The business report on the radio began with the latest dooming and glooming. The commentator used all the appropriate clichés about this poor outlook, that unexpected downturn, and, of course, the uncertainty prevailing. Then, he surprised me with his ignorance by describing this week’s outcome in the French election.
“European markets are surging,” he said, “because of leftist Marine Le Pen’s showing in the first round of the French elections.”
“Leftist?” I repeated out loud. “Does he have any idea what he’s talking about?” This is the leader of France’s Front National, whose party policies have included, among other things, opposition to same-sex partnerships, opposition to unconditional abortion and opposition to withdrawing the death penalty, not to mention her support of a closed-border immigration policy, abandoning the euro as a common currency, and a view that open Muslim prayers represented the “occupation” of France. I wanted to phone the guy and suggest he do a little reading before attaching labels to politicians and then extrapolating their impact on the markets.
I’ve seen and heard more ignorance about government and politics than I care to admit, some of it in broadcasting, more of it in common conversation and unfortunately a lot of it in classrooms where I teach. Only in school it’s called “civics.” And I will accept some of the blame for this shortcoming among millennials I have taught.
Many do not know the difference between Democrats and New Democrats, nor that the former is American and the latter Canadian. They cannot differentiate between a councillor, an MPP or a Member of Parliament, nor between a bylaw and a bill, nor generally between left and right on the political spectrum. In just about every news reporting class I’ve taught since 1999, as an aside in my instruction, I have tried to teach some civics to young reporters.
One of my colleagues at Centennial College recently invited CBC Radio host Anna Maria Tremonti to the campus to be interviewed. During a question-and-answer session, Tremonti recommended that our student journalists be forced to explore political reporting as part of their training in order to understand how their world works.
As a seasoned broadcast journalist herself, Tremonti entreated the next generation of reporters to ask provocative questions, to speak truth to power. She once asked Henry Kissinger, national security advisor to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, for example, if he thought he could he be tried for a war crime.
“With accountability, you will often ask questions that are offensive,” Tremonti said, “but if a person is in a position of decision-making power, (he or she) should expect tough questions.”
I’ve rarely had the opportunity to ask such provocative questions, but early in my broadcasting career (back in the 1970s) my bosses at a private radio station in Saskatoon told me to go and cover weekly city council. I did, every Monday night, often into the wee hours. But I also suggested that then Mayor Cliff Wright come on the air the morning after council to answer my questions and those from our listeners. Mayor Wright agreed and we all learned more about how the city functioned.
Maybe that’s something we ought to try on our local radio station sometime. It could give those civic representatives – closest to our daily lives – a chance to explain policy and perspective. And it could give constituents a better understanding of their own civic responsibilities.
I give full credit to my Cosmos colleague Roger Varley. He regularly attends Uxbridge Township Council on our behalf. He pre-reads agendas, policy statements, depositions, briefs, bylaws and their amendments, so that we can know how our tax dollars and council representatives are functioning. He always completes his columns by asking us, “Am I Wrong?” But before he poses that question, Varley does his homework. He takes the time to listen, analyse and then present what he believes is a balanced view on the township’s public business. Varley knows his civics and he largely makes up for the fact the rest of us don’t.
The first round in the French election provoked my response to the news commentator who didn’t know the difference between left and right on the political spectrum. Maybe that’s why the French have wisely included a second round in the election of their new president, i.e. a runoff between the top two contenders.
Perhaps that’s because the founders of the French Republic centuries ago understood that the people need to have a very specific choice when electing a leader. There’s nothing like a horserace between two candidates to put things into perspective, to provoke people to vote and to inspire a sense of participatory democracy.
It was British playwright George Bernard Shaw who wrote: “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”
In other words, if we don’t digest our civics, the results will most certainly come back to bite us.