Saturday, March 16, 2019

On Randy Hillier

In the last day. Randy Hillier, MPP for Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, was expelled from the governing PC Caucus, in a situation that ostensibly began over an allegation that he heckled people in the viewers’ gallery during debate on the changes to Ontario’s autism support plan. Mr. Hillier did not deny the words, but insisted that they were directed across the floor to NDP MPP Monique Taylor. Ms. Taylor disputed that, and it is in this difference of opinion that the current situation was predicated on.

We now know that the issue was much more involved, and that some factions within the Party hierarchy have used the situation as a pretext for a permanent removal from the party’s ranks.

I have my own history with Mr. Hillier, and so must rely on it in order to make sense of the events.
In 2007, Randy Hillier became the Progressive Conservative nominee for the riding after a lengthy nomination battle against two other opponents. 

One of those opponents happened to be me.

I can tell you that in my experience in partisan politics, it is quite common – even predictable – that the successful candidate is tempted to be vengeful, to settle scores. Lose a nomination and you are suddenly persona non grata. Friends in other parties have told me that those tendencies are common to their experience as well.

I can also tell you that Randy did not seem to either get that memo, or read it. During our contest, we had many conversations, and agreed that what we both sought to represent was bigger than either one of us. We kept the lines of communication open and agreed to respect the result no matter what. Within a short time, I became – for a brief period – his riding president, and during the leadership contest in which he was a candidate, served as the riding’s returning officer.

Over the years, when we have been in the same room, he and his whole family have shown us kindness. At the death of my father-in-law, and my father, he was one of the first to reach out and ask if anything was needed.

If there was any circumstance where a politician could have chosen to be petty and vindictive, surely it would have been toward someone who stood to deny them election to a party nomination, and yet that did not happen.

Sadly, though, this distracts from the real issue – that of autism support for Ontario families.
I understand the legitimate concerns of those who have stated that the changes amount to a reduction in their current level of support. My hope is that the government can find a way of addressing that issue. I also appreciate that more than 22,000 received no support whatsoever to this point – a fact that seems to have been ignored by the opposition in all of this. As much as some people are upset by the change, I am equally upset that so many more families received nothing for so long to help shoulder the burden of care. If the government is to be judged as hardhearted for how the support is now being handled, surely those angry voices are culpable for having no issue with 22,000 deserving Ontario children receiving nothing up to this point. On this issue, more work is needed.

I was not in the Legislature. I did not hear the exchange, nor do I know Ms. Taylor. But I know Randy. I also know the mindset of some who, in their roles as advisors to government, are quickly seized by hubris and begin to forget what their true mission is. The greater damage to our democracy must surely be those who exert so much power and control over our democratic system while never having secured a single vote in a general election. The current problems in Ottawa involve – in part – the behaviour of a Prime Ministerial advisor and a nominally ‘neutral’ head of the nation’s public service who forgot the central tenets of their positions. In short, they let it go to their heads.

I would suggest that Mr. Ford’s government still has an opportunity to correct this problem, and to do the right thing.

On a personal note, in 2007, I contested that nomination for reasons that I still hold strongly today. While I was disappointed to lose to Randy, it was a fair contest where he behaved with the utmost of integrity. Over the years, he has become a colleague and a friend. And so, notwithstanding the past, my intention is to support Mr. Hillier. If the Ontario PC’s seek to nominate a successor, it will not be me.

If the current situation is resolved, the party can reasonably expect my support. If not, then a great deal of consideration will have to take place

Friday, February 16, 2018

Thoughts on 'Fake News'

Classic movies are, admittedly, an acquired taste.

In this era of IMAX, Dolby Surround sound number whatever, CGI and pyrotechnics, an old black and white film from the 1930’s or 40’s doesn’t do much to capture attention. But I appreciate the slower pace, the crafting of the dialogue, as well as the use of shadow. Back in the day, when you didn’t have special effects, that is what you relied on, and I appreciate the artistry of it.

As you can imagine, I am often tuned to the Turner Classic Movies channel, or TCM. Because it is commercial free, they fill the gaps between movies with interviews, classic short films, and some original content.

Every now and then, though, you see something that gets you thinking about today. It’s not always a clear lesson, but something puts your mind to a useful analogy for our times.

Every so often, they air what can only be described as a ‘short documentary’ on ‘Letterboxing.’ As a classic film buff, I found it interesting. As a political person, I found it strangely revealing.

‘Letterboxing’ is a term that refers to the shape of the viewing screen. As with its namesake, the shape is more rectangular. Often, when you see a film broadcast in letterbox, or from a blu-ray disc, there is black space at the top and bottom of the screen.

Many of the films that are presented in letterbox format are ones where the imagery is on a more expansive scale – think the classic chariot scene in Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston, or David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. In these films, the use of background is just as important as the action between the main actors. To appreciate the context of what you see between the protagonists, you need to also have an appreciation of their situation. The chariot scene in the former needs a large colosseum, replete with crowds, pageantry and grandeur. To understand the overwhelming nature of the desert in the latter film, you need to see just how small the people are against it.

Today’s blockbusters owe a great deal to the skill of those directors and cinematographers who pioneered the concept of the ‘larger than life’ film. While ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ had many of these elements, the genre really started to come into its own in the early 1950s.

Just as Hollywood was beginning to develop Cinemascope and Vistavision and all sorts of larger scale cinematography, television was also coming into its own. Studios saw the opportunity to have their films broadcast for the home audience, which was good for both the studios and the networks. There was, however, a catch. 

Televisions of the 1950’s and 1960’s had square screens and not the greatest quality resolution. Taking a film like ‘The Ten Commandments’ and putting it on a black and white analog television whose screen was barely larger than a laptop computer was not an easy process. It was fitting a rectangular peg into a square hole, and it would not work without some adaptation.

The workaround was something called ‘pan and scan’. While the layperson might not have known what that was, it was the reason why some television broadcasts and VHS tapes used to carry the disclaimer at the beginning that what you were about to see was ‘formatted to fit your screen.’

‘Formatting’ is a rather innocuous term for what was really a major reworking of a film. You would look at the film in its unadulterated state, isolate a square of the image that, in the opinion of the editor, captured the essence of the action, ignore the rest and magnify the part you intended to keep.

The TCM short presentation (accessible via YouTube from this link) visually demonstrates the phenomenon well. With graphics, they play scenes from Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Gigi, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. You see both the pan and scan version, which is silhouetted in a square, as well as the rest of the scene that would not be used. After seeing what is done, it is hard to disagree with director Martin Scorcese when he argues that ‘pan and scan’ is nothing less than ‘re-directing the film’.

Other directors in the short, such as Michael Mann and Sydney Pollack, explain that a scene is a composition, with every person and thing on camera meant to convey the story. Change the view, and you change the narrative. By way of illustration, an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ is shown subject to ‘pan and scan’, where the square contains Jesus and no more than two disciples to either side of him.

The short documentary appealed to my interest as a film buff, but I believe that its subject matter has import beyond that substrata of the public who are fans of the films of Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains. 

As a politically active person, I have had opportunity to see this phenomenon in another place – in the coverage of news events.

Years ago, I attended a political convention in Hamilton, Ontario that was covered by various newspapers. There was one plenary session I attended where the subject was that of ending automatic delegateships for executive members of concordant groups. 

Under the rules, youth executives, campus executives, women’s executives, business supporters, etc. could send their executive members to conventions – including leadership votes. When you consider that each body could have upwards of 20 or more executive members, the collective number of automatics could be as high as 150 or 200. In contrast, no one riding association could send more than ten delegates to a vote.

The argument to change the rules was driven by a desire to ensure that local constituencies, and not specialized executives, were driving the process. If one looks back to the last US Democratic Party primary race, and the perceived role of ‘superdelegates’ influencing the outcome, you get a sense of where a lot of people’s minds were at.

There were, of course, people who argued against the move. They sincerely felt that while the goal was laudable, it might have the unintended consequence of marginalizing members for whom these associated groups were created to represent.

In the end, we voted to end the automatic delegateships. Being a young university student, I was a member of two of these groups, but supported the change. I felt that if the party stood or fell on how well it did in winning ridings, then ridings needed to be at the core of the organization.

I left Hamilton for home, and thought nothing more of my vote until the following Monday, and a column in the Globe and Mail. The columnist wrote about that particular plenary session at that convention. After reading the content of the 500 or so words that encapsulated the debate, I wondered whether or not I had actually been in the room, or if it was one of those strange out of body, parallel universe moments. The date, the location and the title of the event jived with my recollection, but nearly everything else sounded quite strange. According to the account, it was a much livelier and heated affair than I remembered, and my real motivation for supporting the motion was not what I had thought.

People often remember things uniquely and subjectively, and to suggest that my memory was completely devoid of bias would be a stretch, but even accounting for subjectivity, the account of the event should have been roughly approximate to the recollection of a participant.

Was the reporter wrong? Not totally. It would be hard to argue that of a room with more than 400 people, there wasn’t at least a dozen that would have harboured the views that were conveyed in the piece. On the other hand, it is an equally untenable position that the view presented in that Globe and Mail column was shared by all present, right down to the kind folks running the AV equipment.

Of course, I would notice it, though.

The event was like a motion picture. I had experienced it in glorious IMAX, with Dolby Surround sound and all the enhancements that a James Cameron or a George Lucas could embed in it. What I read in the newspaper was the equivalent of the same film on a small black and white screen, mono sound, ‘panned and scanned’ in order to isolate certain characters at the expense of the rest of the frame. It wasn’t technically ‘wrong’, but it was a suggestive narration.

Today, you cannot go five minutes without being treated to an allegation or complaint about 'fake news', but is it really?

'Fake' suggests a falsehood or fabrication - something patently untrue. 'Fake' is when you say you're sick when you are not, when you say something works when it is broken, and vice versa. Fake is when you say that something is ten miles to the east, when it is actually 100 miles to the west. If we interpret ‘fake news’ to be ‘news that is fake’, then yes – there is ‘fake news’ circulating as we speak. 

On the other hand, strictly speaking, by that same measure, not all 'fake news' is actually 'fake'. A car accident can be described as either 'major' or 'horrific', but it's not technically fake unless there was no accident to begin with.

My point is that this issue has always been with us. We just seem to notice it more.
Unfortunately, it is also unavoidable.

When the responsibility of conveying events to the broader public, and committing them as a matter of record, is left to a handful of individuals, and those recollections are subject to the editorial policies of an even smaller group, you will always incur the danger of getting a story that takes a particular point of view or perspective. It cannot be helped.

When you read or see a recount of an event, you are reading or watching what the communicator has deemed important. The camera points in one specific direction for an extended period of time to the exclusion of other concurrent events, or the article contains two paragraphs about a single aspect of the story, and gives one sentence to another.

Truth be told, there have always been aspects of reportage that have been questioned on veracity. Crack open a history book, or do a little investigation, and you will find that newspapers has often taken a slant. In the early days of the American republic, rival publications skewered John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in equally lurid measure, much based on rumour and supposition. In the lead up to Canadian confederation, George Brown – the chief political rival of Sir John A. Macdonald – also helmed the Toronto Globe, and its editorial policy reflected that philosophical bent.

Closer to our time, one could consider the rather pro-active editorial policy of William Randolph Hearst which, some suggest, drove public sentiment during the Spanish-American War, and also creating a legend around the exploits of future President Theodore Roosevelt and his ‘Rough Riders.’ In Britain, one can also look at the policy of discretion employed by press barons during the 1930’s as it related to the coverage of King Edward and Wallis Simpson.

Today in Canada, various large newspapers – the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Postmedia chain of papers – are routinely accused of favouring one side over another. One paper declares the glass to be half full, while another decries that it is half empty, and yet another questions why it has to be a glass to begin with?

There have been a number of fine journalists and commentators, editors and publishers, but to suggest that there was some mythological golden era of news would be a stretch.

Think about yourself, and how you interpret events in your personal life – at home, at school, or at work. How do you recount the who, what, when, where and why? Would someone else with first-hand knowledge tell it exactly the same way?

There are those who blame social media for the rise of ‘fake news.’ They are correct, but not in the way they think. Social media, instantaneous information, and the 24-hour news cycle means we are exposed to more – more content and from more sources. Each one of those sources is, like a movie production, going to record the action from a particular vantage point.

Individual editors control the camera angle from their specific piece of equipment, but the consumer gets to see the film from all the cameras. In many ways, we have all become the director.

In the proverbial ‘good old days’, when there was only one vantage point, there was no opportunity to compare and contrast. It was an argument over who made the best cup of coffee in a town with only one restaurant. But, as more and more competition has been introduced, and there are more blends of coffee to be had, the choice naturally evolves.

The change in how news is reported has been no less dramatic, and the effect of competition no less profound. In truth, like most revolutionary change, it is neither wholly good nor bad. We have seen a proliferation of voices and perspectives, which has been a positive. We have also seen the decline of professional news gathering organizations in favour of the citizen blogger, whose own perspective may not be any better than that of the reporter they compete with. Quantity is no reflection of quality.

In the end, like the ‘pan and scan’ editing of classic films, the news we consume is unavoidably edited – for length, for content and emphasis, as well as perspective. It has always been that way. We only notice it because today’s story comes to us in many versions, and often competing with one another - like siblings arguing that it was the other one who spilled the juice on the kitchen floor, or broke the vase on the living room table.

So what is to be done?

The promise of more and more information does not make your life easier, but harder and more complicated. And quantity is not a harbinger of quality either. You have more and more voices, but not all of them are professional, diligent in their conduct, or even attempting to be neutral in their narrative.

The answer is, unfortunately, a paradox. The easier that information can be obtained, the harder you need to work to - politely speaking – separate the wheat from the chaff. Imagine people promising a system that will allow you to go paper-free, only to find that your office doubled its supply order and your recycling bin needs to be dumped twice as often!

That’s not easy. Even with a degree in political studies, I confess that I work up a sweat trying to dig up more information on stories I see, comparing write-ups and looking for similarities. I’m not sure how you do it if someone in an ivory tower didn’t give you the short-hand to break the code. 

In the end, though, the answer may just lie in the two things we are all born with from day one – innate curiosity, and a desire to know the truth. How we use it can be trained and honed, but it’s a gift each and every one of us has.

We just have to use it a little more often than we used to.