Jackson Doughart: A word on “insider” books

On CBC’s The National last night, panelists Bruce Anderson, Chantal Hébert, and Andrew Coyne discussed “tell all” insider political books written by former advisers to prime ministers. The cause for discussion was two such books published this year by Tom Flanagan and Bruce Carson, both dealing with the head of the present government. The panelists generally agreed that insider books are healthy for country, as they bring to light details of our leaders which journalists may be able to uncover on their own. They also have the added advantage of being written in the name of the author; leaked insider details to journalists are usually from unnamed sources, carrying less credibility.

Unique on the panel, Anderson expressed some doubts about the ethics of revealing intimate details of a prime minister’s inner circle, especially when the prime minister is still in office. I agree with him, but for more reasons than the lack of loyalty shown by former staffers who throw their former employer under the figurative bus, even when such revelations would serve no public good.

There needs to be some way in which prime ministers, who especially in Canada are afforded substantial power, can operate among their advisers and staffers in a freewheeling manner, so as to come to a considered and informed decision about policy. Presumably this involves the ability to say out loud thoughts which, if revealed, would probably be quite damaging to the reputation not only of the individual prime minister and his cabinet ministers, but also of the institution of executive power itself. Yet this ability to say the publicly-unsayable in private, to hash out all of the possibilities and get to the heart of the matter, is an important element of deliberation.

Perhaps this makes me more deferential than one ought to be, but I really don’t care much about how a politician came to take or support a particular decision. It doesn’t matter to me whether he went through ten advisers to get it, whether he threw a temper tantrum in the middle of it, or whether he needed to be prescribed Prozac just to get through the process. What I care about is the merit of the proposed or pursued action. The necessary check on bad decisions is not belatedly-written and often self-serving insider texts, but a properly adversarial and supervising legislature, and a well-informed and fearless class of journalists.

The Hustings