The intimate life of politicians, a radioactive subject in the media

When does the intimate life of politicians become of public interest? Often the line is blurred, as in the case of the mayor of Toronto, who announced his resignation last Friday after a major daily revealed that he had had an extramarital affair with one of its employees. A rare event in the Canadian political world, where journalists have always made it a point of honor not to report the gossip heard behind the scenes.

“Stories of infidelity on the hill, I’ve heard tons of them. It’s always been part of the game. When does it become public interest? We could debate this for hours. But me, I always thought that if there was no crime or that there was no damage in the business of the State, one should not touch with that , indicates the former journalist Daniel Lessard, who spent 30 years in the parliamentary office of Radio-Canada in Ottawa.

He remembers that at the beginning of his career, his bosses were very reluctant to cover up the marital troubles of Margaret and Pierre Elliott Trudeau – because they considered that this affair had nothing to do with politics, precisely.

So what has happened since then that, 40 years later, the Toronto Star think it good to report that the mayor of the Queen City, John Tory, cheated on his wife for several months with one of his advisers, 37 years his junior?

The 68-year-old politician, who was triumphantly re-elected just four months ago, resigned on the spot, acknowledging “an error in judgment”. At Toronto Star, the decision to publish the article is justified by insisting on the “inappropriate” nature of the relationship: as boss, the mayor of Toronto was in a position of authority over this woman when their relationship began. ” [John Tory] had no choice but to withdraw. The Town could ill afford the distraction it would have caused had he remained mayor. It would send an unacceptable signal that this kind of conduct carries no consequences,” reads an editorial published on Sunday.

But not everyone agrees with these arguments. In the columns of the same newspaper, star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote that Mayor Tory should not have resigned, and even went so far as to question the public interest of this news. Some see it as an Americanization of political mores in Canada, whereas 25 years ago almost to the day, most Canadians were amused by the hype surrounding the Monica Lewinski affair.

Intimate life less private than before

Seen from Quebec, the resignation of John Tory can also appear as the manifestation of an “Anglo-Saxon puritanism”. Journalism professor at the University of Ottawa, Marc-François Bernier, for his part, doubts that Quebecers and English Canadians are so different.

It is rather the era that is in question here, according to him: “Whether in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada, the economic model of newspapers today is based on the click. And no one escapes it, even if some indulge in it more than others. The media are therefore pushed to publish news that they would not normally publish. »

Has the #MeToo movement also opened a Pandora’s box? From what we know, the relationship between John Tory and his adviser was consensual, and therefore has nothing to do with the sexual misconduct scandals that have plagued several politicians in recent years. But the fact remains that the successive waves of denunciation have undoubtedly led journalists to take a closer interest in the private lives of politicians.

One thing is certain, the ways of doing things have changed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Rightly or wrongly, elected officials are convinced that their privacy is no longer as protected as before, notes the former political columnist for the Duty Manon Cornellier. “When I arrived in Ottawa in 1985, it was common for politicians and journalists to have a drink together and socialize. You could learn that such and such was worried about their boy, or that another was breaking up. And all that remained off the record. We focused on the essentials. That changed with social media. Politicians are more suspicious, ”explains the one who retired in 2021.

A principle or an omerta?

In Quebec, too, the politicians were not unduly worried by the journalists. René Lévesque, for example, was able to hang out with as many mistresses as he wanted without ending up on the front page of the newspapers.

This modesty regarding intimacy remains rooted in the journalistic culture in Quebec. Parliamentary correspondent for TVA from 1999 to 2012, Robert Plouffe remembers, for example, that everyone in the National Assembly knew that Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Nathalie Normandeau and François Bonnardel, then a member of the Action Démocratique du Québec, formed a couple. “For some, it was even in the public interest, as we thought she could entrust him with certain confidential information. But, out of respect, we still waited for confirmation to talk about it, ”he underlines.

Could some stories worthy of public interest have been stifled by this sacrosanct principle of respect for private life? By Robert Plouffe’s own admission, many knew that André Boisclair had behavioral problems. But it took his arrest, years after his departure from politics, for the general public to measure the magnitude.

“In Boisclair’s case, it’s not for lack of trying. It’s because we didn’t have any testimonies. We always knew it was in the public interest. Each case is unique, and journalists know how to use their judgement. Yes, there is a respect for privacy, but there is no omerta either, ”assures the former journalist.

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