Why a state funeral for Flaherty?

Reaction over ex-finance minister's impending sainthood overlooks his record

Ottawa Citizen investigative reporter Glen McGregor is in trouble.

As a former investigative reporter myself, I’m not surprised – getting into trouble is part of the job.

McGregor recently took to Twitter (@glen_mcgregor) to raise a legitimate question about whether – given historical precedent – former Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty should be afforded a state funeral.

“Is the new standard for a state funeral being well regarded by colleagues? If so, lots more in the future.” McGregor wrote. He has since written a blog in which he points out that cabinet ministers can only qualify for state funerals if they die while in office.

Predictably, the response on Twitter was quick, vitriolic and, of course, ungrammatical.

McGregor’s tweet was instructive for several reasons. First, it briefly punctured the media consensus – particularly among the Ottawa press corps – supporting the sentimental reaction to Flaherty’s sudden death.

McGregor’s rather tame query also triggered online push-back among many members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, who have almost unanimously praised not only Flaherty’s demeanour and character, but his economic record as finance minister.

I understand the inclination, even among journalists, to mourn the passing of a political figure they have come to know intimately and clearly have affection for. This has certainly been reflected in many pieces written since Flaherty’s death and vignette-driven discussions of his legacy on various television news programs.

In some respects, this response is the understandable product of the shock and timing of Flaherty’s death. He reportedly had a massive heart attack just weeks after his retirement.

As a journalist who is wary of idolatry, I have to admit, however, that some of the media’s unbridled adulation of Flaherty – particularly his tenure as finance minister – is grating and in a few instances ethically questionable.

For example, the Your Community blog on the CBC News website organized a “condolence page” to inviting people “to share your condolences with Flaherty’s family and other Canadians.”

A news organization, especially a publicly funded one, should not be in the business of setting up condolence pages for political figures, whatever their party allegiance. It grievously undermines the principle that journalists must remain independent from those they cover. Such a page should be the responsibility of the government that the minister served. (Ottawa has, in fact, set up such a page for Flaherty.)

As well, CBC News posted a largely uncritical retrospective of Flaherty’s “life and legacy” online.

I found the following tweet by Lisa LaFlamme (@LisaLaFlammeCTV), chief anchor and senior editor for CTV National News, to be troubling.

“Nasdaq commemorates Jim Flaherty at Times Square today because of his contribution to global economy,” LaFlamme wrote. (The picture was taken, as LaFlamme later corrected, the day he resigned.)

Having worked at CTV and CBC, I know the role of a chief news anchor is to remain independent, and not to even appear to endorse any finance minister’s “contribution to the global economy.”

I also know that my concerns will likely be dismissed as petty and insensitive. But such criticism misses the point. The core principles of journalism should not be rendered irrelevant because, as McGregor noted, a finance minister is “well regarded.”

And lest anyone believe that my objections are the product of political orthodoxy, I found much of the media’s emotionally charged coverage of Jack Layton’s similarly tragic death to be, on occasion, cringeworthy.

The media’s effusive praise of Flaherty’s record finance minister also deserve attention. Among many commentators, he was perceived as Canada’s and even the world’s economic saviour.

The Toronto Star’s Tom Walkom has defied this construction in a frankly refreshing and sometimes biting column, reminding us that the long-time finance minister “was a willing and active participant in Harper’s dark experiment to remake Canada along Conservative lines.”

To achieve this, Flaherty was “also an integral part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a livable country. His death is a reminder that good people can do bad things for the best of motives,” Walkom wrote.

Like McGregor’s tweet, the reaction to Walkom’s dissent was swift, and among some journalists, caustic.

Ray Heard, a former Global News executive, tweeted: “Here is Walkom demonizing Flaherty in death. Get your sick bags!”

Where Heard sees an expression of personal venom, I see a journalist exercising his necessary, healthy and appropriate duty to question and challenge.

But in the prevailing climate of media unanimity about Flaherty’s impending sainthood, many other reporters and pundits share Heard’s overwrought and silly reaction.

Despite their supposedly skeptical bent, many journalists are prone to building and burnishing myths about all sorts of people – including, apparently, finance ministers.

I think that’s the broader and salient point Walkom is making. Indeed, it’s not heresy, but essential for journalists to challenge this pernicious tendency.

Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor and former investigative reporter with CBC and CTV.

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