RM
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RM Issue #030704

So politicians lie: They always have
By NORMAN SPECTOR
Friday, July 4, 2003 - Page A13


I'm surprised anyone's surprised that George W. Bush didn't tell the whole truth about weapons of mass destruction. Am I the only one old enough to remember that Pierre Trudeau won the 1974 election by ridiculing the Conservatives' platform of wage and price controls (and then proceeded to implement such controls himself)? And how about Brian Mulroney's condemnation of Liberal patronage in 1984, or Jean Chr?tien's promise in 1993 to scrap the GST?

Let's face it: No successful lawmaker has ever adhered to the standard of allocution expected in a court of law. We elect politicians to be frugal with our finances, but they stay elected by being economical with the truth. The most uncomfortable truth is that we don't truly want them to tell it like it is. Most of us yawn when a finance minister blames the sinking economy on the rising dollar -- only months after boasting about how Liberals have made the good times roll since 1993. It beats having to talk about the real facts of life, such as our dependence on the U.S.

True, politicians seldom tell bald-faced lies -- Bill Clinton's little one about Monica Lewinsky, and Richard Nixon's Watergate whopper are the exceptions that prove the rule. Of course, in foreign affairs, a president has more freedom to fib, as Lyndon Johnson, who virtually invented the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, knew only too well. So, no one should be shocked that Mr. Bush embellished intelligence reports about weapons capabilities in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz says it was the only issue that united the administration -- most likely after extensive polling and focus group testing.

Hasn't that been the pattern since Mr. Bush defined his response to the 9/11 attacks as a war on "terrorism," when, in truth, it's about control of the oil-rich Middle East?

Some of the outrage over Mr. Bush's oleaginous oratory is feigned -- a bit like tut-tutting about the 20-something who married a septuagenarian for reasons other than love. Most is political -- the last gasps of war opponents anxious about each mass grave that's dug up, or about progress toward Mideast peace, and eager to change the subject. This includes lefties in the media.

You hear a lot these days about the National Post's right-wing agenda, and you'd have to be blind not to see it. But, though less often discussed, you don't need 20/20 vision to have noticed that the Toronto Star has tacked in the opposite direction, and has done so for many years. The Star, the country's largest circulation daily -- published in the region that elects and defeats governments in Ottawa -- has, at times, served as the house organ of the Liberal Party.

It was the Star that led the charge against the war in Iraq, and against any Canadian contribution to that war, and now regularly beats the drum about Mr. Bush's weapons of mass destruction prevarications. Yet, in the two years following the 1993 federal election, it didn't publish a single article or editorial about Jean Chr?tien's broken GST promise. Only in late 1996, after a citizen confronted the Prime Minister at a remarkable CBC town hall meeting, did the paper provide belated coverage of this issue.

And just how honest is the Star itself? The paper employs a media critic who is quick to spot bias -- in others. She explains away with a tautology (the newspaper's ownership agreement) an academic survey that finds Toronto Star journalists overwhelmingly believe their news coverage is influenced by owners' views -- a slightly larger proportion than at CanWest's Ottawa Citizen and a much larger proportion than at the National Post. (The Globe and Mail's owner influence was reported as considerably lower than that found at any of the other papers.)

A big fan of Al-Jazeera's Iraq war coverage, this Star critic does not inform readers when the Arab network's general director is fired for allegedly collaborating with Saddam Hussein's intelligence services. Eager in the wake of 9/11 to expose U.S. media subservience to the Bush administration, the critic is silent when the Saudi government fires the editor of the semi-official Al-Watan newspaper, a man who is a leading critic of Islamic extremism. She is silent when the Damascus bureau chief of the pan-Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, is imprisoned in Syria.

Today, in an age of global news competition and diversity, consumers can compare media coverage of current events, much as we've been able for years to weigh the truthfulness of our politicians. Is it any wonder that 20-somethings -- who can sniff phoniness a mile away -- don't bother to vote?

Or that conspiracy theories proliferate in Internet chat rooms and discussion forums, while publishers scratch their heads about how to interest young people in reading newspapers?

nspector@globeandmail.ca



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