People and Places

POLITICS CHATTER: Duffy & Me, and the “gotcha” online world we live in


I suppose my fondest memory of Mike Duffy was of sitting on the backyard deck of his Prince Edward Island home in the summer of 2009, drinking lemonade, watching a bald eagle and exchanging gossip.

My son was with us, and Duffy was kind to the 10-year-old. The senator took some time out of a busy schedule of visiting summer festivals on the island to have me over to his place. I was in a rented farmhouse near Brackley Beach, a half hour drive away, and was bored out of my skull. PEI is a great place for golfers. I do not golf. Duffy’s number was in the phone book.

I’ve known Duffy since the early 1990s. Among the TV “stars” on the Hill in those days, he was a rarity, a man who seemed to be genuinely interested in people. Duffy’s desk was next to mine in the press gallery newsroom, and he was, to say the least, an interesting neighbour.

He would roll in at about four in the afternoon, usually carrying at least one Klondike Bar. The man was full of stories. Some were political. Many were gossip. He was funny and fascinating. The man has the ability to almost instantly make you feel like a friend. That’s a gift and a skill few people, even politicians, can claim. Jim Watson, our mayor, has it. None of the federal party leaders do, except, on her best days, Elizabeth May.

One afternoon, Duffy, Halifax Herald reporter Steve Maher, and I were talking near a window at the back of the Parliament building and watched in amazement as a man jumped off the Alexandra Bridge. We were surprised to see him surface a moment later and splash around. In a few minutes, a guy in an aluminum fishing boat pulled the jumper from the river. Things just seemed to happen when Duffy was around.

I was not surprised when Duffy was appointed to the Senate. People on the Hill had expected it for decades. By then, I was teaching full time at Concordia University in Montreal. We stayed in touch.

Duffy was grateful that I had written to the CRTC years before to ask the broadcast regulator to drop an arcane rule that limited Duffy’s TV show to just 15 minutes. I had also gone to bat online for Duffy shortly before he was appointed to the Senate.

I’m very interested in the way people are “framed” on the Internet. Even then, it was very clear that many reputations are now made in cyberspace, not in real life. People criticized Duffy’s journalism, which was fair game. But the constant bullying of the man for being fat had become a normal, if depressing, part of his life.

They intensified after he was appointed to the Senate. Duffy, according to the anonymous online warriors, was a drunk, a slob, a whore who sold his integrity for a Senate seat, a pig who had greedily taken down Frank Magazine by suing it for libel. (The fact that Frank had been engaged in years of fat-shaming seemed to be irrelevant to the Duffy-haters).

As an author, professor (and a law student), I’m intrigued by propaganda, how reality is shaped by words, and how, with enough manipulation and publication, lies can seem like facts. I’m writing my third book on the subject now. If you have a public profile and any enemies, there’s a good chance that a Google search will puke up every embarrassing thing about you that’s ever been discovered or invented. If you’re a politician, you cannot escape the mudslinging. Same for freelance writers, sessional professors, lawyers, business people, and everyone else who relies on their reputations to land them work.

So I helped Duffy get the worst stuff off the Internet. I was following the issues that were being raised and reading the rules of Wikipedia, YouTube, free blogging websites and other Internet sites where Duffy was being trashed. I stopped doing that for Duffy two years before the first investigations for expense frauds.

In the end, I’ve had some media criticism for doing that work, especially because Duffy sent me a cheque in gratitude after a couple of years and I made the mistake of cashing it. I thought it was Duffy’s money, not public funds laundered through what prosecutors claim was a slush fund. (The money has since gone to charity). Now Duffy is the poster boy for entitlement in Ottawa, even though he really was a fringe player on his best day.

Lost in the Duffy roasting is the fact that the Internet has made public space toxic for many people who otherwise might be attracted to public service. No one wants their lives published on the World Wide Web. Few of us can be sure that there’s nothing embarrassing that could end up in the “controversies” section of a Wikipedia page. And even fewer of us can afford the one serious recourse available: a libel suit.

I’m not sure whether the Internet has brought out mean people who were already spewing bile and hatred without an audience, or if it has made us meaner people. Recent medical studies do show that the brains of frequent Internet users, especially gamers, are physically changing, and not in ways we’d like.

So, in the end, I have no regrets about my friendship with Duffy, and I’ll trust in the courts to decide whether he was an honest man. What I do regret is the lack of conversation about the “gotcha” online world we live in, and the cruelty that underlies so much material on the Internet.