Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Furlong | Saving Private Member Ryan

Fisheries Broadcast host John Furlong reviews the week's fracas over NDP MP Ryan Cleary, and the heavy spin put on his call for a debate on the seal hunt.

I'm not convinced. I still believe the seal hunt is in big trouble, despite this week's spirited debate. My fear is that maybe the seal industry is trying to do what the fishing industry is trying to do: go back to where it used to be.

Throughout this week's debate, I got a sense of what might have possibly happened to bring the seal industry to where it is today.

And I'm not trying to defend Ryan Cleary. Actually, I don't really know the man. I met him only twice when we were both journalists covering a story and I interviewed him a couple of times in his role as an MP. (I also nodded to him once as he was coming out of a convenience store, although I suspect he didn't have a clue who I was. I get that a lot!)

But this week I watched in amazement as the Ryan Cleary/ seal hunt story spun out.

One reason the hunt has fallen on such difficult times is the success of the animal rights campaign. The members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the United States and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have twisted and distorted and bent the facts to satisfy their own needs.

They won that battle. It's over.

They've turned much of the world against us. Other than fund-raising, the high-octane of their existence seems to be their ability to mislead, misrepresent, mishear the facts, and cloud the atmosphere with their own interpretations of reality.

Bottling the spin

It's called spin. Sound familiar? Consider this.

Ryan Cleary did not say he wanted to end the hunt, or ban it, or abolish it, or lobby Ottawa to shut it down, or pull the plug on it. He simply offered the opinion that the day of the Newfoundland seal hunt may be coming to an end.

But notice how many people twisted or misread or misheard those words. That happens to a lot of Newfoundlanders.

They can be content to build on a 500-year-old narrative, finely tuned and handed down from generation to generation. That narrative portrays a hunched-over, downtrodden province subjected to exploitation from devil outsiders, foreign fishing fleets, greedy fish merchants, turncoats, the St. John's business class or an indifferent and uncaring and incompetent Ottawa.

What Ryan Cleary said became the same kind of emotional flashpoint. A traitor amongst us! A sellout. On the take, maybe.

Whatever people wanted to hear, they weren't willing to hear what was said: that if we don't accept the reality of where the seal hunt is, we can't have a rational discussion of where it's going.

Cleary on  defensive

Click here to see Debbie Cooper's interview with Ryan Cleary on Here & Now

Even the political types got in on it. Three federal Conservative Cabinet ministers banded together to criticize Cleary for saying "it's time to give up on Canadian sealers." The problem is he didn't say that!

Senator Fabian Manning issued a statement quoting Cleary as having "very bluntly called for an end to the sealing industry." The problem is that's not what happened.

The federal Liberals got in on the act, accusing Ryan Cleary of "not being fully supportive of Canada's seal hunt." Nope, he didn't say that either.

The people who called or e-mailed the Fisheries Broadcast with their own interpretations were just as bizarre and off base. Talk about missing the point! But remember the old adage of not letting the facts stand in the way of a good story. That's called spin.

We all know the seal hunt is humane, sustainable, carefully managed and monitored. That's not what the animal rights groups have the world believing. But so what. Just another distortion. That's called spin, as well.

The real questions

So lost in all this week's spin were the real questions that need to be asked. What will we do with the remnants of the old hunt? Will it be modified to sell some of its products in our own country?

Where are we with the production of seal oil capsules? Have we learned anything beyond the fact that no one bought them when they were 'seal oil capsules' but they became a hot commodity when they were renamed "Omega-3 capsules"?

How much experimenting can we do to market seal meat? Only a handful of Newfoundlanders can gag it down. Why do we think there's a broader market somewhere?

Without discussion we don't know how any of this will look. Without discussion we may just keep pretending we're not losing this battle. Unless we name the truth, we feed the distortion amongst ourselves. And part of the distortion is the spin we put on it.

We are always so quick to criticize the distortions and spin fashioned by the animal rights groups. Turns out we're pretty good at it ourselves.


John Furlong was a long-time journalist at CBC in St. John's. He was a producer of Here & Now, and hosted The Broadcast and Radio Noon. He died in 2014.