Media: A group therapy session with Canada's BBC: Michael Leapman listened as journalists agonised over the ethics and control of political reporting

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The Independent Online
BEING closeted in an Ottawa hotel for two days and nights with 200 Canadian broadcasters, agonising over media accountability and the ethics of covering elections, sounds like a recipe for a very long weekend. In fact, it raised universal issues of how journalists cope with the sophistication and determination of the political 'spin doctors' who seek to influence campaign coverage.

The meeting was organised for selected members of its radio and television staffs by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an organisation modelled on the BBC. There will be a general election in Canada before the end of the year and this was part of CBC's preparation for it.

It was fun inventing a cast list for a Canadian version of Drop the Dead Donkey from the assembled broadcasters. Which were the glamorous newscaster, her partner, the fading roue, the sassy news editor, neurotic executive and numbskull reporter? There were plenty of candidates.

The question I was most often asked was: 'Would the BBC ever hold a debate like this?' Certainly not, I would answer. If the BBC called 200 of its journalists together it would be for John Birt, the director-general, or Tony Hall, head of news and current affairs, to tell them how to cover elections, not to chew the fat over it. That is what the famed 'mission to explain' is about.

It is not only Canadian journalists who feel that control of political reporting is slipping away from them. Politicians everywhere can now choose how to promote themselves. They can avoid being grilled by serious political specialists by going on the less demanding phone-ins or talk shows, as America's presidential candidates did last year.

Margaret Thatcher pioneered this technique with her preference for cosy radio interviews with Jimmy Young - but across the Atlantic nothing is deemed to have happened until the phenomenon has been given a catchy name. Last year, the spread of alternative news outlets - not just talk shows but Cable News Network and even news slots on cable channels devoted mainly to pop videos - was dubbed the 'new news'.

Proof that it had reached Canada came this month during the Ottawa convention that chose Kim Campbell as leader of the Conservative Party, and thus as the new prime minister. Apart from the usual flood of regular reporters, a crew from Much Music, a cable music channel, reported the event in the flip and casual style that appeals to its young audience.

Traditional journalists, such as those from the CBC, naturally resent this intrusion into what was once their exclusive preserve. They feel the same way that British practitioners of breakfast television did last year when The Big Breakfast began winning audiences. The emergence of new news suggests that viewers and listeners are dissatisfied with the rigid, formulaic format of the old news. Possible reasons for this were suggested by CBC journalists:

'We use too much jargon. We're like doctors who don't know how to explain things to their patients.' (This may have been a comment on a colleague who had spoken of 'a fall-back position in a post-deference era'.)

'The media are too lazy to find ways of conveying complex policy issues.'

'We're all boring and we're sitting around discussing why we're boring.'

'Self-importance killed more journalists than booze.'

'It's not rocket science to be a journalist. I feel it's a cop-out on life.'

Criticism of a different kind came from a prominent politician, Harvie Andre, who is due to retire this year. He accused the Ottawa press of being institutionally critical of the government.

'This country can survive its politics but can it survive its journalists?' he wondered. 'People say: 'Don't shoot the messenger,' but if the messenger keeps on screwing up, why not shoot him?'

There is no convincing answer, which is why one journalist resorted to an unconvincing one. It was, he maintained, bad form for an outgoing minister, with an inflation-proof pension and lucrative directorships in the offing, to criticise underpaid scribblers.

Mr Andre chuckled. 'I've noticed that about journalists; they're extraordinarily thin-skinned. They can give it out but they can't take it.' Game, set and match.

A delegate summed it all up. 'For many of us this is the largest group therapy session we've ever attended. I hope we all feel better about ourselves.' Whoever said Canadians were dull?