The demise of Evan Solomon as host of CBC’s flagship political show Power & Politics has left the question of the show’s next permanent host up in the air.
Rosemary Barton, the show’s Friday host and regular Solomon fill-in, has been given the job on an interim basis through the upcoming federal election.
But, if the executives at CBC have any sense, they will make Barton the show’s permanent host right away.
Why? Because Rosemary Barton is the host that Evan Solomon never could be. While some were keen on Solomon’s interview style – Andrew Cohen went as far as to compare Solomon to the BBC’s famous Jeremy Paxman (though one suspects that Cohen was watching the Mirror Universe broadcast) – it was something that I never warmed to.
It was rare that Solomon would give a genuinely tough interview. Early in his time in the host’s chair, he became rather infamous in Ottawa political journalism circles for trying to warm the Conservatives up to the CBC, and it was no surprise that, in spite of easy interview after easy interview, they never did. He toughened up a little in the years to follow, occasionally challenging talking points, but those days were the exception and not the rule.
Solomon, for the most part, seemed more concerned with his jovial image than he was in getting answers on political issues. When he did get serious, he would sometimes go to the point of cartoonish – witness his misfire when he grilled Elizabeth May in the wake of her rather disastrous Press Gallery Dinner speech.
He often seemed enamoured with his own jokes, particularly the lame puns that he favoured. And in his bid to create “good television” – his stated driving factor for the show, as opposed to good political coverage – Solomon encouraged pugilism amongst his guests. Nothing made him happier than when they would yell and talk over one another. MP or pundit panels getting out of hand and devolving into a circus? Solomon would beam with childlike glee.
Enter Barton. Throughout her time as fill-in host, the entire tenor of Power & Politics changed. Not focused on making a spectacle, she instead marshaled serious discussions on policy issues of the day. MPs like Paul Calanda, famous for their non sequiturs and red herring talking points, were made to talk sense when Barton was in the host’s chair – whereas Solomon would have egged Calandra on to the point where viewers were left with a psychodrama between him and whoever the NDP MP on segment was.
This isn’t to say that Barton is devoid of humour or not entertaining – she regularly cracks jokes (good ones, unlike her predecessor), and she is open to public dialogue from viewers on social media, where she also presents a friendly and funny persona.
Barton can be affable and regularly challenge MPs on their talking points. She has shown a williness to be assertive when they don’t respond to questions with a clear answer, whereas Solomon was passive and had a habit of moving on to the next person on his panel when he got stuck.
This difference is crucial because it changes the entire tone of a segment. Knowing that the host isn’t going to let you get away with your usual shenanigans forces you to develop more credible answers to the questions you should be held accountable for. It is a genuinely great contribution to the public debate.
And, as an added bonus, segments with Rosemary Barton often get a full extra round of questions in because she doesn’t have Evan Solomon’s annoying verbal tic of repeating whatever answer had just been given to him, uselessly chewing up air time.
It cannot be understated how Rosemary Barton can and does demand better of the people she’s interviewing. On her first show after Solomon was fired by the CBC, when everything was up in the air and the show’s team was understandably upset, Barton nevertheless covered the issue of the host’s dismissal with professionalism and aplomb. After that, she went straight into a signature interview with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair.
Mulcair tried to play dumb with her – more than his usual too-cute-by-half act – and Barton had none of it. It was compelling television of a sort that Solomon was never capable of producing.
And word has it that Mulcair and his people were none too pleased by the interview. It’s about time that Canada had a political host who is willing to actually hold their guests to account than act deferentially in the hope that they’ll come back on the show some day. You know – the kind of thing Jeremy Paxman would actually do, instead of throwing around a slogan like “tough but fair.”
Barton has also admirably called out Justin Trudeau on the air for not making time for interviews with Power & Politics, demonstrating a willingness to call out politicians for their evaseiveness as well as their straw man arguments.
Indeed, Rosemary Barton’s talent is a product of hard work, expertise and her own character. She has a solid grounding in covering politics – which Evan Solomon did not when he entered the job – both at the National Assembly in Quebec City, and on Parliament Hill, for a time working under the legendary Don Newman. She has been on the campaign planes, attended Question Period regularly, and covered a number of beats across government. These are things Solomon has no background in and it’s why Power & Politics now has greater depth. The show now has a host who is deeply familiar with and intellectually curious about the personalities and the issues in Ottawa.
And most importantly, she doesn’t play dumb – something other political hosts are more willing to do as part of their populist, everyman appeal. She also doesn’t try to get her pundit panels riled up into a kind of spiralling groupthink on whatever the issue of the day is, unlike certain other hosts. It has made for refreshing viewing.
And there’s one last reason that Rosemary Barton should be the permanent host of CBC’s flagship politics show: she is the new face of politics. The days of old white guys dominating the discussion about policy in this country are moving behind us. If the CBC ends up bringing in someone from the Ottawa boys club, it will be a retrograde move.
Rosemary Barton has already proven that she has the chops for this role, and she’s always been a better host than Evan Solomon. It’s time for her to she get the recognition that she’s earned. It’s time Canadians got the kind of public broadcaster they deserve.
Make her the permanent host of Power & Politics already.