THE PARLIAMENTARY PRESS DINNER
Like dogs returning to their own vomit (2007)

When people get too chummy I get suspicious. Especially if they’re newscasters on my television, bantering among themselves and exchanging lame one-liners. Apparently I’m supposed to think of these people as my friends. I’m sure these coifed commandoes are nice enough in real life, but that's just the thing: television is not real life, and a one-way connection to a bunch of phosphorescent dots is doomed to disappointment.

The friendly neighbourhood news team shtick, originating with private American news outlets, supplied Canada with a template for broadcast bonhomie. Anyone who’s tuned into the evening news out of Seattle knows how cloying the routine has become, with canned merriment alternating with local reports of fires, auto accidents, chemical spills, homicides, and Hollywood couple splits. It’s like cheery updates on the inner circles of Hell from bipolar stand-ins for the cast of Friends. Me, I prefer the news read in a serious manner, with a minimum of verbal and facial tics. The old Edward R. Murrow gravitas. The same applies to politicians. I want them to do their job, not tickle my funnybone or blow smoke up my fundamental aperture.

This brings me to the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner from Ottawa. Working from scripts vetted by handlers, federal leaders tell jokes, sing songs, and generally deconstruct their Oz-like personas for the gathered bigwigs of print and pixel.

(As per usual, the PPGD is modeled after similar US events. And ever since the eighties, when Nancy Reagan mocked her personal penchant for pricey ball gowns at the Gridiron Club dinner by singing "Second Hand Rose,” media have become less secretive about the goings-on at such soirees. During last year’s Radio and Television Correspondent’s Association dinner, George W. Bush showed slides of himself looking around in the Oval Office for Saddam’s missing weapons of mass destruction. "Nope, no weapons over there,” he said, as he cued up shots of him looking under the office furniture. According to
The Nation contributor David Corn, the audience actually laughed at this stunningly callous shtick.)

This week CBC Newsworld broadcast a few highlights from last Sunday's Press Gallery dinner in Ottawa. Prime Minister Paul Martin read entries from his diary, apparently written in the voice of a teenage girl, on Belinda Stronach’s defection to the Liberals. "Dear Diary, Oh my God, so like, David (former Ontario premier David Peterson) called and he said that Belinda is like totally thinking of crossing over. And I’m like, ‘no way.’ And he’s like ‘yes way,’ and I’m like ‘no way!’ Stephen Harper, putting the ‘hearse’ back into rehearsed, acknowledged rumours of being a personality donor. “Actually, I’m really exited to be here. This is how I look when I’m excited. …As you know, I did the barbecue circuit this summer. We called it the Summer of Love Handles." The most cringe-worthy performance on the clip was courtesy NDP leader Jack Layton, who played guitar and sang about his party's willingness to sell out. "Party for sale or rent, will support any government. No principle, no guts, no spine. No tape recorders when we dine." Self-deprecating is one thing, Jack. Self-defecating is something else.

A more successful shtick came in the form of a videotaped greeting from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. With a gravelly rasp, he solemnly greeted the Governor General and the assembled press, before requesting author Peter C. Newman to perform an impossible act of self-penetration.

What vaguely creeps me out about these kind of events is the chummy, insiders’ dynamic between mainstream news reporters and their nominal prey. I'm reminded of the classic Chuck Jones’ cartoons about Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf. The mortal enemies greet each other in the morning at the timeclock, and proceed to bash each other’s brains out in the pasture. At the end of the day, they punch the timeclock and amble down the road together, lunchbuckets swaying as they disappear into the sunset together, no harm done.

But I guess what really disturbs me about the clips from PPGD is the idea of federal politicians have a good time. Not on my tax dime, Monsieur et Madame. I want you with your nose to the grindstone, your ear to the ground, and your finger to the wind (the index finger). And if you want reading material for your bathroom break, better make it David Orchard’s
The Fight for Canada -- not Milton Berles's 1001 Jokes for All Occasions.

Geoff Olson