Media AWOL as Trudeau continues Harper’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe

Big announcements at NATO summit, but precious little critical coverage
Photo: European External Action

The latest polls have the Liberals enjoying an almost ridiculous lead over their opposition, with a whopping 52 per cent of support.

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It’s actually not surprising that Justin Trudeau is enjoying such a long honeymoon with Canadians. The Conservatives, like any organization after the departure of an authoritarian and controlling leader, are rudderless. The NDP, although they regularly make effective critiques of the government on a number of issues in Parliament, face arguably an even bigger challenge than the Tories in reorienting and reimagining themselves.

The press isn’t supposed to ride along on the political honeymoon.

When a politician is riding high in the polls, and the opposition is weak and rebuilding, the media’s role as a watchdog of the public interest is more important than ever. And right now the Canadian media is failing miserably. The Fourth Estate, facing an unprecedented upheaval itself, has with some notable exceptions abdicated its responsibilities with respect to the new federal government. The press isn’t supposed to ride along on the political honeymoon, especially one like this which shows so sign of ending.

Take the past few days, for example. Prime Minister Trudeau’s trip to the NATO summit in Warsaw came and went with barely any critical questions, despite the fact that just last week the government announced a new deployment of Canadian troops to the borders of Russia.

In fact, over the weekend Trudeau made significant foreign policy announcements on at least three fronts.

  • Details of the new troop deployment were announced alongside NATO partners at the meetings in Poland. Canadian forces, equipped with a frigate and fighter jets, will be stationed in Latvia.

  • The signing of a free trade agreement with Ukraine was announced upon Trudeau's arrival in Kiev, completing the work that the Harper government began in 2009, and resumed in 2014 when a western-backed regime change ousted the government led by Vicktor Yanukovych.

  • And, finally, the re-upping of Canada’s commitment to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, which included a huge financial commitment.

On all three announcements Trudeau and his government are carrying the baton from Harper. Yet no in the Canadian media batted an eye.

The Canadian Press article on the NATO troop commitment did not include a dissenting opinion, unless you count a paraphrase of earlier comments by Germany’s foreign minister questioning the wisdom of building up military forces around Russia. (Anyway, it turns out Germany’s also deploying a large contingent of troops to Russia’s borders as part of NATO’s operation.) Russia, naturally, although it wasn’t mentioned in the CP piece, sharply condemned the actions of NATO as Cold War style sabre-rattling, and many analysts warned that the military build-up contributed to the danger of nuclear war.

The public interest demands more serious coverage and debate of this Canadian military build-up in Eastern Europe. The stakes are high, the dangers real. If the past couple of years in Ukraine, and the past 15 years in Afghanistan tell us anything, it’s that the existing corporate media is unlikely to provide anything close to the in-depth critical coverage we need.

It’s worth recovering Canada’s role in Afghanistan from the memory hole when we talk about foreign policy and the media’s responsibility to the public interest. Another example of quantum politics, perhaps: Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan is both neverending and nearly completely invisible in our media and public sphere. When was the last time you saw a debate about that country, where so many Canadians died, on any major network?

Trudeau met with the president and chief executive of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and announced nearly half a billion dollars of new spending and an extension of the NATO mission. To give credit where it’s due, at least Glen McGregor of CTV news asked a critical question at Trudeau’s press conference in Warsaw, bluntly asking the prime minister “how much longer is Afghanistan going to continue to be a money pit?”

Torture in Afghanistan was once such a flashpoint in Canadian politics that it contributed to Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament.

The long war in Afghanistan seems to have vanished from the Canadian media, despite the fact the Trudeau government recently walked back a pledge to investigate the issue of potential Canadian complicity in torture of detainees. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, celebrated uncritically by almost all media for his role as an intelligence officer in the counter-insurgency war in southern Afghanistan, blithely dismissed the need for a public inquiry on torture in Afghanistan.

This issue was once such a flash point in Canadian politics that it contributed to Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament. With Trudeau in power, it’s not even on the radar. Minister Sajjan making like Peter MacKay in shutting down questions about torture was quickly forgotten; instead, we were treated to extensive coverage of Sajjan giving a young child a tour of Parliament. Such the state of political journalism in 2016.

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