Monday, April 9, 2007

When rumours shouldn't make headlines

Some people have asked why I haven’t written about ongoing rumours concerning the marital issues of one of our elected officials; or, more to the point, why other media haven’t reported it.

There’s a simple reason for that. It really isn’t news. We might want to know about it, in a gossipy kind of way, but is the public interest served by revealing the personal affairs of our public figures? I submit there is, but only when such entanglements affect that person’s ability to function effectively in their position.

A hypothetical example: one of your neighbours has an affair with a co-worker, the spouse finds out and the marriage subsequently fails. It makes for interesting chatter at backyard barbecues, but the criminal code has not been broken and life goes on. It isn’t news. Generally speaking, the same standard should apply to public figures.

Otherwise, we are on a slippery slope into tabloid journalism, in which good reputations get damaged for the wrong reasons and media become obsessed with sensationalism over substance.

My colleagues and I at The Sunday Express dealt with a roughly similar situation, while covering the federal election of 1988. The Sunday Express was widely viewed as a muck-raking investigative newspaper (we wore the badge proudly). But when news reached us that one of the election candidates was gay, we took a time out and discussed the issue.

The Sunday Express was not a democracy – Michael Harris always made the final call on stories – but he encouraged lively debate and listened to all arguments before making a decision. On this occasion, cases were made for and against running the piece, though most of us were against it. Then Michael decreed that we would not do the story. There was no law against homosexuality at the time. Furthermore, the candidate was a brilliant person with great ideas and experience, so why should we care if that person is gay?

I listened in shock a few days later when CBC reporter Maudie Whelan put a microphone in the candidate’s face and asked, “Is it true you are gay?” The candidate replied that the question was not relevant to the campaign, but the reporter persisted, demanding confirmation or denial. The question was not dignified with an answer, but I felt sorry for the candidate.

We’ve come a long way since then. We now have federal politicians, such as Scott Brison, who are popular with their electorate despite being openly gay. In the United States, the American public and news media ridiculed Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, but seemed to learn from it as well, gradually coming to the realization that Clinton was a brilliant man despite his sexual peccadillos.

It would seem that a similar sense of maturity is evolving among the media in this province as well.


Sheena said...

I agree, it's not important to the public at all.

Not to mention - who the hell would comment? In the words of Roger Bill, the difference between gossip and news is two sources.

Geoff Meeker said...

Note to avid reader: Please, no anonymous posts!