Jagmeet Singh's question-popping photo op and the vague limits of touchy-feely transparency

Jagmeet Singh might have announced his impending nuptials by simply tweeting a photo of himself and his bride-to-be. Instead, he went a step further: inviting a photographer from the Canadian Press wire service and a reporter from Toronto Life to witness and document the moment of his proposal.

Was the media-friendly proposal a victory for the free press? Or a new spin on an old trick?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh poses with Gurkiran Kaur after proposing to her at an engagement party in Toronto, Tuesday January 16, 2018. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Jagmeet Singh might have announced his impending nuptials by simply tweeting a photo of himself and his bride-to-be. That is generally how these sorts of things are done.

Instead, the young NDP leader went a step farther — inviting a photographer from The Canadian Press and a reporter from Toronto Life to document his proposal on Tuesday to Gurkiran Kaur.

Perhaps this should be viewed as a victory for political transparency and the free press. 

Or was it merely a different way of playing the same old political game?

Singh admits the proposal wasn't a "complete surprise." 

"Gurkiran and I have had many conversations about taking our relationship to this level and part of that conversation was about how a public presence would factor in," he said in a statement to CBC News on Wednesday. 

"We're very interested in striking the right balance between events which will be more private and others that will have more of a public factor.

"As you may know, in the Punjabi tradition, there are many different celebrations leading up to the wedding itself. Some of those will be more public, others more private."

A special moment to harvest data

By Wednesday morning, the NDP was using the special moment to collect data from anyone wishing to congratulate the couple. But there is at least some precedent for that: for the last two years, Liberal supporters have been invited to "sign" a holiday card for the Trudeau family, and Conservative supporters used to be invited to "sign" a birthday card for Stephen Harper.

In 2006, Harper invited photographers to watch him drop his children off at school, but a minor fuss ensued when the incoming prime minister shook his son's hand, as opposed to hugging him. Harper was said to be personally wounded by the criticism.

Of course, it's impossible to judge a man's approach to fatherhood on the basis of a single photo. And his approach to fatherhood was almost certainly irrelevant to his governing.

But his own staff had put Harper in that position because they wanted to demonstrate that he was a dutiful father. And, in 2008, his party released a campaign ad focused entirely on Harper's love for his family.

Inviting a wire service photographer to a marriage proposal takes such "photo ops" to a new level of intimacy.

Why do we care?

It's natural to wonder who our politicians are when they are not sneering at each other in the House of Commons. And even if what actually matters are their positions and policies, there is obviously some public (and media) appetite for personal glimpses at politicians, and some value for them in flashing a little humanity.

So the Trudeau family's Halloween excursions are photographed. And, in a recently released video entitled, "Why I'm in this," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer talks about how he didn't have a car when he was growing up and shows off his five kids.

But there are vaguely accepted limits to this sort of thing. A reporter would presumably be scolded for demanding the T4s of Scheer's parents or asking about how the Trudeau children are faring at school. 

That's the line between transparency and marketing; between opening yourself up to scrutiny and selling an image of what you are like.

It would be easy to blame this sort of thing on social media, but John F. Kennedy's life was being lovingly documented by the likes of Life magazine long before "retweet" was a recognized verb. Perhaps this humanizing of politicians is even good for democracy, making what could be an obscure process more relatable.

Positive coverage

In fairness to Singh, it was just last month that reporters were asking his office to explain whether he was engaged (a confusing moment that might have at least increased the general public's awareness of Punjabi wedding traditions). And the NDP leader might be forgiven for doing whatever he has to do to compete with a prime minister who has been a publicly known figure since birth.

Indeed, the announcement of his impending nuptials has likely generated more positive coverage than Singh has otherwise received in months. His op-ed on tax reform two weeks ago generated considerably less discussion.

But it is to wonder what might be next. Will there be seating for media at the wedding? What about at the delivery of any child? And should a member of the press gallery feel hurt if he or she is not included in such special moments?

In the interests of radical disclosure, Singh might invite a reporter to embed in his living room (or office) for at least the next two years. But barring some great new era for true transparency, it is to wonder whether this sort of thing might reflect poorly on the NDP leader.

Inviting a media outlet to document your engagement is the sort of thing a celebrity might do. And celebrities are generally not taken very seriously.

Though if this is the sort of thing needed to get more people talking about federal tax policy, so be it.