Last week I listed ways to watch for bias or misinformation in opinion articles. This week I discuss a more subtle bias that shows itself, not in a single column or article, but when many are compared together.
Government is always a popular target of editorial criticism. And that’s a good thing; holding government to account is a key role of news media in a democracy. The right wing, due to small-government values, is more apt to be critical. But they also support their own side of the political spectrum in government, and that’s where the bias creeps in.
Three main targets of criticism are the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. Of those, the federal government has been led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper for 8 years, with Ontario under more left-leaning (but really, centrist) Liberal premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne for a decade. In that same period, Toronto had a left-leaning mayor, David Miller, then a very right-leaning one, Rob Ford. It’s interesting to see how a stable of writers criticize those governments differently based on where their targets fall on the left-right spectrum.
When these writers discuss Ontario’s problems, fault is tied directly to the premier (McGuinty or Wynne) or a named cabinet minister. It would seem that whenever something goes wrong in Ontario, whether if the screwup occurred at Queen’s Park or in a Crown corporation or the OPP or even an entirely separate organization providing services to government (like ORNGE’s flying ambulances), it is the personal failing of our Liberal premier. A similar pattern was the case in Toronto under Mayor Miller.
Yet when the federal government screws up, right-leaning columnists seem loath to name or blame the captain at the helm, with whose politics they sympathize. Instead, blame falls on “the government” or “Ottawa,” a specific department or agency, or a particular named, but non-elected public servant. Rarely is it acknowledged that after 8 years of government, the Conservatives really should be considered responsible for actions under their watch.
Is it wrong to blame Ontario’s premier when things go wrong? Not always. Things such as E-Health should be top-level files the premier or front bench MPPs oversee directly. They must own those failures. However, with a hundred-billion-dollar budget, Ontario’s government is a huge and complex beast; it’s not fair to lay every frontline failing at the feet of the head honcho.
Bias reveals itself in the inconsistency. If everything that goes wrong in Ontario is the Liberals’ fault, then certainly every failing or misdeed at the federal level is the Conservatives’ fault. Likewise, it makes no sense to credit Rob Ford for every improvement in Toronto during his tenure but not blame him for anything that goes wrong, having done precisely the opposite with David Miller. Either leadership matters or it doesn’t; either elected leaders wear both credit AND blame, or neither.
It’s hypocrisy of the worst kind to give one level of politicians a free ride, and another level a whipping, for the same kind of screw-ups, based solely on which political flag they wave. If you’re going to call it like it is, call it fairly on all sides.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Elected leaders must wear both credit and blame".