Who can't handle the truth?
The Globe and Mail reminds us again today that if the Conservative government has a cost-cutting plan, it's a secret. Just like the Canada-U.S. perimeter deal, and actually, a whole host of complicated issues on the national agenda. While this may be yet another illustration of this government's secretive tendencies, I also think it may be a larger sign of the times.
A while back, a friend who was deeply involved in the Liberals' tough, deficit-slashing 1995 budget told me that a similar exercise couldn't be pulled off today. Why? Because of the changes in my business -- journalism, which no longer seems to have the attention span or appetite to handle an ongoing story line. (Or "narrative," if you prefer that rapidly-becoming-overused term.)
The Liberals spent a considerable amount of time preparing the ground for the 1995 cuts, which were deep and severe. Read Double Vision, by Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith, for just what was involved in that PR spadework. It required an ongoing interest and debate in the public sphere; journalists who could spend days, weeks, months getting their heads around government spending priorities. It depended on a sophisticated, respectful relationship between journalists and politicians, which didn't send the reporter rushing to print with sky-is-falling stories every time he/she heard details of the cuts to come.
Today, with a diminished journalistic workforce on Parliament Hill, handling multiple deadlines and shrinking news space, it's harder to keep any story in the frame of attention, let alone a dry, complicated fiscal debate. Note the revolving controversies of the past few years. Remember the Afghan-documents issue? Prorogation? We're also told that the public has no interest now in "process" stories -- which pretty much describes most political stories. I'm old enough to remember a time when I covered a story for months at a time -- years, in the case of the national-unity struggles of Meech and Charlottetown. Now that prospect seems almost ridiculous.
And an important note -- on that public reluctance for "process" stories -- I think that's also a product of a political system that now rewards those who best talk to citizens as consumers. Anything that negatively affects the wallet is bad news. Anything that doesn't affect the wallet is simply not news.
I don't note this phenomenon to wax nostalgic or whine for a return of what journalism/politics used to be. It is what it is. The folks grousing about the Internet today remind me of the grumpy old-timers in the 1980s, saying that nothing good would come of television journalism.
But if the government isn't telling us about what cuts are necessary in the coming budget, that may not be just the government's fault. It could have a lot to do with journalism, and you, the public, too.