A WASTE OF TIME AND MEDIA
I moderated countless political debates in Toronto for nearly 30 years, from St. Lawrence Hall to church halls to school gyms to Nathan Phillips Square to endless cable shows. They blur together now because even when they were happening, not much real news was being created.
You see, real news most days is about 99% old. And with our political campaigns growing longer to the point of insanity, even candidates for dogcatcher have exhausted all their good ideas after three weeks.
The idea of mayoral campaigns lasting from January into the fall seems a concept hatched in Hades. Since most smart candidates never really stop getting their ideas out, and the GTA is drenched in media hunting for material, the combination means that many of us are bored with the major candidates before they sign their entry papers.
What complicates campaigns is the number of men and women who run for most positions. It is their right in a democracy. Except, as I have argued in plenty of meetings planning debates, and in newspaper conferences about how we would distribute our resources, just because a 21-year-old student runs for mayor because he thinks it would be a great way to get publicity for a job, it doesn't mean we have to give him the same attention as a candidate considered important by more than just his mother.
This brings anguish to the politically correct officials who control such public venues as St.Lawrence Hall or Nathan Phillips Square. They fear the heat of a few activists. I said I would take responsibility for pruning the competent from the silly and the futile because, after all, as a columnist and editor who daily made choices as to whom was covered and who was ignored, it is part of life for any journalist worthy of the name.
It's fundamental to the news business that you not cop out and give equal space or time to everyone just to play it safe. For those who say you should give both sides of every argument, I remind them there is often more than two sides. The sad result of the chicken shits who won't make obvious choices is, as the classic argument goes, you would have given equal time to Hitler.
One tense crowded night at St. Lawrence, with three major candidates behind me, I began the speeches only to be shouted at by a perennial mayoral candidate who had got his first publicity years before when he was arrested for sunbathing in High Park. (Yes, it was illegal at the time.)
I said to Zolton that hundreds had come to hear the main three. He would be wasting their time. But if the crowd wants to hear you, I told him, they can hold up their hands. No one did. I repeated the offer so there would be no confusion in the media. Still, no support for Zolton.
He marched angrily towards me, except I was bigger and just as determined. (And there were two paid-duty cops at the back.) So he subsided. I knew that would not be the end of it. When question period arrived, so did Zolton, first to the closest microphone. He spoke for two minutes before I cut him off, pointing out that everyone in the hall knew he was going to pull that trick so he should now quit. And he did.
Things were more untidy when Rogers held two-hour debates each noon hour from Nathan Phillips Square during one provincial election. It was live, of course, for Channel 10. There was one crank who hung out at City Hall speaking at every committee meeting. He was tolerated because that was his right in a democracy but I saw no reason to be polite to the jerk. So he hated me.
There were 22 debates between the Toronto provincial candidates. About half way through the schedule, he started showing up to shout curses at me from the back of the square of chairs which never made it on air but had a disconcerting effect on me as chairman.
After this happened a few times, I said to a constable assigned to patrol the square that it would be nice if I could conduct a public debate without someone cursing me from the back.
He said he didn't think it was that much of a problem. Besides, he sort of agreed with the heckling considering some of the things I had written about the police.
(Ironically, when you consider that most controversy about police is when they over-react, I have had trouble getting them to act at all. I organized a publicity event in the civic square as a founding director of the Outdoor Art Show. I had some politicians compete to see who could produce the most interesting painting in 15 minutes while the media watched. The jerk showed up to yell curses at me and Mayor Art Eggleton. I pointed out to a watching cop that another of the artists was Roy McMurtry, the AG who became Chief Justice. The constable refused to do anything on the grounds that such an experienced group should knows how to deal with kooks.)
One year Rogers decided to do something different. They invited the public to the council chamber for the question period that would be run there by Vic Rauter, the curling guru who was then a young reporter anxious for any on-air experience if only on cable. Few people showed and Rauter looked lonely on the dais.
I ran the main part of the debate from the mayor's office where the major candidates like John Sewell were seated in front of the mayor's desk that they hoped to occupy.
The show began with me making a grand entrance from near the private washroom. I strode confidently to the centre of the office but as I began, the mike popped off my lapel into the thick carpet.
I shouted in the vicinity of the mike, finally found it in the rug, fished it out and jammed it back on the lapel. Later they said that all my words were quite clear. "That is the advantage," the late Kip Moorcroft said, '"of hiring a guy with a big mouth. I mean loud voice."
I told the Rogers vice-president that he really meant the first version. When it comes to running political debates, it's useful when you don't let the hecklers, or the candidates, shout you down.