Freedom of the Press, or where do I go to salute?

As my millions of faithful readers will know by now, Meaford has a special place in my heart: I’ve talked to the Bighead River in the intimacy of night, enjoyed great fish and chips, and sung Karaoke there for the first time in my life. 

By the way, Karaoke Night at Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant is Monday nights, not Tuesday. These Meaford-related corrections – as I told a friend earlier this week, while knocking my forehead against the nearest wall in frustration – seem to be turning into a self-perpetuating Meaford phenomenon: As long as they keep happening I’ll have to keep going back there to make amends. I’m starting to ask myself, what is it about Meaford that keeps drawing me back. How far will it go? I shudder at the thought, but will I have to go as far as attending a Meaford council meeting?

Not that I have anything against Meaford. But there are, after all, other towns, villages and communities – and plenty of restaurants, for that matter, in the Grey-Bruce area that deserve some attention in this column. Durham, for example, that storied town now lost in the political wilderness of something called West Grey. “What dat?” as they used to say in Frank Magazine, Canada’s late lamented, Ottawa-based satirical publication, which thrived, at least for a while, on jousting with political windmills and windbags. But I guess there’s only so many times you can call a certain former Canadian newspaper magnate-turned British Lord, “Tubby” and get away with it. Or maybe it’s just that the media Gods allocate only a certain number of corrections and apologies to media outlets and journalists before they call in their markers, and Frank finally used up its quota. Anyone who followed its sometimes tortuous ups and downs knows tongue-in-cheek “Frank Apologies” were a regular feature in every issue. Toward the end they actually got serious, often enough that those of us who read the magazine on a regular basis got worried about its future.

Too bad, Frank is sorely missed in Ottawa. Its irreverent presence is needed more than ever. The current federal government of right-wing Conservative Prime Minister, dictator-designate Stephen Harper and his compliant caucus would be providing endless fodder for Frank to chew on and spit out in print.

Oh, Frank, where are you when Canada hath need of you now?

But I digress, as they used to say so often at the Funny Farm. I’ll get back to the motley Conservative crew, and our own worrisome, local Conservative MP Larry Miller, and back to Meaford and the upcoming municipal election, in a moment. But first a word about Durham and why it deserves to be known as something more than just an unnamed part of a rural fiefdom called West Grey:

I lived for a while as a boy on a farm not far from Durham, in the Wilder’s Lake area, a few miles southeast of the town. Some readers may recall a place called Rolling Acres Ranch, a riding camp for city kids from fairly well-off families during the summer, a boarding home for others less well off during the winter. I attended a one-room school,  S.S. No. 12 Egremont. That was an interesting experience. It started out not so good, but ended well, when my strong throwing arm and pretty good batting skill at the plate led our school baseball team to an unbroken winning streak in the spring and early summer of 1954. I’ll take this opportunity to say hello to the Rentons and the Hunters and the other local farm kids who attended the same school in those days. And hello to Ron Hooper, who I recall as having some sort of Mozartian talent for music. Ron could sit down at the piano at the front of the school and play by ear like nobody I’ve heard since. I can still see him up there, a friendly, good-looking boy of about 12, his face shining with joy as he played those keys with the natural ease of a true prodigy. I hope you’re okay, Ron. I hope you’re all doing okay, wherever you are today.

That year in the Durham area was the first time I heard about the town’s rather dubious title as, “Canada’s roughest town,” based on certain Saturday-night events reported in the now long-defunct news magazine, Liberty. In a negative way it reflected Durham’s role as the service centre and  social focal point for the surrounding rural area.  The rural-based Grey County municipal politicians who devised the Grey-Owen Sound Restructuring Plan a few years back might argue now that West Grey recognizes that rural-urban reality, with Durham at the heart of it. So, why isn’t it at least called Durham-West Grey?

But getting back to Meaford, that other restructured municipality I called “dysfunctional” in this space a couple of weeks ago, the municipal election there on Nov. 13 is shaping up to be one of the most interesting in the Grey-Bruce area. No need to go into details here about the issues that have dogged Meaford council for the past three years. “All I know is what I read in the papers,” as the late, great American satirist and rope twirler, Will Rogers, used to say. But my own observation, for what it’s worth, is that the incumbent council is divided between those members, including mayor Wally Reif, who are trying to drag the municipal administration kicking and screaming into the 20th Century (yes, the 20th. Get there first, and then start working on getting into the 21st.) while the rest of council is trying to resist change with all the passion, fear and anxiety typical of small-c, conservative rural Canada. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got some serious small-c, conservative streaks in me; I believe in the importance of preserving traditions that enrich our lives. But the Old Boy’s Club, which I’ve written of before in this column fairly recently, is not one of them. The rural-based Old Boy’s Club messed up Grey-Owen Sound municipal restructuring for the sake of keeping itself in power. It packed up its leftovers, like the former Sydenham Township, which should have become part of Owen Sound, and Durham, which should have been in no uncertain terms the centre and focal point of a restructured municipality, and put them where they didn’t belong. And I question if West Grey and Meaford especially will ever make functional sense.

I note at the time of writing this column that several Meaford council incumbents have yet to file nomination papers by the Friday deadline in a bid for re-election. I know a couple of them, Sam Luckhardt and Linda Van Aalst, well enough, I think, to say they’re good, well-intentioned people. But maybe it’s just as well to take a pass this time. You’ve served your communities for a good number of years, whether Sydenham, the former St. Vincent, or the former Town of Meaford. Now, maybe it truly is time to let some new people, some new blood, take a shot at making Meaford work.

And, by the way, I agree completely with those many letter-to-the-editor writers who have this week criticized the unnamed persons who took out the half-page ad attacking incumbent Meaford mayor Reif and did not attach their names to it. It has since emerged that Toronto businessman and local property owner Geoff Grist was behind the ad.

I do not agree with Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP Larry Miller who said, or at least strongly suggested, freedom of the press should be limited to an informative, factual role, rather than expressions of editorial opinion about who should, or should not be, elected to local, municipal office. In his most recent From the Hill column, which I note is a regular, monthly opinion piece (I guess it’s okay to have an opinion in print if you’re an elected politician, but not if you’re just an ordinary columnist or editorial writer) Miller recalled The Sun Times endorsed his candidacy in the last federal election. He said he was “flattered,” but added he’s always believed the media should “print or broadcast the news, not be the news.”

I don’t normally like to react to what other columnists write, or what readers say in letters-to-the-editor. But Miller invited comment to his views regarding the role of the media, so here goes: Larry, you should know there’s a long and very vital tradition in this country whereby the press, or now the media, expresses political opinion and endorses candidates for elected office. It’s a fundamental part of the democratic process, and certainly an important aspect of what we call Freedom of the Press, a basic democratic principle.

But I thank you, Larry, for further highlighting what I regard as one of the most dangerous tendencies of the dangerous Harper government, of which you are a part: The tendency to limit public scrutiny of the government’s actions by the media, by closing doors that were open for many years and generally making it quite clear that your government holds the media in contempt. Unless, that is, the media toes the party line, and behaves like “very good corporate citizens,” as you put it.

Tell me Larry, where do I go to salute?

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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