Where to start after watching TV – the news and the fiction – over the last few days?
First, perhaps – it’s not really a scandal until there’s a TV movie about it. Second – possible title for the movie about ongoing events in Canada is this: Is Everybody High?
The meaning of the term “mind-boggling” is beggared by events as they unfold. It’s hard to keep track and there’s this odd feeling of uncertainty about whether to laugh or cry, or send indignant letters to several levels of government. Nightly, it seems, CTV’s Robert Fife shows up to tell us about yet another twist in the tangled affair of Senator Mike Duffy’s money woes, expense claims and confusion about place of residence. Robert Fife is now essential viewing, delivering more drama than most network cop shows.
If I’ve got this straight, the integrity of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Senate and the office of the mayor of Toronto is in tatters. All three diminished, all three populated by delusional people.
Most of us don’t get to attend or observe a Conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa. Most of us are clueless about the perks offered to senators. Most of us have little understanding of how the PMO actually works. Most of us are too busy to keep track of what the mayor of Toronto actually does in his day job, or speculate about what he does in his spare time.
What we get is what we see on TV. Few of us are able to watch TV all day and all night, so we get the compressed version of events on the TV news. That’s what forms our impressions and consequent opinion – events filtered through the tropes and conventions of one medium. The vast, chaotic canvas of events is reduced to a small series of indelible images that our brains dissect and decide upon.
What marks recent events is a misunderstanding of this basic premise about how voters get their news and make decisions. What we’ve seen so often in the last week has been avoidance. And avoidance doesn’t look good on TV. Our Glorious Leader allowed cameras to broadcast his address to the Conservative caucus on Tuesday. What he said was that he was “very upset” about “the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office.” He pointed his finger. Then he left, refusing to answer questions from the media.
Like that ever works when there are questions about integrity, money, perks and, possibly, fiddled expenses. At such times, every word spoken, every act of body language, is meaning-laden. (Isn’t it odd that two of the three senators now out of the Conservative caucus because of questions around their housing or travel expenses, are creatures of television – Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin? Did they forget the basics of their trade when they switched to politics?) You have to be deluded not to know that. Or high.
As I write this, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is on TV, speaking at city council, on the matter of a casino in the city. He’s attacking the Premier of Ontario on her handling of this subject. Watching him, a person wonders, “What’s he thinking?” Not about the casino or the Premier of Ontario. As citizens of cities far, far from Toronto know by now, the mayor is reported to have been recorded on video allegedly smoking crack cocaine. Two reporters from the Toronto Star and one from Gawker.com say they’ve seen it and that it sure looks like Ford.
The matter has essentially been avoided by the mayor. If he’s been seen at all, it’s been scenes of him ignoring the media, dismissing the reported video as “ridiculous” or, now, talking about the casino issue. What Our Glorious Leader and Mayor Ford share is a fondness for avoidance and, as time may tell, delusions about the court of public opinion. Avoiding an integrity issue does not void it.
I have this theory about how politicians and their handlers operate these days. I suspect that the rise of social media, with its fast, whimsical opinions coming and going, has made politicians and their strategists believe that bad news, accusations and scandals appear and disappear quickly. They think there’s no need to worry, no need to address matters that trend on Twitter for a few hours and evaporate.
It ain’t so. Nobody votes based on a Twitter trend. Nobody makes a decision on a candidate’s competence based on a Facebook posting. People vote based on an accumulation of impressions on character and competence. We are all shallow in that way. And competence and characters are mostly quickly and irretrievably undermined by television images. It’s a pity we’re so shallow, but we just are.
The good thing that might come out of this is the TV movie. I’m thinking about something like HBO’s movie Recount, about the U.S. presidential election in 2000, or HBO’s Game Change, about the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008. Each featured a lot of real TV footage. The Canadian version has plenty of that to begin with – extraordinary footage of posturing and avoidance. And, yeah, the title should be Is Everybody High? Not just in reference to the Rob Ford allegations, but because you’d have to be high not to grasp what’s going on.