Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lessons from James Moore - Mackey

(The following is a guest post by Lloyd Mackey, a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance(ECW Press, 2006). He can be reached at This article is a reprint from Ottawa Watch, a weekly publication from inside the Parliment Buildings.)

The James Moore story, though now three weeks in the past, provides some grist for the mill that might best be described as "the case for communications ethics."

Particularly, it permits me to register, for the first time in 2008, my occasional concern for what gets left out when a story is passed along from one group of hearers or readers to another, over a period of time.

Moore is the young Conservative MP from suburban Vancouver who was accused of displaying "scantily clad" females on his laptop computer, in the House of Commons. His accuser was western Ontario NDP MP Irene Mattyssen. Two days after making the charge, she gave a fulsome apology, admitting she should have inquired of Moore about what was actually happening on his computer screen.

In covering the story, various Hill-based media reported that what was "actually happening" was an image of Moore's former girlfriend, not some soft core porn model as had been implied by Mattyssen.

But at least one respected commentator, Mike Duffy, went into a little more detail, and thus provided some additional light on the subject.

Duffy noted that Moore and a Liberal MP, both dog aficionados, had been conversing, during a lull in House action, about their respective pooches. According to The Duff, Moore pulled up a number of photos of his own dog. Most of the photos were of the canine alone. One, as it happened, showed the animal playing at a beach, with said ex-girl friend in the background. She was apparently dressed in contemporary swimwear.

As far as I can tell, Duffy was the only major media person to provide the doggy detail, thus placing the story into a much different context than the simple explanation that Moore was allegedly gazing at his gal pal's image.

The story illustrates, in my mind at least, the need for journalists to occasionally go into more detail than might seem necessary. This is particularly true when the bare bones story (no pun intended) places an unfair ethical or moral shadow over the subject.

Stories take on legs of their own, particularly if they have scintillating aspects. To remove those aspects is to make the story more dull, even if more accurate or within context.

If I may, I would like to spin off two more sub-themes from this consideration.

One concerns my periodic suggestion that people who want to avoid getting tarred in the media consider that they "don't have to say it."

Christian leaders, particularly, should keep this axiom in mind. If a leader has not fully thought through a position, he or she has every right to reserve comment, even if being hounded by an aggressive journalist.

Some leaders take the opposite tack. They issue controversial statements so that they can get maximum exposure from media people who are pushing for a colourful quote. They maintain that if they have, in the process, crossed the line of truth or consequence, they can always apologize. That is what the late Jerry Falwell did, when he suggested that events like 9/11 were the consequence of American civilization's laxity toward homosexual behaviour.

The other concern is a respect for what is public or private.

Christian leaders, in their sermons to their congregations, will sometimes issue inflammatory statements about seemingly aberrant behaviour in the outside world.

Sometimes, journalists find their way into such church services. Then, considering the sermon to be delivered in the public domain, they report on the remarks.

In objecting to the coverage, a pastor in such a situation might point out that this is a private service, meant to instruct the faithful on certain issues. He or she will suggest that, by making the instruction public, the journalist is unnecessarily holding up the aberrant behaviour to ridicule by the general public.

The issue becomes, not what is right or wrong, but what kind of expression is public or private.

From this perspective, a Christian leader should be very careful about comments that might be reported in the media, aware of the potential unintended consequences. It is helpful to remind oneself that something expressed to an inner circle, then repeated in the wider world may change significantly in the continued transmission.

It is all part of being as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove.

Lloyd Mackey

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