The Inside Agenda Blog

About that Question to Martha Hall Findlay...

by Steve Paikin Sunday November 19, 2006

Over the course of almost 25 years in journalism, I have had occasion to ask literally tens of thousands of questions to the people in the chair opposite.

Most of the feedback I get is about the answers they give, not the questions I ask.

Friday's interview with Liberal leadership hopeful Martha Hall Findlay was different. Two viewers wondered why I asked the candidate a question that tangentially referred to her pesonal life, something I rarely do.

Here were the inquiries:


Cathy28: Tell us what made you ask her about her being single Steve?

SusieQ: I almost fell off my chair when you questioned MHF on her being single and holding the leadership title! If memory serves me, Trudeau was initially single as P.M. It was a cause celebre. He was considered an international "playboy" and ooolala....would you have brought up the question with a man?


Fair questions. Gives me a chance to tell everyone how we prepare for interviews, and how we determine what to ask or what not to ask.

Viewers that have been with us from the beginning of the season will know that we made a decision to invite and scrutinize the records of all the front-running candidates for the Liberal leadership. To that end, Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy, and Stephane Dion have all appeared, submitted to one-on-one interviews for 15 to 20 minutes, then joined a group of analysts to discuss another campaign issue for the remainder of the hour.

At one daily editorial meeting, we decided that treatment seemed appropriate for those that had a chance to win. But for those who seemed to have no chance at all, we thought we would hold off and see what developed. If they became particularly newsworthy, we could extend an invitation in the future.

For a bunch of reasons, that moment seemed to happen, in our view, for Martha Hall Findlay this past week.

1. Campaign coverage suggested MHF's influence on the race was far more significant than her very modest delegate count. She was consistently being described in the media as the most important second ballot "get" along with Ken Dryden. So trying to get some insight into where she might go on that second ballot seemed like a good idea.

2. Her background as a good, loyal soldier to the Liberal party cause, only to be very badly treated by the party also seemed like an angle that was worth pursuing.

3. She was the only woman left in the race and as a result, her visiting our studio would give us a chance to talk about the appalling state of female participation in the political process in our country.

All in all, we felt those three reasons alone merited having MHF on the program.

Having decided to extend the invitation, here's how things proceeded after that. Producer Erica Balch and I read as much research as we could get our hands on about MHF's candidacy and platform. We met Friday morning, the day of the interview, and began discussing the three general areas of inquiry we wanted to pursue. We agreed those areas should be:

1. MHF's candidacy (why she ran, why she's still in despite the fact that others who did better than her have already dropped out, where she's going on the second ballot, plus her position on the Quebec question that has so dominated the campaign.

2. MHF's background (the 2004 loss to Belinda Stronach, the lack of effort by the party to find a riding for her in 2006, etc.)

3. And finally, issues around women in politics, and why it always seems so difficult for women to bust through the glass ceiling.

Satisfied with those three general areas, Erica and I began writing our questions. As a general approach, we agreed that putting MHF though the same aggressive "accountability interview" as we did with Ignatieff, Rae, Kennedy, and Dion didn't make much sense. She was not going to win the convention and to put her through those kinds of paces seemed unnecessary.

However, we did want to somewhat more aggressively pursue all the reasons behind why MHF has only been able to capture less than 1% of the Liberal delegate support so far.

The most interesting debate Erica and I had came in the third section of the interview. We began listing reasons why (besides being female) MHF's candidacy was getting lots of respect but little delegate support.

We figured we should ask about experience. Ignatieff had first worked for the Liberal party in the 1960's. Rae, of course, had a ton of political experience as a federal MP then premier of Ontario. Kennedy had been an MPP for a decade. Dion a federal cabinet minister for two different prime ministers. MHF had only been active in Liberal politics for three years and had never been elected. Maybe that was a reason why Liberal delegates weren't supporting her? We thought we'd ask.

Of course, we had to ask about whether her being female was another reason why people weren't supporting her in larger numbers. Former deputy prime minster Sheila Copps eloquently put the case forward a couple of weeks ago on The Agenda that there's a nasty double standard in politics. Qualities that are prized in a man are often criticized in a woman. That seemed worth asking about.

And finally, the issue that has prompted a couple of inquiries --- the issue of her private life.

I have made it a point over the years to respect the privacy of the people I interview. I will ask about someone's personal life where relevant but subscribe to the school of thought that public figures are entitled to a private life like anyone else, provided it doesn't adversely affect their public duties.

I put forward the notion in my meeting with Erica that as a general rule, politicians like to present themselves as "good family people," thus my reference in the MHF interview to the ubiquitous Christmas cards that love to show off the happy nuclear family.

In my conversations with delegates of all parties over the years, the notion of being a "good family person" matters. People just seem to like the image of a typical nuclear family. Of course, it's not a prerequisite to elective office, as SusieQ rightly pointed out. Pierre Trudeau and Kim Campbell both became prime minister without spouses.

But the vast vast majority of political leaders are married. And during the last election campaign, more than a few people pointed out that Stephen Harper could understand the problems of the average Canadian family because, after all, he was just a regular family guy with a wife, two kids, and a pet.

Erica and I talked at length about how to approach this issue with MHF in a way that wouldn't invade her privacy, but at the same time, would allow her to address the question of whether her no longer being married ultimately affected whether delegates would support her.

We agreed to ask the question respectfully, gently, and not in a prying way.

After we finished making our list of questions, we emailed them over to Dan Dunsky, the executive producer, whose job is to raise any red flags he sees. He offered one very useful piece of advice. He suggested I not say the Liberal party treated MHF like "crap" as I was going to say, but rather "disrespectfully," a word whose tone seemed a little more appropriate for our program. I agreed and asked the question that way.

Otherwise, the green light was given.

To her great credit, MHF answered the question in question forthrightly, seriously doubting that the issue had any effect on her delegate support. And that was that.

Would we have asked such a question of a male leadership contender? Of course, I think we would have. It so happens that every other candidate in the race is married with the exception of Scott Bryson. Were we to interview him on the program, it's inconceivable to me that the question of whether his sexual orientation might affect delegate support wouldn't come up. It certainly would.

So there it is.

An overly long answer, but for those still with me, I hope this shows that we really do put a lot of thought into what we ask and how we ask it. We can't claim to always be right or that we ask the questions as expertly as we should. But we do prepare quite thoroughly, with as much quality-control as a daily show will allow.

Comments welcomed...