Not a pop­u­lar­ity con­test

It is the job of re­porters to hold the spenders of pub­lic money to ac­count – ask­ing un­pop­u­lar ques­tions

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Rick Ma­cLean Rick Ma­cLean is an in­struc­tor in the jour­nal­ism pro­gram at Hol­land Col­lege in Char­lot­te­town.

It seemed like friendly ban­ter. Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau walked up the steps of Par­lia­ment into the wait­ing mi­cro­phone of re­porter Tim Ralfe.

“Sir, what is it with all th­ese men with guns around here?” Ralfe asked.

It was Oct. 13, 1970 and Canada was in the midst of the Oc­to­ber Cri­sis. A group of home­grown ter­ror­ists had snatched two men off the streets – one would be mur­dered – in a bid to force Que­bec in­de­pen­dence. Trudeau or­dered sol­diers into the streets.

“What’s your worry?” Trudeau said, smil­ing.

“I’m wor­ried about liv­ing in a town that’s full of peo­ple with guns run­ning around.”

“Why? Have they done any­thing to you? Have they pushed you around or any­thing?” Trudeau replied.

“They’ve pushed around friends of mine.”

“Yes? What were your friends do­ing?”

“Try­ing to take pic­tures of them.”

“A-ha,” laughed Trudeau, do­ing his best Sher­lock Holmes im­i­ta­tion.

“Is that against the law?” Ralfe de­manded.

“No, not at all.” “Doesn’t it worry you, hav­ing a town that you’ve got to re­sort to this kind of thing?” Ralfe said.

“It doesn’t worry me. I think it’s nat­u­ral that if peo­ple are be­ing ab­ducted that they be pro­tected against such ab­duc­tions.”

That ex­change took about 38 sec­onds. Barely five min­utes later, as the back-and-forth con­tin­ued, per­haps the most fa­mous phrase in a Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal in­ter­view would be ut­tered, pro­voked by Ralfe’s per­sis­tent ques­tion­ing.

“I still go back to the choice that you have to make in the kind of so­ci­ety that you live in,” Ralfe said.

Trudeau’s im­pa­tience was ob­vi­ous.

“There are a lot of bleed­ing hearts around who just don’t like to see peo­ple with hel­mets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more im­por­tant to keep law and or­der in the so­ci­ety than to be wor­ried about weak-kneed peo­ple who don’t like the looks of ...”

Ralfe cut in.

“At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you ex­tend that?”

“Well, just watch me,” said Trudeau, star­ing at Ralfe. The CBC re­porter’s bosses would later say his ques­tion­ing was dis­re­spect­ful and scolded Ralfe for it.

Imag­ine if they had been watch­ing CNN’s Jim Acosta press U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump this week over his claims of a loom­ing His­panic “in­va­sion” threat­en­ing his coun­try.

The ‘in­vaders’ are a stum­bling col­lec­tion of men, women and chil­dren flee­ing vi­o­lence in places like Hon­duras. They’re walk­ing through Mex­ico, hop­ing to get asy­lum in the U.S.

“They are hun­dreds and hun­dreds of miles away. That is not an in­va­sion,” said Acosta. Trump at­tacked.

“I think you should let me run the coun­try, you run CNN, and if you did it well, your rat­ings would be much bet­ter. That’s enough. That’s enough,” he said, de­mand­ing Acosta stop ask­ing ques­tions.

Acosta pressed. Trump was in­censed.

“I’ll tell you what, CNN should be ashamed of it­self, hav­ing you work­ing for them. You are a rude, ter­ri­ble per­son and should not be work­ing for CNN,” Trump said.

He’s wrong. It is the job of re­porters to hold the spenders of pub­lic money to ac­count. Pres­i­dent, prime min­is­ter, or premier, ask­ing un­pop­u­lar ques­tions is what jour­nal­ists – act­ing on be­half of the pub­lic that pays the bills – are sup­posed to do.

It’s not a pop­u­lar­ity con­test, but it is an hon­ourable task.

CP PHOTO

Re­porters Tim Ralfe, right, and Peter Reilly, cen­tre, ques­tion Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau on the steps of Par­lia­ment Hill on Oct. 13, 1970, about the FLQ cri­sis and the in­vo­ca­tion of the War Mea­sures Act.

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