On Monday, I joined former councillor Sandy Levin and potential future councillor Christine Moss in a round table discussion with Phil McLeod who was filling in for Andy Oudman on CJBK. In the wake of threatened libel suits, McLeod was exploring the whole issue of libel law with a libel lawyer and then examining the question of whether we are too hard on political figures in the media, including social media, such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
I was a little reluctant. Having just experienced my first brush with the threat of a lawsuit from a charitable foundation headed by our mayor, I didn't feel a need to aggravate that situation. But McLeod, also a target of the potential lawsuit, assured me that the conversation would stay away from any reference to that matter. We would focus on the question “Are politicians too thin-skinned or do we expect too much from our politicians?”
That got me reflecting on my experiences while I was on city council.
Learning how to handle media is one of the first jobs of any politician. If you are a provincial or federal politician representing a party, you are likely to get a little training in this. Municipal politicians are on their own. Unless they have some natural talent or political experience at other levels, it's quite a learning curve.
But you don't go into politics if you don't want public attention. You have ideas to convey and implement and while ultimately it comes down to convincing your colleagues to vote yes or no on a particular issue, it doesn't hurt to have your message and your name taken up by the media. And there is always the next election.
While I have experienced a few media fiascoes, on the whole I was reasonably well-treated during my time in office, especially by newspapers and television although I generally found radio a more comfortable medium. That in itself is interesting since newstalk radio in London as elsewhere is generally not sympathetic to progressive voices. I certainly had my share of ridicule at the hands of Jim Chapman on his short-lived daily monologue, some of which followed me on the campaign trail in 2010. Once the election was over, so was Chapman's show and the dollars which sustained it withdrawn.
Radio shows have their established audiences and tend to feature their favourite politicians although on controversial issues they will try to get opposing views. Since radio hosts rarely attend council meetings, their choices are usually based on who's mentioned in the newspaper that morning. If you have made a controversial statement at council or taken the lead on a contentious issue, you had better read the paper first thing in the morning and be prepared for a call from a radio station no matter how late you got home from the meeting.
Television has different parameters. Because there is only one station that regularly reports on local issues, stories are often filmed before the debates at city hall takes place and interviews are conducted shortly before or after the matter is discussed. Although there may be scrums, quite often an interesting backdrop is sought and there may be some opportunity to negotiate a time and place. The challenge of TV is to not worry too much about how you look and to focus on the question. Since only a small part of the interview will actually be aired, you need to keep your answers short and direct. Television is also what gets you recognized on the street.
Newspapers, like television, have fairly broad audiences. Theoretically, newspaper reporters are able to do more in depth reporting and interviews may be conducted by telephone both before and after issues are aired at city hall. In reality, reporters are stretched pretty thin, having to pump out two or three stories a day, and don't have a lot of time to do the kind of research they would like. As well, their stories are subject to editing, and they don't usually write their own headlines. One advantage of dealing with print media is that reporters are at or near their desks for much of the day and don't mind if you want to take sometime to think about how you want to speak on the issue, especially if it means that you can provide more detail and context that way. They also participate in scrums, as do some radio stations, especially 6X Radio Fanshawe.
Social media adds a new twist of increasing importance both with established media and with so-called “citizen journalists”. Blogs allow interested onlookers with varying degrees of observation and writing skills to comment on the issues of the day. While these are often personal commentaries, they also serve to pick up on the details that are often missed as the traditional media try to sum up an issue in a few hundred words or seconds. Not working to a deadline or a standard set by others, bloggers can do in depth research although they may lack access to some of the resources available to accredited journalists. Also, their audience reach may be small, although with social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, their influence may go well beyond their immediate subscribers.
Certainly, the Internet has extended the life of media reports, both positive and negative. Once something has been posted to the Internet, whether a YouTube video, an offhand Tweet or Facebook wall post, or a Kijiji ad, it's impossible to control where it goes. Some on council have learned that to their regret.
There is always some tension between the media and politicians; they need each other but neither likes to acknowledge it. At council there have frequently been disparaging remarks, especially about the London Free Press, when politicians haven't liked how they or their issues have been portrayed. On the current council, Steven Orser and Sandy White have been particularly outspoken about reining in the media. Early in the current term, Orser and White tried to pass a resolution that would censor bloggers and other users of social media if they were critical of elected officials. Recently, White tried to organize a boycott of a local radio show and derided the local daily newspaper in remarks at council. Still, no one pulls more stunts to get media attention than Orser, and no one bustles around the reporters more on the council floor than does White.
For the most part, the formal media have been very moderate in their characterization of local politicians. Anyone who sits through a full council meeting will observe behaviour on the part of some councillors that they find appalling. What makes the experience so shocking is that nothing they have read, heard or seen in the media prepared them for this: the disregard for decorum; the lack of preparation and intelligent discourse; the failure to respect each other, the staff and the public.
But observers have access to the media too. They can post and tweet the observations that traditional media overlook. And, of course, viewers at home can watch some of it on Rogers TV and if the timing is inconvenient, they can get the podcast.
So what's the solution for thin-skinned politicians?
On Phil McLeod's show, Sandy Levin recited his best piece of advice: Don't do stupid stuff.
And really, that is the answer. If you know what you want to accomplish and are honest about it, if you do your homework and understand the issues, if you ask intelligent questions and listen to the answers, if you read your emails, answer the phone, and listen to your constituents, you won't do stupid stuff. Or say stupid things that get you mocked.
If you can't do those things, you have no business being in a position of leadership.
And if you do those things and still get mocked occasionally, just suck it up.
At least you're not being ignored.