Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's a scandal!

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Political scandals are nothing new, but how we talk about political scandal has definitely changed.

The genesis of the modern media scandal in politics can be found in the coverage in the 1970s of the Watergate break-in. The story was transformative, changing forever the relationship between the media and government and fostering a new brand of reportage -- investigative journalism.

It heralded a new anti-authoritarian stance by journalists that was being demonstrated at the same time in the political culture of the 1960s and the 1970s and served as a metaphor for that era. In Canada, we are now being exposed to another scandal: The security failings of former Foreign Affairs minister Maxime Bernier.

What raises eyebrows in one country may be of little concern in another. In the United States, extramarital affairs may result in at least a humiliating divorce and at most a public resignation, particularly if it involves members of the same sex. In France, extramarital affairs are considered passé.

Scandal is also temporally constructed. What was considered a transgression in the 1940s may not have the same connotation in 2008.

Finally, scandal for the most part can only exist in societies with free and critical media. An analysis of scandal in Germany suggests that the Communist GDR did not have scandals because of the state control of the media. Journalists or opposition voices were simply too afraid to openly denounce a transgression for fear of retribution.

This suggests then that the role of the media in understanding scandal is important. Newspaper headlines, negative editorials, cartoons and columns cultivate the public's sense of disapproval about the transgression and allow for discussion of the event. Media mediate a scandal by taking it out of the realm of gossip and putting it on record for discussion.

There has been some concern that there is a rise of the mediation of political scandal as a result of new media technology. Last year, Time magazine dedicated a complete issue to the technology that allows the everyday person to record events that potentially play a key role in the development of scandal. Free websites like YouTube combined with cheap video recording technology mean increased and instantaneous access to information. Previously, embarrassing acts could be kept hidden. Now, they're available for all to see.

In the 1990s, the footage of the Rodney King beating by police sparked a huge outcry about police brutality in Los Angeles. Almost two decades later, the tragic death of Polish national Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver's International Airport was captured on video and then broadcast to millions via the Internet and YouTube, creating a scandal the RCMP was hard-pressed to control.

Political scandal may also be on the rise in liberal democratic countries because of changes in political culture. American scholar John Thompson has argued there has been a decline in class-based party politics because of the social transformation that has been continuing since the middle of the 20th century. As he puts it, parties can no longer rely on the old social classes that once provided the core of their support. These transformations have meant a decline in ideological politics and the rise of the politics of trust. Our politics of trust is inherently weakened when we are regularly exposed to stories that focus on transgressions.

In Canada, our political scandals tend to be about financial indiscretions. Canadian don't seem to worry too much about who is sleeping with whom unless it raises issues of accountability. Indeed, the Bernier scandal seems to be heating up not because his choice in personal companions may be questionable, but because he didn't safely control sensitive documents.

Julie Couillard has been seen as the trigger for concerns rather than the focus. It's still not a full-blown sex scandal in this country. Can you imagine if this story broke in the United States? CNN would be camped outside her home.

The media coverage of the Bernier affair is shifting from what Bernier did to what Harper knew. A recent poll suggests that Canadians aren't too happy with the Conservatives' ability to demonstrate integrity, accountability and economic stewardship.

But this too shall pass. Canadians' memories will become fuzzy. Until the next scandal.

Shannon Sampert teaches politics at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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