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When it Comes to the Media, Nice Isn't Always Better Than Naughty

In light of the British phone hacking scandal, such media purity may seem like a good thing

God Bless Great Britain. Not only are they our colonial masters but our limey friends continue to provide us colonists with never ending amusement.

From Prince Charles telling his mistress that he wanted to become her tampon to Hugh Grant throwing a can of beans at the paparazzi, what other country could produce the sublime, and downright bizarre News of the World cell phone hacking scandal whose denouement occurred this past week as Rupert Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, leapt into ninja mode protecting her husband from a shaving cream pie to the face?

Canadian gossip columnist Lainey tweeted: "Am watching this Rupert Murdoch testimony like it's a primetime drama." She's right -- the whole controversy seems overly fictional to our polite Canadian media, which would NEVER think about invading personal privacy to report on the private lives of others.

Canadian national mythology is still very much wrapped up in Papa Trudeau's mantra: "There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." After 30 years the fact that this sentiment continues to be a top Canadian political quote speaks volumes for Trudeau's ability to seep into our national consciousness; it also may speak to our inability to attract a decent orator to public office, but that is the topic of another column.

In my opinion, the only Canadian publication that would ever go anywhere near using a cell phone for news making purposes was the late (some may say great) Frank Magazine, which was, before it ceased publication in 2008, Canada's only national satire magazine. Remembered for its esoteric writing style, it once ran a competition for young conservatives to deflower Brian Mulroney's daughter Caroline, Frank touched topics few Canadian media outlets would dare.

Instead of hacking into phones, [ED. surely, what's the fun in the illegality of that] Frank used the telephone for other questionable purposes; namely, for its infamous "Frank Pranks" where the magazine would pretend to be representatives from fictional lobbyist groups or masquerade as politicians in order to "dial up windbag politicos, onanist showbiz types, and other deserving victims, then feed them a line and let their egos take over."

The last great Frank Prank was the creation of the fictional website:, supposedly crafted by a group that was incensed by Lord Tubby's legal problems. The faux website fooled national news outlets and even Conrad himself who wrote: "I am again flattered by such a thing. I will give you all CONRAD WILL WIN shirts when you are here."

Even before the demise of Frank Magazine, Canada's media landscape never had the same sort of animosity that permeates other media markets.

In light of the British phone hacking scandal, such media purity may seem like a good thing; however, there is a double-edged sword in our niceness. As Bert Archer noted in the Toronto Standard, (about a week before the implosion of the News of the World), Canada lacks any sort of true media critic. A dangerous reality, a media critic, he wrote, is necessary: "We need to know people are watching us, expecting more from us, noticing when we fall down on the job..."

Perhaps Canadians are too nice to raise serious issues about who and what our media reports on. One could argue of course that we don't need to -- we're so impossibly polite that our lone satirical magazine folded due to unprofitability -- and the probability of some sort of cell phone hacking scandal occurring in Canada is laughable. Yet there is danger in this complacency.

Say what you will about the News of the World and tabloid journalism in general -- they touch stories that mainstream press won't. While our lack of yellow press ensures that Canadian politicians will never really be outed, nor will the rumoured love triangle of Peter Mansbridge, Cynthia Dale and Wendy Mesley receive as much ink as Anderson Cooper's private life has, it also means that it is relatively easy to sweep important things under the proverbial rug.

Take the curious case of Renata Ford. As Jan Wong noted in her Toronto Life piece, "The Woman Behind the Mayor, Who is Renata Ford?" interest in political spouses leads to accusations of the media overstepping. But surely political wives offer some interest to the public? As Wong notes: "A politician's home life speaks to his character." Frank Magazine, for example, was the first news outlet to talk about Mel Lastman's wife shoplifting. Yet Renata Ford continues to be off limits. Wong asks: "Is the media being discrete, or merely cowardly?"

Nice is not always just about gossip and scandal. In a country where a couple of major conglomerates own an overwhelming majority of our media, it also means it is easy to "shape" the news we receive. For example, Macleans Magazine, owned by Rogers Communications, will rarely talk about Canada's wireless business. Use the Macleans search function to look for Anthony Lacavera, CEO of Rogers rival WIND Mobile, and you'll come up with just one article... And while this isn't censorship, it is, as Archer, would argue: lazy.

Lazy is not amusing. And while the British tabs have provided enough laughter -- Canadians should not simply click our tongue in disgust (and amusement) over the News of the World scandal. When it comes to journalism nice can be just as bad as naughty.

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