This year’s winter holiday season marks the beginning of the end of one more in a long string of media traditions that have fallen to the Internet.
You are forgiven if you missed this one. After all, it was a secret. That is, it was information to which only privileged members of the media and political fraternities were privy. It tells, nevertheless, a story of how the Internet and the technology that drives it is irrevocably changing the cozy little world of media insiders. For the better, I guess.
Each year, just before Christmas, the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery throws a bash at the University of Alberta Faculty Club. The crème de la crème of Alberta’s political media and political elites, or something along those lines, gets together at this event – not to mention large numbers of hacks, flacks and lobbyists of various stripes – to exchange bons mots and business cards.
Most other legislative press galleries in North America have a similar tradition.
Plenty of alcohol is consumed at these events, and lots of other useful information is exchanged. For example, a certain former premier of Alberta was once sighted clearly suffering the staggers and jags, just days before he threw a pocket full of change at a flock of homeless men who had annoyed him. I guess someone should have said something.
Sometimes well-paid lobbyists get bow-tie-tying lessons from impoverished sluggos at these events. Occasionally people even drink so much that they meet their future partners in various spousal crimes.
But the high point of the evening, without question, has for more than a decade been the often-hilarious clandestine videos made by each political party with a Legislative caucus, as well as the Press Gallery itself, and shown only at this event.
In the past, some pretty outrageous stuff got included in these efforts, which were in camera in every sense of the phrase. And the politicians really got into the act. Only here, for example, could you hear a famously intemperate cabinet minister loudly dropping the F-bomb in a genuinely hilarious parody of his own terrible manners, or watch an Opposition leader mocking her fascination with her own reflection.
This was not necessarily the sort of thing the public would have viewed with the same degree of amusement as the insider crowd.
But now that we have entered the age of the high-quality video camera hidden in a palm-sized cellular phone, it was only a matter of time before one of these things found its way – via Youtube.com or like on-line sites – to the Great Unwashed. When that happened, there was the potential for real damage, because some of the participants – well-known politicians included – went pretty far out on a limb to squeeze a laugh out of their pals in the Gallery.
And so it should be, one supposes. Cozy little journalists’ clubs need to be subjected to the light of public awareness, just like other institutions in society. Indeed, good sport that he is, your blogger left his iPhone locked in the truck for this year’s Gallery party, ensuring the that plea of the Lord’s Prayer – “lead us not into temptation” – would be answered even before he stepped across the threshold.
It was a needless precaution, because the tradition has ended, at least in Alberta, as it will soon end everywhere else it still lingers.
This year, some of the short videos found their way to Youtube all right – but not because of the efforts of sneaky video pirates with cellular phones, but rather, officially, posted there by the parties that made them.
So how does this end the tradition, you ask? It kills it because it was the clandestine nature of the projects that lent them their bite. Behind closed doors, individual politicians, political parties and journalists were all willing to make jokes that would hurt them in public – to really make fun, in other words, of their own foibles.
This year’s videos are designed for public consumption, and so they either un-funnily stick to the party line, as did the Wildrose Alliance’s first effort, or pull their punches, as did the NDP’s video, which was made in co-operation with the Wildrose Alliance caucus and leader.
The NDP’s video was genuinely funny, but hardly “worthy of the Daily Show,” as one blogger enthused. At least it shows that Legislative caucuses with widely varying political philosophies can work together on something, even if that runs counter to the image all parties try to present to the innocent public during Question Period.
It’s hard not to believe that future efforts will be less funny and more studiedly political, as the realization sinks in with the public that, if they want to, they can go to Youtube to peek at what’s behind the curtain that obscures the comfortable relationship between politicians and the media.
In the end, one supposes, it will also be like posting the secrets of the lodge on Youtube – what was once shrouded in mystery and insider knowledge will just be a bunch of stout and poorly lit old guys with reedy voices wearing aprons and trying to sound enigmatic as they ask the Junior Beadle to tile the doors.
Will any political party really risk losing votes by being Monte Python funny when the whole thing’s going up on Youtube in the morning? Unlikely.
But without their traditional bite, the videos aren’t likely to draw the enthusiastic crowd they once did. If nothing else, the Gallery ticket committee will have its work cut out in 2011 and beyond.
Officially, folks, this is a Good Thing. But one can’t shake the feeling we’re losing something too.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.