The Sunday Edition

The mugging of Elizabeth May - Michael's essay

Michael on the rough treatment Elizabeth May received after making awkward comments during her speech at the Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks at the Annual Parliamentary National Press Gallery, Saturday May 9, 2015 in Ottawa. (Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

Decades ago, in another movie, I was reporting on Question Period one day from the Press Gallery in Queen's Park. A minister in the Conservative government of John Robarts was on his feet going on about something or other. On his feet, unsteadily and swaying a bit. 

Suddenly a rogue NDP member named Morton Shulman screamed across the floor, "He's drunk. The minister's drunk. Look at him. He's drunk!"

The interjection certainly stirred the afternoon somnolence of the dreary chamber. And gave me a good story. I wrote a short piece about the exchange, it ran deep inside the paper and was quickly forgotten, a one day story. 

I remembered the incident right after the Elizabeth May story broke over last weekend. As everybody by now knows, Ms. May, leader of the Green Party, made a shambolic, almost incoherent speech during the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner. After a few cringe-making minutes, she was gently escorted off the stage by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt. Ms. May later explained that she had had little sleep, was jet-lagged and was experimenting with some kind of edgy humour that went awry. She said she had had a glass of wine but was not drunk. And we should take her at her word.

What I found astonishing was the press coverage, print and electronic, of the event. Given the sheer tonnage of the reporting, one would be forgiven for thinking that Ms. May had set fire to her hair after stabbing the emcee in the eye with a fish fork. It was the top news item on hourly newscasts all day last  Sunday. Then again, beginning the day on Monday morning. All four Toronto papers covered the event like a five-alarm fire. There were think pieces stretching to the horizon. Every paper tried to capture the essence of the story in an editorial cartoon. It was called a rant, a train wreck, a disaster, a meltdown. The evening would haunt her, the pundits wrote. The political panels piled on.
    
Every hack lobbyist in Ottawa was pestered for a quote -- what did this mean for her party? What did it mean for her political future? How could you, Ms. May how could you? She  went on any number of radio and television shows trying gallantly to explain her behaviour. 

Just to set the context. The Parliamentary Press Gallery annual dinner is a huge event in Ottawa's social calendar. Reporters bring a guest, usually a politician or senior civil servant. It's supposed to be a time when political and journalistic knives are sheathed, guns are checked at the door and everybody is friends with everybody else. The jokes are cornball, everybody drinks as much as possible and hilarity reigns. It has about the same amount of charm and pizzazz as the Toyota Salesman of the Year Awards Night. During one dinner years ago, a fabled cabinet minister threw up in the men's room, narrowly missing my nearly new pair of Johnson and Murphy shoes.

Why the mountain of coverage, nearly all of it unsympathetic? Was it because she was appearing before a roomful of journalists? Would the story have disappeared if she had been speaking to environmentalists? Was it because she sometimes has seemed to be holier than thou? Was it because she is a woman? Whatever the reason, Ms. May was mugged by the media.

The sanhedrin came to judgement, and were almost unanimous. May's conduct was so abhorrent that it probably doomed her party. But a couple of days later, a CBC poll showed that more than 80 per cent of Canadians feel her behaviour  would not cripple the Green Party in the least.

And we wonder why we in the media are held in  such low public esteem.

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