A few years ago I had dinner with Mike Duffy at the restaurant in the House of Commons in Ottawa. It was in early 2008. I was in Ottawa writing about CRTC hearings and talking to people who wanted to talk about the TV racket in Canada. Duffy was then anchoring his daily political chat show on the CTV News Channel. By the end of that year he was a senator.
I was reminded of the occasion the other day. I was watching the news, flipping between CBC and CTV, and there was much coverage of two topics. One was Duffy’s difficulties with the matter of his primary residence, and his promise to pay back monies he’d received. The other was the ongoing horse-meat scandal in Europe, which has revealed that many products labelled as “beef” are no such thing and often contain a lot of horse meat.
It occurred to me that the two stories are connected, in a way. Both are about public trust and the matter of authenticity.
It is possible that Mike Duffy was deeply confused, as he says, by the forms he needed to fill out about his residence. Me, I can only smile and speculate that perhaps he looked away, down at his shoes, and missed something. That, as many of us will remember fondly, is how Mike Duffy became famous in the first place.
Duffy is a creature of Canadian TV, a type thrown up by the medium from obscurity to national fame. It doesn’t happen so much now, but Duffy soared to prominence during a particular period. That was the early 1980s, when he reported from Ottawa for CBC TV, which had a vast audience for its news coverage and its competition was limited. There were no all-news cable outlets. It was from CBC’s The National/The Journal package and CTV National News, and to a lesser extent Global News, that Canadians got their perspective on Ottawa politics.
Duffy was a different kind of TV reporter from the start. He had a presence, a persona for television that clicked with viewers. Roly-poly in appearance and talking in a cadence that suggested a down-to-earth Maritimer, he had this trick of pausing while speaking on-air and looking down, as if at his shoes. It was a good device, lending drama to the report. It helped make him popular. I can recall Duffy talking on CBC Radio’s Morningside and Peter Gzowski declaring to him, “You’re a star!” The gist was this: Here was this regular guy from PEI, who didn’t look or talk like a slick TV news type, and he was popular with viewers. Duffy duly responded in a gee-golly-gosh manner.
With his mastery of his on-air personality and the fame that brought him, he went to CTV and developed a refined version of that kind of persona – an Ottawa insider who retained some authenticity as a regular guy who happened to be a political junkie. It was that TV guy, the roly-poly, cheerful TV guy, who was made a senator. It was okay that the TV guy didn’t live much in PEI. It isn’t okay if the senator guy doesn’t.
What has happened in Duffy’s troubles with housing expenses and eligibility to sit in the Senate troubles a lot of us. Last week, to his credit, Mike Duffy contacted CBC TV in PEI and tried to explain things. “Everywhere I go, people are talking,” he said. “Well where do you live? What’s it all about? It’s become a major distraction.” He also made clear he would voluntarily pay back living expenses related to the house he has in Ottawa. And that medical issues required him to be under the care of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
He said, “I hope it reassures Islanders and Canadians that the old Duff, the Duff they’ve known and trusted, would never do anything wrong. I would never knowingly fiddle anything.”
Still, the tone of TV reports these days suggest a general unease about the Senate, how it works and who sits there. There are some us who are especially uneasy about media figures taking Senate appointments. I am, as a journalist and a citizen.
Thing is, it occurs to me, the trajectory of Mike Duffy’s success and eventual appointment to the Senate illuminates a truth about the Canadian media and TV in particular – the famous tend to gravitate toward power. There is a small media landscape here, especially in television, and once fame and success are achieved, a next, natural step is into the embrace of government. If you’re looking to go upward, and stay on the national stage, it’s one of the few directions available.
Meanwhile, Pamela Wallin, another media figure appointed to the Senate, has her own troubles explaining her expenses and multiple residences in Canada. You know, people say we don’t have star system in Canada, but we sure do have some system of media fame that raises some TV types to the level of an elite who become part of the regime.
There was amusement in Canada when both Duffy and Wallin, familiar TV figures, were embraced by the government. Perhaps we’re too easily amused by this. Perhaps, I put it to you, we should expect different from journalists who have achieved fame through television here. Isn’t the principle of independent journalism diminished when we see people who have interviewed politicians and covered political stories then sit as appointed members of government? It is a human impulse to ask what we have been fed. And be uneasy about it.