Remember the foofaraw in October of 2009 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that he didn't watch Canadian news? At the time, as a Canadian nationalist, I was uncomfortable at the thought of a prime minister consuming a lot of U.S. news instead - particularly with the craziness in their media these days. But, I didn't get too excited because, quite frankly (to use one of Mr. Harper's favourite expressions), I didn't know whether to believe him. And I still don't.
My scepticism flowed from the stifled laughter the day Brian Mulroney - a notorious and irredeemable media junkie-announced at cabinet that his new year's resolution was to abstain from reading the papers or watching the news. Needless to say, the phone calls at precisely 10:05, and off-and-on for the next hour, did not cease
I also thought back to premier Bill Bennett telling reporters the same thing a few years earlier. And watching the scrum wince collectively when he added for good measure that it was one of the lessons he had learned from his father, who governed British Columbia for 20 years.
Perhaps, I thought to myself in '09, Mr. Harper, too, was simply taking a bit of a jab at reporters, whose self-importance was legendary in Mr. Bennett's day and has since grown. However, watching Peter Mansbridge's interview with Mr. Harper last night, I was reminded of another reason that it's a good idea for a prime minister not to watch the nightly newscast.
Don't get me wrong: Mr. Mansbridge was exceptionally well-prepared - as was the Prime Minister, who gave him a couple of good lessons in political science. And the CBC anchor's long experience with prime ministers shone brightly throughout the interview. But, when Mr. Mansbridge's line of questioning began to suggest that Mr. Harper was not sufficiently conservative, I couldn't help but wonder how he and the CBC would have howled at any cutbacks. Not to speak of the torrent that would have followed a full program to contract the size of the state.
This is not to single out the CBC, or to accuse it of being a nest of Harper-haters, of whom there are no shortage in the press gallery, or in the rest of the country for that matter. Nor is it to deny that there are some principled people among the chattering class, or that the media play a vital role in scrutinizing governments and keeping them accountable. But, increasingly, they're also in the entertainment business - their success dependent on selling eye-balls to advertisers.
Furthermore, unlike politicians, journalists can stray all over the map as they attempt to set the agenda, never having to commit to what's best for Canada, or even to give a fig about it. And, most important, unlike a prime minister--or an opposition leader for that matter--they never suffer the consequences of making bad judgement calls - be it with respect to their policy advice, or on when best to have an election. Which is why it's a good idea for a prime minister to smile nicely and tune them out, while relying on staff briefings to keep abreast of the latest tube talk and tweets alike.