key aspect of democracy is how the mass media relate to the political process. Rupert Murdoch and members of his family, owners of News Corp, have recently provided examples of how the media operate in relation to politicians and the police. Murdoch’s employees have been accused of paying the police to obtain information which will be used in media stories. The police have an incentive to accept and journalists to pay bribes in the hope of breaking a story. This occurs in all countries with commercially driven media firms. Journalistic codes of conduct would hopefully reduce the occasions on which bribes are paid, but they do occur and it is not hard to understand why.
Press freedom is considered vital for the functioning of democratic institutions, but its success depends on how that freedom is exercised. If it occurs with the deliberate spreading of false information, as is suggested in the “robocalls” undertaken in the recent (2011) Canadian federal election, and if it results from attempts to bribe officials, it destroys or at least muddies the waters of a fair democratic process.
Craig Oliver’s excellent book, Oliver’s Twist, can be read in different ways, as an autobiography, a focus on leading Canadian print, radio and television journalists and their producers, an account of how politicians and journalists interact, and as a travelogue of whitewater canoeing in Canada’s north. These themes are interwoven throughout the book. The biographical account describes the interaction between politicians and journalists and the outcome in terms of the published stories, as well as the stories which are suppressed – or, more correctly, chosen not to be published.
Politicians and journalists need each other to survive, and some may break ethical norms to do so. The politician craves coverage of his/her positions and the journalist the scoops that will please his/her publisher by enhancing circulation and advertising revenues. I was told but cannot confirm (possibly for obvious reasons) that at one time members of the Canadian press gallery would write speeches for MPs in order to earn extra money. The journalists might then write stories on these topics which would be published. Failure to separate the two activities compromises the idea of press freedom and the provision of unbiased information to the public.
Oliver’s Twist reveals the close relationship between politicians and journalists especially in the confines of Parliament Hill and the watering holes where MPs and journalists gather in Ottawa.
Geographically, Canada is an enormous country, but the location of much policy making is a far smaller area in eastern Canada and especially around Parliament Hill. This has always and continues to irritate those in the rest of the country but the situation remains.
An illuminating part of the book is the description of more than 30 whitewater canoe trips in northern Canada made by a group of eminent Canadians including the author and Pierre Trudeau. How people who have shared death threatening situations in one activity can then operate at arm’s length in their respective professional fields is a situation worth considering. By recounting the times when he was shunned by leaders of all political parties for unfavourable reporting, Craig Oliver appears to have kept his distance.
A telling observation about his time in Washington is, “The United States is really many nations bound together by myths, most of its citizens knowing as little about each other as they do about, say Canada.” (p.147). The same could be said about Canada, at least as far as the first part of the statement is concerned. Canada is a geographic entity made up of diverse regions with inhabitants who know little about each other. This is especially true for recent arrivals in Canada.
One aspect of the nexus between journalists and politicians not discussed in the book is the impact of social media which is changing the conduct of both professions. Overall I found Oliver’s Twist an excellent and well written book provoking thoughts about the role of the press in Canada.