The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Media

Is Our News Ripping Us Apart?

My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.

That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.

So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated.   As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:

“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.

Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.

Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.

A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.

Photo credit: Martin Nitalla

Poverty’s Problem is Division, Not Addition

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IN ITS OWN WAY, THE LONDON FOOD BANK’S fall food drive turned out to be a remarkable initiative. With donations up significantly over last year’s effort, it was tempting to think that citizens were in a more generous mood than last year. It’s true, they were, but the real story was what it was that put them in such a mood.

While totals donated to food drives tend to decline over the years, yearly givings go up as citizens increasingly take advantage of dropping off their donations at grocery stores across the city. Food drives often have to compete with other interests when it comes to capturing media attention, but this Thanksgiving it was these other avenues that created the context for a terrific food drive.

Over the summer and into the fall, the Poverty Over London social media campaign has relentlessly reminded the community of poverty’s grip in our midst by putting out posts full of data and the personal stories of those fighting to make ends meet. It has been a remarkable campaign that has subtly entered into the community conversation because of its consistent presence online.

The opposite held true for the string of London Free Press stories by local reporter Jennifer O’Brien – articles that ran over the course of a couple of weeks and directly confronted Londoners. They didn’t settle comfortably into the background but brought the tragedy of poverty directly to the attention of readers. Written in a way that spoke directly to the situation, they were nevertheless drew the community into the personal stories that filled the columns.

And then there was the launch of the London Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report. These come out every two years and help to define the stark challenges confronting the city when it comes to helping those on the margins. For the next two years the foundation’s focus will be on the gaps that persistently plague mental health services in the community. A big part of the report talks about the link between mental illness and poverty. Statistics were released showing that in cities across the country, a range between 23% and 67% of those who were homeless report struggling with mental illness. And on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. For such struggling individuals, poverty is a constant companion.

All this was transpiring as the London Food Bank worked through its ten-day drive. In effect, these efforts provided a context, a broader awareness, of poverty’s hold on our city. It was the confluence of all these efforts, informing Londoners all at the same time, which made the London Food Bank’s effort so successful. In previous years, the food drive often happened in isolation, fighting, as it often did, against bad weather, poor coverage, or the occasional election. But this year it all came together. Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues, and layers, and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community responded by upping its game.

Often, community agencies focus their efforts on singular efforts to raise their totals of funds and resources. Generous citizens, businesses, and organizations respond, but the overall effort is diversified to the degree that the many complexities of poverty rarely appear in the same events. Citizens respond to homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addictions, violence against women, and many other dimensions that make up the depth of poverty, but which rarely get presented as a complete picture.

All too often we believe poverty’s solutions require more: more money, more housing, more understanding, more empathy, more food, more financing. All of this is true, but the greatest obstacle to defeating poverty is the various divisions in every community that all too often fail to come together in a universal effort to redefine a city, a province, a country. That means combining everything from the non-profit to the start-up sector, the Chamber of Commerce to the social agencies, the media to the hospital and educational institutions. For that to happen, however, it will take citizens demanding better of their institutions and themselves.

The recent food drive showed just how motivated citizens can become when they are stimulated and educated on multiple levels. As long as sectors manage poverty instead of coming together and defeating it, the story will continue to be the same. When they are combined, however, even to a certain degree, as they did last week in London, Ontario, and we discover that within our own generation, poverty can be defeated.

Yet it will take more than collaboration or charitable actions from our communities. The problem ultimately lies in one of the most divided of all sectors: government. Next time we will take a look at how all three levels of government can shift the dynamic and add policy to the compassion of communities to make it work.

Serious Elegance

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You can read this post on National Newswatch here

EVERYONE IN THE ROOM SENSED THAT PAUL MARTIN would be prime minister soon enough. There was an excitement in the air as my wife and I attended a London, Ontario event where Martin, as finance minister, was scheduled to speak on healthcare.

His arrival was met with enthusiasm and he quickly warmed to his audience. Partway into his address a door closed at the rear of the hall and someone quietly entered. People whispered to one another, “It’s Jeffrey Simpson.” While the audience might have appreciated that one of the country’s best-known journalists would attend their event, the effect on Paul Martin was immediate. The finance minister is known as an engaging speaker, but his connection with his audience that evening dissipated as his eye continued to follow Simpson’s progress up the side of the hall. He was more careful, not as bellicose or partisan. While the journalist jotted down a few items in his notebook, it was clear to everyone that his presence had changed the dynamics.

The ultimate moral of this recounting is how experienced journalism can affect our politics. This wasn’t some frantic or wannabe reporter using social media to raise his profile. He was instead an objective witness to events and his insights served to remind the political establishment that accountability still mattered and that a reckoning would surely result the moment political figures ignored that responsibility.

When the Globe and Mail announced this week that Jeffrey Simpson was signing off following a stellar career as a columnist there were the expected plaudits. Starting at the Globe in 1974, he soon became a national affairs columnist. He was no wide-eyed idealist, having earned degrees from the London School of Economics and Queen’s University.

There was a kind of serious elegance about him that easily translated to his writing style. The gravitas he exuded served effective notice to the political elites that he saw through their trappings and partisan rhetoric. And he was recognized by his peers as someone who could spend hours researching a topic and just as long in crafting his words that ultimately became his columns. He was awarded all three of Canada’s noted literary prizes, awarded numerous honourary doctorates, and became recognized as one of the country’s leading thinkers on public policy.

So, yes, Simpson has enjoyed an accomplished career, having authored six books in the process. But it was his effect on the Canadian policy establishment, including the politics that so often diffused it, that might prove his ultimate legacy.

Simpson’s 42-year career coincided with massive changes in the news and publishing industries – a transformation that has redefined journalism in the process. Yet his columns remained remarkably sanguine when it seemed as though everyone else was heading off in all directions attempting to catch the latest trend. Knowing effective policy and good politics to be the essence of a healthy democracy, he couldn’t bring himself to pander to the flightiness of the age.

In his The Way of the Modern World, author Craig Gay recounted the effects of modern journalism’s infatuation with the immediate:

“By focusing exclusively on the events of the day, journalism all but severs the connection between time and eternity. It makes the world appear to be nothing but an endless jumble of events through which it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern anything beyond the relatively base motivations of lust, calculated self-interest, and the will to power. In short, journalism is not able to communicate wisdom.”

To his credit, and that of the newspaper that understood his value, Simpson refused to walk down that path. Instead he did as he always did – engaged his readers with serious insight. In so doing he became the embodiment of esteemed journalist Bob Woodward’s observation: “I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us.”

This year has seen the retirement of a number of dedicated columnists who believed that their craft deserved proper and serious context. But as a nation says farewell to Jeffrey Simpson, it is aware that it is losing a refined writer who dealt with them as citizens of the mind as well as passion. Ultimately, it will be his sage observations of accountability and watchfulness that will be missed the most in a political and bureaucratic world all too willing to spin on a dime if it would curry more public favour and influence. We wish him a well-deserved and contented retirement, but our journey from this point forward will be all the more difficult without his elegant writings of public responsibility.

An Empty Spot On the Bench

TV Bill Moyers Journal

WHEN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATES FOR DEMOCRACY ultimately leave the stage through retirement or death, it’s not always true that their absence is noted. Lose a Mandela, Vaclav Havel, or a Maya Angelou and almost immediately the tributes and stories flood the airwaves. Yet every year we lose many of democracy’s greatest champions without even knowing it, often not even recognizing their names. A candle goes out and we merely transfer our interests to another.

The voice of Bill Moyers finally went silent on PBS news stations a few weeks ago, leaving a significant vacancy in our overall struggle for a fairer and more equitable society. Moyers was sage, highly knowledgable, and intensely courageous for those things he devoutly espoused. Some regarded him as a throwback to the past days of journalism, where truth mattered more than mere opinion, and depth of research took precedent over Google. But time is revealing that such a journalistic practice wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a world of instant opinions and shallow coverage. Moyers had a way of relentlessly reaching for that better part of our minds that related news with value instead of sensationalism and inspired images in our brains that were planted there by reason as opposed to hyperbole.

He commenced his odyssey with PBS in 1971 and immediately reflected gravitas in a world of rapidly changing media coverage. From that point on he was pressured relentlessly to move his programming instincts to the right of the political spectrum. Each time he refused, not because of personal bias but through his reasoning that the average listener wasn’t so much a partisan as a reasoning individual looking for an objective voice in a turbulent world. And he gave it to them, travelling to countless communities across the country to speak with average people and organizations, giving them a voice as the political and financial elites quietly retreated in their newfound opulence.

Moyers could do it all – eloquent speaker, gifted writer, broadcaster, documentarian, journalist and magazine contributor. It’s not as though the media industry hasn’t taken account of him. He has won 35 Emmy awards (including a lifetime achievement Emmy), a lifetime Peabody Award, is an inductee into the Television Hall of Fame, and numerous others. He accomplished all this by reaching the country through public television, with a venue far smaller than the major networks.

Everyday he reminded citizens that major issues like climate change, unemployment, financial injustice, political ineffectiveness, and global challenges, are important enough for them to keep themselves focused. As he put it recently:

“Ninety-six percent of people believe its important that we reduce the influence of money. Yet 91% think it’s not likely that its influence will be lessened. Think about that: People know what’s right to do yet don’t think it can or will be done. When the public loses faith in democratic ability to solve the problems it has created for itself, the game’s almost over. And I think we are this close to losing democracy to the mercenary class.”

Hmmmmm. Sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren, and like that eloquent woman Senator, Moyers concedes that, “Democracy is a life, and requires daily struggle.” There have been many lovers of democracy who have been people of conscience, but Moyers has done it all with personal dignity, a healthy respect for institutions and the individual citizen, and a deep understanding that having an opinion isn’t the same thing as wielding truth.

Our next post will explore how our democratic landscape is changing as the voices of objectivity, respect, and reason slowly move off the scene. The disappearance of Moyers from the public airwaves comes at a time when that voice of veterans and nation builders that flourished following the Second World War pass off everyday one by one, leaving significant holes in our citizenry and our journalism. Those of us who remain surely possess passionate beliefs like those who have preceded us, but do we have the patience, the tolerance, the respect, and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good? Who are the next Bill Moyers? And will they come forward?

Bombed Out

peanutsOkay, I admit it.  I’ve been kind of discouraged this week, and it’s been difficult to summon up the urge to write amidst all the hoopla flooding the airwaves and social media venues.  I fervently believe in our collective need for an integral kind of politics and the need to discover and develop workable solutions for some of our greatest challenges as a society.

Instead, the word “bombshell” received repeated use in the media in the past couple of days.  It was like a three-ring circus, with centre stage being occupied by a Senate scandal unlike anything else we have seen in Canada in recent memory.  Hearing the words of Mike Duffy stating that the Prime Minister knew all about his difficulties and ordered him to make it “go away” for the sake of the Conservative base was bad enough, but to hear Senator Brazzeau conclude that Stephen Harper had just lost his vote just added to scandal upon scandal.  Pamela Wallin’s challenge to the government leaders hasn’t been any more consoling.  The opposition parties and the media were prepared for this and played their role with the kind of fervor often reserved for elections.  I realize they are just doing their jobs, but the fact that the focus remains solidly on sordidness means that the things we need to start acting on are once again shuffled off-stage.

Then there was the bombshell dropped by some in London, Ontario, calling for our police chief to resign because of some strong-armed police tactics against students.  I disagreed with the police action myself, but the sight of a good and honourable man attempting to deal with a maelstrom of public criticism – the kind that caused a couple of prominent citizens yesterday to tell me they would never desire to enter public life if this is how people are treated – was difficult to endure.

The chief is a man who worked tirelessly to assist homeless and at-risk women find security and shelter.  He also has assisted numerous organizations in their mental health efforts.  Testament to his positive influence could be seen when one of the city’s primary homelessness advocates and another key leader in our mental health community rose to his defense.  It remains my hope that he will remain a vital contributor to our ongoing community life.

What people seemed to have forgotten was that the police responsibility regarding students was only part of a larger community effort that was supposed to be implemented but one that many of the other partners never followed through on.  It left the police having to carry out more serious policing actions than were initially intended.  While meriting criticism, it was ultimately this larger failure of community response that should have been the focus for anyone looking for solutions.  If people had just taken the time to understand that problem, perhaps the brinksmanship over the entire affair could have been avoided.  One such response, noted here, perhaps better revealed how things should have been handled, as well as providing a model for moving forward.

“Bombshell” was a term used again when Ontario ombudsman, Andre Marin, delivered his final verdict on a secret meeting held by some of our city councilors in which public agenda items were discussed.  Marin pulled no punches; the entire affair has left another black eye on a community that is economically struggling to regain its footing.  Seeing politicians behaving in such a fashion and, in turn, their mocking of Morin personally represented another low water mark in our city.

So, yes, I was bummed out.  Both politicians and citizens had failed to take those higher roads that lead to better outcomes and community cohesiveness.  We are left with an even lower view of the political class and a decreased desire for good people to enter political life.

And while all this was going on, millions of Canadians were looking for work, attempting to find food for their families, and more or less dealing with declining futures.  Veterans were experiencing ongoing difficulties getting their deserved benefits.  Bankruptcies were still occurring at a regular rate.  Students were dropping out of university or college because they could no longer afford tuition.  Our emergency rooms were overcrowded and food bank lines continued to lengthen.  Small businesses were having trouble getting through all the red tape and large corporations were moving ever farther afield, leaving depleted communities in their wake.

So, yes, in a world of such pain and dislocation, all the emphasis on the bombshells seemed strangely out-of-place.  It’s a good thing when police actions are adjudicated, or when politicians are exposed for meeting in secret or misusing their Senate expenses.  But the true story of Canada in our current circumstance is found in the collective of all those challenges mentioned above.  It remains a difficult thing to apply ourselves to such solutions when we become preoccupied with present urgencies instead of future collaborations.

Vaclav Havel once said that, “democracy requires a degree of trust that we often fail to work on.”  If that’s true, then we’d better get at it because struggling Canadians are waiting for us to weigh ourselves against our most pressing problems.  Community and national trust is hard and deliberative work specifically because it remains so easy to put the emphasis on the salacious or the extreme.  Trust is built through traveling on the collective journey, not merely reacting as individuals in the moment.

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