Wong censure was opportunistic

Affaire Jan Wong et The Globe and Mail

A lot of people made a lot of mistakes in the so-called Jan Wong affair - starting with the journalist herself and editors at her newspaper, the Globe and Mail.
She should not have written what she did, linking the Dawson tragedy to Quebec's language laws with only the flimsiest facts and logic to back up her argument. The Globe, as its editor has acknowledged, should not have printed her half-baked analysis as part of a reported article.

That much is clear, and it's fair game for editorialists, commentators and regular citizens both inside and outside Quebec to condemn Wong's arguments - as they have, ad infinitum (one might almost say ad nauseam), over the past two weeks.

It's quite another matter, however, when senior politicians jump directly into this kind of debate and lend the weight of their office to attacking the views of a journalist. Both Premier Jean Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper fired off letters to the Globe condemning Wong's words, in Charest's case demanding that she apologize to all Quebecers. Even the House of Commons got into the act, adopting a unanimous motion calling for an apology.

No prizes for guessing why the politicians piled on: with absolutely no one of any consequence defending Wong, it was an easy way to curry favour with nationalist Quebecers. Clearly, federalists like Charest and Harper wanted to get out in front of the issue and be seen to be as outraged as anyone.

But those still seething at Wong and the Globe should think again before they applaud Charest, Harper and the Commons for channelling their collective outrage. Journalists, especially, should be careful what they wish for when they congratulate politicians who take their side in a spat like this.

There's a right way and a wrong way to deal with this kind of issue. The right way is for others to debate the merits of an argument. In Wong's case, with almost no one taking her side, it's been a one-sided shouting match with editorialists and commentators competing to demonstrate how much they despise what she said. Fine - she and the Globe will pay the price in journalistic reputation.

The wrong way is for premiers, prime ministers and members of Parliament to weigh in with official letters and resolutions. This goes beyond rigorous debate into the realm of political intimidation. Who will be the next opinion-monger to feel the lash of government-sanctioned reprimands?

Just as bad, official action by political leaders elevates a passionate debate into an affair of state. It was understandable, though unwise, for Charest to intervene in his capacity as leader of Quebec. For Harper, it was a cheap political stunt that did him no credit.

The next time someone writes something that offends a lot of people, the prime minister should think long and hard before committing the power of his office to censuring it. There are plenty of others perfectly capable of dealing with silly arguments by newspaper writers.

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