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Who – and what – is a journalist?

Desmond Cole’s indignation about a Toronto Star editor quietly outlining to him the newspaper’s policy on activism and journalism is quite breathtaking.

He was given the talking-to by Star editorial page editor Andrew Phillips after Cole disrupted a Toronto Police Services Board meeting that was discussing destroying information collected through the controversial police policy of carding.

Cole, who was making a deputation to the board, took over the podium and halted the meeting. The Star’s Public Editor Kathy English wrote a thoughtful and well-argued column in that paper recently explaining the difference between activism and journalism..

Cole has since quit his Star column. Oh my. If I’d quit the first time an editor had hauled me in for a “chat” (i.e. “don’t do that again”) I wouldn’t have lasted 50 years in journalism.

As a longtime former journalist, and as a former press gallery president at Queen’s Park, where such issues frequently come up, I believe the Star actually behaved in a restrained manner.

First, was Cole attending the meeting as an activist or a journalist? If he was making a deputation, then he was there as an individual. Had he used Star credentials to gain admittance, then the newspaper has an issue. The mere fact that he had a high-profile platform via the Star meant the TPSB was obliged to treat him as a journalist. There’s a strong likelihood he would write about it.

To its credit, the Star reported the incident in a fair and even-handed fashion. But you could also argue he put the Star reporter in a very awkward situation.

And in this city, this province, journalists have very good access to politicians. And real journalists fight hard to maintain that access – because it is so vital to a free press.

Cole is young and, like many millennials, has a problem with authority. When they encounter rules they don’t agree with, they change the rules.

The fact is though that the rules about activism and journalism are there for a good reason. If activist/journalists continue to shut down legislatures/council/police board meetings legitimate journalists who are just trying to do their jobs will lose the access they have now. That’s why the press gallery polices itself so rigorously to ensure that only journalists with no axes to grind are in scrums.

I remember a couple of situations where journalists asked questions in scrums and news conferences that were clearly personal in nature. In one case, when market value assessment was being debated, one journalist, whose home would have been massively re-assessed, kept asking loaded questions about the issue.

In another case, during the Ombudsman’s probe of the lottery ticket fiasco, a freelance journalist came to a news conference and started to ask a question in which he clearly had a personal interest about a lottery ticket he believed he’d been swindled on. He was shut down by other reporters. As president of the gallery, as I recall, it fell to me to call him later and explain the rules.

In fairness, I should say that the only time Cole came to Queen’s Park that I’m aware of, he sat in the side gallery reserved for observers and those with a stake in the topic and not in the seats reserved for journalists.

There are those who will point out that as a columnist, I wrote nothing but opinion. That is true. But I have never been a member of a political party. And while I was generally a small-c conservative columnist, when circumstances called for it, at times I would criticize large-C Conservative politicians.

When Desmond Cole criticizes Black Lives Matter, then he can consider himself a journalist. To my recollection, covering city council, the school board, the Legislature and countless committee and board meetings, while I heard a great deal of nonsense and points of view I strongly disagreed with,I never leaped to the podium to take it over.

It’s true that of late with bloggers and online websites, the lines between journalism and non-journalism have blurred and it is increasingly difficult to tell who is and who isn’t a journalist and what the agendas of some reporters are. That doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and not try.

People with one special interest or lobbyists working to promote a particular point of view are not journalists. Politicians don’t need much by way of an excuse to limit access of journalists to them. Once you cross the blurred line, you are inviting a whole heap of trouble. And it won’t be good for journalism.

Usually when a columnist with a special interest writes in a paper, there’s a note at the bottom explaining who that writer is and what organization they belong to. That disclaimer allows the reader to assess the column taking into consideration the writer’s special interest. Cole always insists  he’s not a member of BLM, so you can’t note that at the end of his column.

Cole complained recently on Newstalk 1010 that Star honcho John Honderich had asked him to lunch and then suggested he diversify his column. Cole took offence. Are you kidding me? First, when a senior executive of the newspaper invites you to lunch, you should listen carefully. You don’t own the paper. He does – or at least he has the confidence of those who do. His advice is probably going to be wise and you should listen. The fact such a senior person took the time to have lunch to offer advice clearly demonstrates that the Star was falling over itself to help Cole stay. You can’t write the same column over and over. You have to diversify.

And Cole is convinced he’s vital to the growth of the paper – attracting clicks and eyeballs and readers. I don’t know about that. He could also be turning off readers in droves.

If you’re so thin-skinned that you can dish out nasty opinions but you’re not prepared to take gentle criticism from the people who hired you – and are therefore most likely to be on your side – then you’re probably in the wrong business.

Homework – or dadwork?

My heart went out to the Quebec mom who told her child’s teacher she wouldn’t be doing any more homework unless it was a school project.

Homework is a cop-out for teachers. The kind of work that gets sent home and the amount that is assigned tells me it’s really the school saying they didn’t have time to teach this to your kid – so now it’s up to you.

My kids were lucky. My ex-husband is good at math and was able to help them with their work. As well, we were able to hire tutors to fill some of the gaps. But I used to wonder what happened to families who didn’t have those resources. It’s one reason, I suspect, why school performance is inherited. If your parents didn’t graduate, likely you won’t graduate – because your parents can’t help with your homework.

We took part in an exchange program with students from the South of France when my son was in high school. Those kids loved Toronto. Why? Because they didn’t have to be at school until 9 a.m. And they finished at 3.15.

They started school at 8 a.m. and went until 6 p.m. But they had no homework. Why? Because their teachers taught them everything they needed to know and then made sure they understood it.

My ex often had to teach my child the concepts of math. He wasn’t just helping them practise it, he literally had to teach them the math from the text book.

So yes, teachers need to scrap some of the homework and make sure the kids understand the concept – before they leave the classroom.


Royal retirement

I’m not sure how many people retire aged almost 96, but you have to hand it to Prince Philip that he’s going out in style.

How many World War II war heroes are still working? Yet he is a true war hero, saving many lives as a first lieutenant during the Allied invasion of Sicily.

And he has a colourful background. Born in Greece he considers himself Danish, from the House of Schleswig-Holstein.

In 1922, his family was forced to flee Greece – with the baby Philip in an orange crate.

His eccentric mother, Princess Alice, attended the wedding of Prince Philip and the Princess Elizabeth dressed as a nun.

Over the years, Philip has often been controversial, with often bizarre public comments. But he’s also been loyal and incredibly hard-working. I’ve covered several royal tours, and believe me, they are gruelling.

Philip has served Queen and country – and Canada well. He has visited this country numerous times. The last time I covered him was in 2013, when he presented new colours to the Royal Canadian Regiment. He appeared frail, yet despite that he made a flying, less-than-24-hour transatlantic trip because as colonel in chief, he felt it was his duty and obligation to present the new colours.

This fall, the Queen and Prince Philip will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. It’s been a long and winding road for the royal couple since they wed in November, 1947. No one can question their dedication, their love of country and Commonwealth – or their hard work.

And for those people who say it’s time to dump the monarchy, think again. The monarchy’s roots run deep. All you have to do is cover a Royal Tour to appreciate just how much they are appreciated in this country. The monarchy is a defining, unifying force for this country. It separates us from the U.S.

You may not like the person who wears the Crown. That’s not what the monarchy is all about. It’s about having a mature level of government that is above politics. Watch the faces of people the Queen talks to on the Royal Tours to appreciate how much that means. Critics of the monarchy quote polls showing 50% of Canadians would like to do away with our connection to the Crown. That’s a figure that comes at a time when there has been no education campaign. I believe most Canadians, upon serious consideration, would reject a mould us into a republican U.S. shape.

Talk to any Canadian who’s been given an award in the name of the Queen, and they will tell you how meaningful that award is. Talk to people like former Lt.-Gov. David Onley about what an honour it is to hand out those awards, and they will tell you how people had tears in their eyes to be recognized in such a fashion.

If this country elected a Donald Trump, wouldn’t you like to have Queen Elizabeth as senior, sober voice of second thought? Look back over any U.S. president in the last 60 years and name one you’d prefer as your head of state to Elizabeth.

No, hands off the monarchy. It has served us well. And before you replace it, tell us who – or what  – you will replace it with.


Religious (re)accommodation

There’s an old joke about how as long as there are math exams, there will aways be prayer in schools.

“Dear God, help me with this algebra.”

Many years ago, the public school system here in Ontario dropped the ritual saying of the Lord’s Prayer every day before class. I welcomed that. As a practising Christian, I don’t want people who don’t share my faith to be forced to repeat a prayer that is deeply meaningful to me, but not to them. In a public school system, everyone should feel welcome and valued.

The place for religion is at home, in the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the temple.

That said, there are some times when the calendars of various faiths intrude on the calendars of some schools. On Ash Wednesday, for example, as an Anglican, I would take my kids out of school for the morning – which they are permitted to do without being marked as absent.

And there are faiths that require adherents to pray throughout the day. I believe those children should be accommodated – but carefully. Just as non-Christians should not be required to recite the Lord’s Prayer, so  other faiths should conduct their prayers in private.

Students who need a place to pray should be accommodated in their own private classroom. Not in the cafeteria; not in the gym. Not in a place that inconveniences the rest of the student body.  And if they are in a public school, all the human rights rules apply. Girls are equal to boys. They should not sit in the back or be excluded if they are on their period,

Now shall we discuss how religious accommodation works in the Catholic school system – where prayer is a requirement?

Fodder for another post.


Grief porn

Prince Harry opened up recently about his near-breakdown as he struggled to cope with the emotional fall-out from the loss of his mother, Princess Diana.

It was a brave statement, and one that will, you hope, help others who have struggled with mental health issues find the courage to get help.

But you have to wonder just how much we, the public, and specifically those who need to grieve publicly for people they hardly know, contributed to Harry’s  despair.

In  the aftermath of Diana’s death, the world demanded the Royal Family put their grief on display for all to see. The Royals were at Balmoral when the tragedy happened – and nothing they said or did was enough to quieten the baying hordes. The Royals were criticized for (a) going to church as usual that Sunday morning; (b) Not returning to London quickly enough; (c) not lowering the Royal Standard at Buckingham Palace.

They were a family deeply shocked by Diana’s death. No matter what the broken relationship was between Prince Charles and Diana, the fact was there were two young boys who had tragically lost a mother they adored. And who adored them. Yet they were not allowed to grieve in private. We wanted to see them. We wanted them paraded before us in their moment of deepest, direst agony.

While the world obsessed over meaningless gestures – such as flying a flag at half-mast – two young children were going through the worst time of their lives. The Royal Family was clearly struggling to deal with that very personal grief. And the world didn’t much care about them.

The most comforting place for a family at a time of such sorrow is often church. The solemnity, the ritual, the still, small voices of calm, can provide great solace for those who are suffering.

Yes, possibly the Queen should have returned to London earlier – but this was a sudden and shocking turn of events. Don’t forget, this was a caring grandmother trying to help her grandsons through a massive tragedy.  Who in the same situation would board a train to London?  There was no PR manual to help them through it. Possibly one of the most poignant news photographs I’ve ever seen was that of Prince William and Prince Harry following their mother’s casket.

Yes, there were things the Royals could have done more elegantly. There were things that weren’t said right. But there were two young boys caught in the middle of all the finger-pointing and recriminations. As the world made its way to the gates of Kensington Palace to leave their bouquets, too few considered what was happening to them. We have a right to expect certain things of the Royals: they should attend public events; they should lend their names to charitable fundraisers. They should give leadership in times of war or when the country is suffering. They should also be there for times of celebration.

But the pomp and circumstance aside, they are still mortals. They should be allowed their private grief and not be judged on how they mourn.

Because 20 years on, you have to ask if the public’s need for the Royals to mourn in public  isn’t in some way to blame for some of what Harry went through.

Fixing Hydro

Call me crazy, but why is it PC Leader Patrick Brown’s job to fix the mistakes of Liberal premiers? Liberal spin doctors such as Scott Reid are trying to portray Brown as an empty vessel, because he hasn’t revealed his plan.

Hello? It’s the mess of Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty. They created it. They should solve it. Frankly, I think the mess is so enormous at this point that there is no solution. The Liberals’ best fix is to dump even more debt on future generations. That isn’t a plan. That’s a cop-out. It’s just pouring gas on the debt fire.

Saddling this province with such massive debt is not the way out. And they are making it impossible find a solution. But in their spin about Brown, you can once again see the Liberal play book getting re-written for next year’s election.  Scare voters into voting once again for their ruinous governments.

Foolishly, the Tories insist on telling the truth in elections. Tim Hudak didn’t actually say they were going to fire 100,000 civil servants in the last election. They said they’d eliminate 100,000 positions. There’s a big difference. It needs to be done – but no one will dare promise fiscal responsibility in this province any more. Why? Because balancing the books and living within your means are measures that are just too scary.



Ask the Canadian nerd

A young university student from Oakville has UK television viewers sitting up and taking note.

Eric Monkman, 29, an economics student from Oakville, is the latest star  of the nerdy UK TV quiz show, University Challenge, in which teams from universities across Britain compete for the top prize.

Monkman’s acquired something of a cult following as he spits out answers  in rapid-fire succession. His intense frowns, odd mannerisms and unique way of blurting out answers have captivated quiz show lovers in the UK.  This week, he led his team from Wolfson College, Cambridge to the semi-final of this year’s season of the show, and acquired adoring admirers on social media along the way.

Britain has a fascination with quiz shows and other programs that invite viewers to pit wits with contestants. And smart people with encyclopedic knowledge frequently become as famous for their nerdy know-how as pop stars do for their music in North America.

If Monkman were, say, a soccer player who was tearing up the turf at Wembley, we’d be feting him back here in Toronto and bragging of his prowess. That fact he’s a smart, well-educated kid means he’s just cruising under the radar.

Hey, good luck Eric. Nerds across the GTA are cheering for you!


Breast before date

The bizarre column by Globe and Mail writer Leah McLaren that purported to describe how, as a twenty-something and not a lactating mother, she contemplated breast-feeding Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong’s baby underscores once again the odd attitude North Americans have with breastfeeding.

Those of us who are of my generation (read old) and from a background that is not from the uptight, tightly-wound, well-heeled North American middle class (read poor-ish) are quite puzzled at the weird preoccupation people like McLaren have with breast-feeding.

Growing up post-war in Britain, it was perfectly normal for families to breastfeed their children. Unless you were royalty or very, very wealthy and hired a wet nurse, that was what you did. I can remember visiting school friends and watching as their mothers nursed babies.

Why? Certainly not because it was trendy. It was cheaper, easier (once  you get the hang of it) and you didn’t have to go through the whole routine of sterilizing bottles. And it was that connection of watching mothers nurse their babies that kept the connection for their daughters. Why did we breastfeed? Because it never occurred to us to do anything else.

In North America, for some reason, there’s a prissy attitude that breasts are not for feeding. Is it that women here are so conditioned to the notion that their breasts are sexual appendages and not to be used for the purpose they were intended? Who knows? Do their husbands find it repulsive? Don’t know. But they need to get over it.

Where did we lose that connection with our mothers who breastfed? And why do we now aggressively have to make such a noisy debate about reconnection? The militant La Leche League and other organizations guilted women into breastfeeding. They, too, were just as ridiculous. Bottle-fed babies do just as well. Let’s not name and shame those who don’t or can’t. Besides, fathers can have a greater part in the baby’s feeding when the baby is bottle-fed.

Breastfeeding is one of the most natural things in the world. Except, of course, when you’re at a party and you’re contemplating breast-feeding a baby which is not yours with milk you do not have.

And then you go on to embarrass that family – an possibly yourself –  by later writing a column for a national newspaper talking about your disturbing thoughts.

Look: It’s a breast. If you can and want to breast-feed, terrific. If you can’t – or don’t want to – that’s fine too.  Pick your poison – so long as the baby gets fed. A friend of mine once wanted to listen in church to a sermon by a visiting bishop. She had a small baby. She sat at the back and when the baby fussed, she put a blanket over her shoulder to hide any offending “parts” and simply nursed the child.

The baby was quiet. The congregation didn’t realize what she was doing. And the bishop smiled happily, knowing that baby was happy and his sermon was uninterrupted. And she didn’t write a column for the Globe and Mail about it.

Possibly the greatest act of maternal love I’ve ever seen was a woman whose baby was in the neonatal unit at Women’s College Hospital. She was from Northern Ontario and had just given birth to a premature baby. She had children back home and had to return to care for them. She made arrangements to express milk every day and Air Canada agreed to fly it   to Toronto.

But nursing someone else’s baby without their consent? Hmmm. Might want to get some help with that.




Defining terror. Defying terror

We are told never to jump to conclusions after an attack such as the one that happened in Westminster today. We should not call it terror until we know what happened.

Terror comes in many forms and has a broad definition. Terror is when someone – anyone – attacks a community, a state, a nation, a people at its very heart. When places that are ancient and familiar and treasured are under attack, then it is terror – whether it’s the IRA, the Red Brigades or ISIL that has committed the act of violence. Last year, Britain was rocked to its core by the assassination of British Labour MP Joe Cox by a fanatical political opponent.

And Britain has a history of dealing with terror. Queen Victoria survived at least eight assassination attempts. When I was young, the IRA was terrorizing London with random bombings.

In World War II, what was the Blitz if not a nightly terror attack by the Nazis on the British capital? My parents survived that, although they were bombed out of their house one night – all the windows in their house shattered. Were they frightened? Of course, I’m sure they were. Did it weaken them? Not at all. It made them more determined to survive , to win and to say they were proud to do so.

Terror doesn’t intimidate Londoners – not the Cockney market stall sellers; not the swanky folk in Knightsbridge. It strengthens their resolve to carry on with heads held high and preserve what they hold dear.

We don’t know what happened in Westminster today. We don’t know who did it or what crazed ideology – if there was one – was behind it. What I do know for sure is that normal service will resume as soon as possible in London. It always has.

Deconstructing Greg Sorbara

My, but Greg Sorbara is one canny political operative.

There he was on TVO’s flagship The Agenda show with Steve Paikin last night, giving a very savvy run-down on the upcoming election.

“This is going to be a very difficult campaign,” opined Sorbara. He should know. He is largely credited with masterminding some of the Liberals’  greatest election campaign triumphs. He’s one of the most politically astute operatives around. When he speaks, politicians listen. Reporters turn on their recorders. TV camera lights go on.

“It doesn’t look good for the Ontario Liberal Party,” he went on. But then he went blithely on to praise the good job the Liberals have done.

“This Liberal government has done a really good job,” he said – mentioning schools, the economy, healthcare and infrastructure spending as centres of excellence. He mentioned in passing the government’s battle with doctors – but slid over it as a hiccup on the road to greater Liberal glory.

Okay, let’s take a look at that record. This province is the most indebted sub-national government in the world. The Liberal government has tripled the accumulated debt since they took over in 2003. It’s not for a lack of spending. The Liberals have hiked taxes time and time again – through their “health care levy,” the introduction of the HST, eco fees, hikes in user fees on licences and now through cap and trade.

Yet they still can’t balance the books. Their handling of the electricity sector leaves you wondering if this province can ever recover from their mismanagement. The manufacturing sector of this province, the great industrial heartland that produced thousands of good blue-collar jobs, was fuelled by cheap, abundant electricity. The mainstay was always the Sir Adam Beck plant at Niagara Falls that produces the cleanest, greenest, cheapest electricity on the planet. With the ruinous Green Energy plan, the province at times spills water at the plant in order to buy electricity from expensive wind turbines and solar sources.

That is not good management.

Healthcare is a mess. We have seen massive spending boondoggles in eHealth and Ornge. Meanwhile, nurses are laid off and doctors in this province are threatening job action.

Education? Well, rural schools are being closed, so kids have to take long bus rides to school. And Newstalk 1010 is running a series this week that talks of violence and other problems in schools.

But you have to hand it to Sorbara. He’s an old hand. He knows how to say utter rubbish with a knowing look and with great authority and pretend everything in the garden is lovely.

“I don’t understand why the people of Ontario are so down on the Ontario Liberals,” Sorbara told Paikin, “and particularly Kathleen Wynne.”

There are “grave, grave,” problems ahead, he said.

I suspect that statement has more to do with internal Liberal politics than for broader public consumption. Is he sowing the seeds of dissent within the party to make way for a snap leadership contest? Sorbara is a powerful voice in the party. And he doesn’t like losing. When Sorbara whispers, Liberals listen. Does he have a new leader  in mind?

Sandra Pupatello? Steven Del Duca? Yasir Naqvi? Michael Coteau?

The possibilities are endless.