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Not compelling TV: Liberal interim leader Bob Rae asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 29, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Not compelling TV: Liberal interim leader Bob Rae asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 29, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

John Doyle: Television

Robo-call scandal makes for terrible TV Add to ...

The next two months will see the arrival of some terrific TV about politics. Coming this weekend is Game Change, HBO’s movie about the McCain/Palin presidential campaign in 2008. In April watch for Scandal on ABC, a series written by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. Set in Washington, it’s about Olivia Pope, a “fixer” who handles political and social scandals.

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Around the same time, HBO will launch Veep, a satirical comedy about a U.S. vice-president, the main character played by Julia Louis Dreyfuss.

Some scandals and instances of political shenanigans make for excellent TV – either as news coverage while events unfold or later when the full narrative is known. Others, not so much. In this neck of the woods, watching the robo-call affair unfold is a bracing but frustrating experience.

What have we got? Much nattering – robo-calls, accusations of “misleading information” about where to vote and who to vote for, “a smear job,” “the “Nixonian moment.” Elections Canada receives 31,000 complaints. “Pierre Poutine.” Alleged use of disposable cell phones that is up there with the tactics of drug dealers on The Wire.

Television needs optics and so far the robo-call saga is sadly lacking in straight-up memorable visuals. Like you, I can probably do without another establishing shot of a bland building in Thunder Bay, Ont., where a call centre called RMG is located. Likewise footage of Question Period and Our Glorious Leader (OGL) buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket as he makes some rumbling noise accusing “the Liberal Party” of being behind any shenanigans.

Right now, TV news is navigating the space between the anger and bewilderment of the public, and the official position taken by the Conservative Party and Elections Canada. In fact, that space contains a disconnect between coffee-shop interviews and House of Commons barking.

On Friday, on CBC News Network, Nancy Wilson introduced a news roundup saying, “We can tell you about growing outrage across the country.” No such “outrage” was evident. Instead Hannah Thibedeau sat at a desk in Ottawa and explained that she’d spoken to a former Elections Canada official, Jean-Pierre Kingsley. The gentleman was on-screen for a minute saying, heck, that was a lot of complaints. And, Thibedeau told us, “He went on to say that Elections Canada desperately needs to get to bottom of this. And the reason for that is, he adds, our democracy is at stake.” Sure thing. But it would have been nice to actually hear him say that.

The previous night, on Global National, stand-in anchor Robin Gill kicked off the news with the robo-call saga. The report included the voice of a former employee on the phone and the appearance of a press release on the screen. Then, once again, OGL in the House saying it’s the Liberal Party that made these calls.

Next, however, came a more telling item. Jennifer Madigan reported from North Bay, Ont., “The buzz in this North Bay coffee shop is over the possibility of election fraud in the riding.” Then a woman in the coffee shop was interviewed. “We can’t be that kind of country. We’re better than that, right?” she said.

Later on Friday, on CTV News Channel, the topic arose. Once again Bob Rae’s press conference and footage from the House of Commons. Along came Don Martin, host of the channel’s Power Play. He seemed amused. The announcement that there were 31,000 complaints to Elections Canada appeared to be kind of hilarious. “Yeah, it does suggest this is not just a smear campaign by a bunch of sore losers in the House of Commons,” he declared. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to get this wrapped up soon as possible.”

Blathering on, he ventured that “people are a little miffed, or maybe a lot miffed.” Indeed. And he declared that the story has “more legs than some people are thinking.” He also threw in a “Holy Toledo!” about damage that might be done to the government. But, as he and the anchor concluded, “a lot of smoke, no fire.”

Over on Sun News, the saga eventually merited some attention, down the list from a moose -loose-in-Calgary item. Our old friend Krista Erickson announced that the robo-call story made her confused and suspicious. People are just yakking, was the gist.

The punditry and reporting seems at odds with a bewildered woman in a coffee shop saying, “We can’t be that kind of country. We’re better than that, right?” Across the TV news reports there is a failure to acknowledge that people are genuinely, profoundly disturbed by even the suggestion that an election was subverted.

TV news always tends toward obsequious acceptance of the official line from the powerful. It’s easier. But in navigating the space between the public’s bafflement, and the official position, it would be better if the public’s outrage got more prominent coverage.

It would be better TV. And all the while we contemplate a possible movie about it in the future, and wonder who will play “Pierre Poutine.”

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 
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