For Harry and Meghan, Canada media's respect for privacy is good news

Friday - 24/01/2020 10:53
Recent photographs of Meghan and her son, Archie, prompted anger from reporters and local residents. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
Recent photographs of Meghan and her son, Archie, prompted anger from reporters and local residents. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
Despite recent paparazzi photos of the family, journalists set a high bar for intrusive stories: ‘We kind of leave people be’

They don’t call it the world’s most boring country for nothing.

When a Canadian prime minister’s son was convicted of sexual assault, it barely made the front pages. When cabinet ministers have affairs, every reporter in Ottawa may know, but not a whisper will make it into print.

It’s not that salacious things don’t happen in Canada, but that the country has a kind of nationwide pact to avoid hearing about them unless it seems pressing.

And while most foreigners may not realize how deep this rule goes, two of them surely do: the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

The couple’s six-week stay on Vancouver Island earlier this year resulted in zero photographs in the Canadian press, and when long-lens photos showing Meghan with her son emerged this week, it prompted irritation among reporters and local residents.

“We kind of leave people be,” says Jimmy Thomson, a freelance journalist on Vancouver Island.

Thomson feels “a little bit embarrassed” now that he didn’t research a British tabloid before agreeing to do a few reporting chores for the paper this month. But after digging into the newspaper’s coverage, he “told them to get stuffed”, he tweeted this week.

Sholeh Fabbri, the executive producer of Entertainment Tonight Canada, tweeted after seeing the photos: “We’ve had a ‘no kids policy’ in place for years … we don’t buy images of kids when not at a press event, and that won’t be changing now. Kids should not be hunted for having famous parents.”

Even a local water taxi operator turned down a big cheque when he realized the clients were foreign journalists, he told Global News.

Canadian reporters sometimes roll their eyes about what can feel like prudishness, especially when global paparazzi go where they please. But in Meghan’s seven years in Toronto, she probably learned that Canadians tend to guard their system fiercely.

Deep down, it’s not about niceties, said Brett Popplewell, a reporter and journalism professor at Carleton University, but is “really elemental to how the country is governed”.
 

 A view of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, this week. Photograph: Mark Goodnow/AFP via Getty Images
 A view of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, this week. Photograph: Mark Goodnow/AFP via Getty Images


Families are taboo in the country’s media, but even to publish a famous person’s own misdeeds, reporters must show a “compelling reason to do with the public interest”, said the journalist Stephen Maher, who has covered Canada’s parliament for 15 years.

“I’ve put significant effort into reporting on stories over the years that would have had a large impact – and had editors decide that they didn’t meet the threshold.”

American news ethics split away on this point at least 30 years ago, when press reports of an extramarital affair brought down the presidential frontrunner Gary Hart.

Maher said he thought there was a “clubbiness” to Canadian public life – but also a broader principle at stake.

“We don’t want to make it terribly awful to be in politics, right?” he said.

“People are scared to run and be politicians because of how scrutinized and destroyed they can be,” said Fabbri, the entertainment show executive. “And we need good people doing stuff, and I don’t want people to be scared off because of that.”

Every year some Canadians do meet the public-interest test and have their laundry aired. The former MP Tony Clement’s nude photo habit was revealed, in 2018, after he was blackmailed while he was a member of the parliamentary national security committee.

But the Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s drug use was only reported in Canada after the video was posted by the US news site Gawker (partly, many Canadians would argue, because Gawker was protected by more forgiving American libel laws).

Harry and Meghan aren’t guaranteed quiet in Canada, but even small commitments to dullness seem to make a difference. Popplewell was asked by the Daily Telegraph a few years ago to find Meghan’s ex-boyfriend, a Toronto man.

He Googled the man’s home and saw it was only enclosed by a low dog fence. “Anybody could sort of just walk up to that door,” he recalled. “I felt like a parasite.” He quickly quit the job.

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