Thursday, 12 December 2013

Lenore Zann's dangerous gamble

The CBC ran a story tonight [link] regarding an upsetting run in Nova Scotia MLA Lenore Zann had with a 17 year old victim of the patriarchy. In case you don't feel like giving the CBC a clickthrough, Zann was an actor before entering political life. You may have seen her on the L Word or as Rogue on the X-Men cartoon. She has done some nude scenes over her career and we now face the unfortunate fact that it is being used against her.

In its most recent surfacing, an image of Zann was posted by a 17 year old two weeks ago, and much drama ensued. Many have cried sexism and brought up the patriarchy, and rightfully so. To treat Zann differently and attempt to demean her using sexual innuendo or messaging in my opinion is deplorable and immature, to say the least.

Had Zann and her supporters taken this opportunity to educate the public on the impacts of the patriarchy, that's probably where this story would have ended. But Lenore Zann made one critical mistake: she called the police.

Was Lenore Zann the victim of tacit sexism and mean spirited behavior? Absolutely. Was she bullied? It could be argued.

So then why was it wrong for her to call the cops?

Cyber bullying laws in spirit are meant to protect people from life crippling harassment. Intimate image laws are meant to protect people from 'the angry ex' who might publish an image that was intended to be private, as well as horrible situations like that of Rehtaeh Parsons. 

But the picture in question originates from a scene intended for public consumption. Zann appeared nude on camera with the intention of other people seeing it. The fact that she's a politician in my opinion makes this a case that is fraught with risk to freedom of expression.

As I asked in July when this came up last time, what if Rob Ford had been nude in the crack video? While a disgusting thought, in theory he could prevent said video's release. Hell in theory he could have prevented the release of the real one considering how broad some of these laws are.

In a democracy politicians have to be willing to face the public regarding the decisions they have made. If in that context Lenore Zann was a victim of cyber-bullying then so too was Rob Ford, and for that matter everybody who has ever worked in the political-media complex.

Our political representatives have a duty to be thoughtful in their proposal and application of the law. The kind of precedent this could have set honestly frightens me. Joseph Howe fought this fight 200 years ago for us, to ensure we could always tell the truth about a politician no matter how vile. Thank goodness the police had the sense to see that despite how the law was written, even if Lenore Zann didn't.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Rob Ford, Fear, and the overthrow of the 4th Estate

Where is Chris Farley when you need him? That's the hit I keep hearing when someone mentions the mayor of Toronto. Anyone who remembers Farley's comedic genius can crack a smile at it. A powerful image for the mind's eye: Mayor FarleyFord rolls on the ground with an abundance of energy not thought possible for a 300 pound man, before gutturally croaking for more crack.

Despite that image, Ford's support is rising. The political class keeps asking 'how could this be?' But some can see the answer plain as day. I think it's time for us to admit an inescapable truth: we see politics as a farce.

There is a great quote some PR folks will spout to sound edgy and sage:

"In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity." - Hunter S. Thompson.

The mechanics of that quote worked for spin-masters like a physical law of the universe. Fifteen years ago a political strategist could devise their plan on a foundation of closeted skeletons. Entire campaigns have been built around the strategic release of foul smelling personal dirt. Princes and Princesses of Darkness alike have milked that concept for generations.

But something isn't right here. There's one thing bending the picture frame... Rob Ford is still employed. There are no masses of pitchforks ousting him from office.

In private, those who work in media and politics react as most would over this. They display embarrassment, anger, humour, the full gambit. But there's one other emotion I see running just under the surface, like a tapeworm shifting after a big steak. Fear. That rising fear you think you can push to the side, but just won't go away. To me this fear is as palpable as it would be among physicists if they discovered the laws of thermodynamics had changed overnight.

To any politician or journalist, smoking crack on video -if nothing else- should be enough to force someone out of their job. Right?


Lights. Camera. Action. These make up the three walls of reality for the political-media complex. I've always noted with interest how some old school media types call interacting with the public 'breaking the fourth wall'.

The fourth wall analogy is perfect for traditional media, because the wall between the show and the audience was invisible. Like a force field you couldn't see but was somehow holding you back. So to me it's no surprise most people haven't realized the fourth wall no longer exists. How could it when anyone with a computer is both a viewer and a broadcaster? The 4th wall now only exists in our minds.

The new media age has arrived. A silent revolution is taking place before our eyes. Throughout history we have seen the various estates of power overthrown. Usually this involves at least threats of violence if not outright warfare. But who'd have thought such a revolution could occur simply by giving people networked computers and tacit decision making power in the affairs of the media? Certainly not the owners of media companies.

There is no sense in hiding it anymore. No need to hold these cards close to the chest: the media has been successfully overthrown in their dominance of the public discourse. Rob Ford just happened to be the one crazy enough to prove it to us all completely by accident.

We're now at a point where there is no single broadcast system that has an audience larger than facebook's network. There is no news channel that can deliver information as fast and far as twitter. And there is certainly nothing else available providing people the power they deserve to direct media outlets and political parties in their efforts.

For a generation that gets most of its political news from satire and comedy, this is a watershed moment. It demonstrates clearly the farce we see politics to be. Telling pollsters we support Rob Ford is the best possible collective middle finger Canadians could raise to the power brokers of the world.

Through his mental illness and illogical action, Rob Ford has shown everyone that the rules of old media only apply now in so far as a person is willing to follow them. Yes, despite all odds, Rob Ford is still tweeting. Still engaging with people. Still displaying good humour in the face of what should be a career ending scandal. He's starting a youtube show. Your move, Olivia Chow.

When Justin Trudeau admitted to smoking pot at a dinner party as a sitting MP, journalists were titillated. Political allies raised their eyebrows and opponents voiced their disapproval. But what did the nation do? It applauded his honesty. Why? What has changed the rules of reality so much for these things to happen?

By now I hope you know the answer: The Internet.

Once it became possible to bypass the mainstream media to engage with voters, the process was complete.

People like to think the new media age hasn't arrived yet. "It's coming, but main stream media still dictates the rules." If you think that way, you need to think again. The largest media outlets now trawl the internet on an hourly basis for their content. By some estimates we have surpassed an important point, over half of the stories generated by media are now produced via online search as opposed to employing true investigative journalism.

Hunter's gem of wisdom has now been replaced by theories like The Streisand Effect, where the act of suppressing information online causes it to spread further. But researches like myself are beginning to think our understanding of the Streisand Effect is extremely limited. Indeed, I believe it is one small piece of a larger puzzle. This story spread far and wide beyond Canadian borders, just like another of 2013 that involved the perceived suppression of information. The sexual-assault and suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

To deny the role of the Parsons story in the utter trampling the presiding government received in the subsequent election would be a folly of epic proportions. In both cases the Streisand Effect was a critical factor in the spreading of the story. By common sense, both should give us a change in government.

But Rob Ford's support numbers are rising.

In the Parsons story, we were dealing with a government notorious for its closed doors and thinking. In Rob Ford's case, he's the mayor of a world class major city, and he still personally returns phone calls. All while allegedly consuming a variety of dangerous substances at levels capable of slowing a bull moose mid-charge.

Rob Ford isn't a scandal or a mayor or an addict. He's a legend. He's become a way of conveying a message.

The politicians who gain support in this age are the politicians who give people a voice. And while he may have bumbled into it, Rob Ford is doing just that. Which means one simple thing: unless you're actually representing the people and giving us a stake in the affairs of the nation, you may as well be Rob Ford. He might be a crackhead, but at least he returns our phone calls.

For a poll whose results will be viewed around the world, nothing seems to be making a Torontonian feel heard right now more than saying they support Rob Ford. That feeling trumps everything else. Even crack addiction.