Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Prorogue coverage appears biased this time

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If there was ever any doubt about the anti-government bias of the mainstream media in Canada, it has surely been laid to rest by the prorogue affair.

The press, with one or two exceptions, have always practised highly selective outrage. But this time they went berserk about the recent proroguing of Parliament.

In January, prorogue was everywhere. No, not the Ukrainian version -- yummy when fried in butter and onions, and served with sour cream -- but the Canadian press version. Until last year, I doubt if 99 per cent of Canadians even knew prorogue was a word, let alone could spell it.

When it was mentioned occasionally in the press, it was matter-of-factly described to Canadians as discontinuing a parliamentary session. As in, "Parliament was prorogued yesterday, and will resume with the speech from the throne ... " Yawn. Ho hum.

Now, suddenly, it's a crisis of governance! A shocking insult to democracy! It's contempt of Parliament! Thousands are protesting! If we are to believe our fourth estate, Canada's going to hell in a handbasket. And we have Facebook to prove it.

The usual 100-odd university profs have written a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper advising him about how evil he is. Lamentations from luminaries such as Ross Rebagliati -- a snowboarder who is seeking the Liberal nomination in the Okanagan -- and other Liberal bloggers, agonize over how many millions of dollars are being wasted due to prorogation.

Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff is reported as "open to the idea" that there must be new rules to keep the prime minister from recklessly and ceaselessly proroguing.

How do I know all this? It has all been breathlessly reported in the fair and balanced free press.

Given this perfect opportunity, I decided to test my left-wing, anti-government-bias-in-the-mainstream-media theory.

My method involved searching for the word "prorogue" (and its derivatives) in all the main media outlets in Canada on specific dates. The results are astounding. They overwhelmingly support my hypothesis.

Take 2003, for example. During the year, there were 84 articles that referred to "prorogue."

That was the year that Jean Chrétien prorogued Parliament for two months in mid-November. Speculation had it that he did so to avoid having to sit alongside Paul Martin in the House of Commons, since Martin was to be acclaimed new party leader in November. And of course it's possible that he wanted to avoid taking the increasing flak from the sponsorship scandal. Also, the 84 articles included several references to Ontario's legislature, which also was prorogued in 2003.

Now let's look at 2010. In the month of January, there were 242 articles about prorogation in our mainstream media.

From Jan. 1 to 26, the Globe and Mail published 34 separate articles on prorogation in its print edition. (Think Douglas firs.) I didn't bother to count the number of online articles, which would include their perpetually outraged bloggers.

On Jan. 31, the entire two hours of CBC radio's Cross Country Checkup was given over to prorogation. CBC's The House also dealt at length with it.

Speaking of CBC's The House, on Jan. 23 it featured Iggy's sidekick, Bob Rae, singing Just Prorogue to the Beatles tune, Let It Be. But don't worry if you missed it. You can also catch him on the Maclean's website. Rae is quoted as saying that Stephen Harper "made a terrible decision."

He should know. During his brief stint as Ontario premier, he prorogued the Ontario legislature three times, for four months at a whack.

On Jan. 13, Tom Walkom of the Toronto Star called it a crisis of governance. There were 33 prorogue references in the month of January in the Toronto Star.

To his credit, Walkom also mentions the 2003 Chrétien prorogue, and admits that the PM did it for political reasons. He writes that "Curiously, even though his (Chrétien's) motive was seen to be as self-serving as Harper's, Chrétien's actions caused much less uproar."

Curious indeed. Hello? Nobody was alerted to any crisis of governance or democratic deficit or constitutional crisis in 2003. It was merely reported as an adjournment of Parliament.

Wait, I lie. There was one article. The 2003 shutting of Parliament for two months was decried as "unacceptable to hardworking Canadians!" by an MP, Betty Hinton, from Kamloops. Her statement was reported in the Kamloops Daily News. Once.

The other day in discussing this matter with a golfing buddy, a rock solid Liberal, I pointed out that Chrétien had prorogued Parliament four times and that Pierre Trudeau had prorogued Parliament eight times.

"I didn't know that," he sputtered.

"That's because no one told you," I smiled.

I bet he also doesn't know that in the 143 years since Confederation, Parliament has been prorogued almost once a year on average.

Marilyn Baker is a freelance writer based in Richmond, B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2010 A10

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