One evening last month I was idly watching The National on CBC when I was shocked into being totally awake. Honestly now, I was so startled I stood up and backed away from the TV. It was mere luck that prevented me from spilling the small dry sherry I was imbibing. There, on the screen, during the At Issue panel, was Chantal Hébert vigorously waving a pen at me and the watching audience. Boy oh boy, was she angry and annoyed.
The last time I saw anything so sensationally unique in political coverage on Canadian TV was back in the days of Sun News Network, when Ezra Levant applied a chainsaw to a potted plant to show his contempt for Earth Day. The pen Hébert wielded with ferocity reminded me, intangibly, of Levant’s chainsaw. But, what was her point? Well, when Rosemary Barton cheerfully restored order, Hébert said emphatically, “Quebec was not in the room!” Oh that. Charter negotiations in 1981 and the notwithstanding clause.
The thing is, Hébert agitatedly waving her pen was a rare sign of life on the At Issue panel. Mostly the panelists approach the TV discussion as if they’re about to debate the relative merits of competing paper-towel brands. They’re stiff, and in truth, throughout the arena of political discussion and debate on Canadian TV, it looks like being mildly bored is the factory setting for discussion.
What’s going on here? Is it that Canadian politics are boring? Obviously not, as we’ve been through extraordinary upheavals over the past few years. Nope, the issue here is the posture, and the position being taken is that it would be unseemly to appear chipper, engaged or even witty about Canadian politics. To me, this contrived boredom is dangerous. Voter turnout is declining at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. The conversation needs to be changed from the jaded, blasé commentary we witness on CBC and other outlets. We’re looking at a weaponized boredom that diminishes vital engagement with political issues and democracy itself.
Most of the regular panelists on At Issue are print or online journalists, mainly columnists – Hébert of the Toronto Star and L’actualité, Andrew Coyne of this parish, Althia Raj of the Toronto Star and, occasionally, Elamin Abdelmahmoud of BuzzFeed News and CBC Radio – and you often get the feeling they’re saving their A-game or even their B-game for their columns. There is also a sense, not rare among print columnists, that this TV racket arena is for yahoos, and not a place for serious-minded people.
Now, I haven’t seen every At Issue panel these past few months, and those who have deserve a medal, but in researching this column I watched numerous episodes online. And a theme emerged that represents the panel’s orthodoxy – the current federal government is “rudderless” and “directionless” and what it does might best be described, only occasionally, as “interesting.” This boredom-with-the-government narrative is very much the story that pundits like to peddle in Canada and part of a broad-brush assumption that only furthers the dangerous idea that Canadian politics are tedious and unworthy of engaged attention.
This feeling of tedium is spread across the channels. CTV News Channel’s Power Play, airing weekdays, hasn’t really recovered from the departure of Evan Solomon, who brought some lively skepticism to the talking points from politicians interviewed on the program. Right now, Mike Le Couteur is the person trying to wrangle some insight beyond talking points, but it tends to be a losing battle. The aura that surrounds Power Play is one of banal repetition of the similar statements over and over.
Power & Politics on CBC News Network often has the same guests saying what they’ve said on CTV’s Power Play. The program is one of the clearest indications of the truth that many skeptical viewers suspect – Ottawa is a small place with a small set of people jawing on about the same topic, often using the same phrases, over and over. Host Vassy Kapelos is no Rosemary Barton when it comes to livening up the discussion and throwing spikes in front of some bulldozing politician.
What’s missing from these political conversations on TV is the sense that Canada is socially, politically and economically dynamic. What we see is a media power structure that is entrenched and sometimes literally bored by the discourse.
Now, the first response of some readers to remarks made here on this topic will be to thank the heavens that political coverage on Canadian TV has not descended into the partisan shouting matches on U.S. all-news cable channels. But I’m not asking for things to go in that direction. Only that Canadian TV make more and better use of TV itself, employing people who understand the dynamics of the medium and aren’t so jaded by it all. When Chantal Hébert’s furious pen-waving can shock me awake, the shroud of tedium that envelops political discussion on TV is all too obvious.
Finally, here’s a gem to seek out – The Figo Affair: The Transfer that Changed Football (streams on Netflix) should be part of your prep for the World Cup, even if you care little about soccer. It’s vastly entertaining, taking you into the very murky world of big-money, dubious businessmen and even more dubious agents who represent soccer stars. It’s all about what happened in 2000 when Portuguese star Luis Figo upended the soccer world by leaving FC Barcelona for archrival Real Madrid. How did it happen? It was a heist, really. And there was treachery, broken hearts and bitterness that still seethes to this day. A true tale about sport, money and ruthlessness.