Open Door Perils: The Risks and Rewards of Letting in the Camera

For a few months it was the most discussed documentary that nobody had ever seen. When it finally made it onto TV screens, you had to wonder why all the fuss over Premier, The Unscripted Kathleen Wynne.

 It was a well-crafted and fascinating look behind the scenes look at the life of Ontario’s most powerful politician. But for a time it was a uniquely troubled project, one that threatened to be a costly misadventure for a respected production house and a public relations black eye for the premier.

Now, aside from being an important historical artifact it stands as a lesson to media advisors to think carefully about the consequences of opening your doors to intensive scrutiny by journalists.

White Pine Pictures, led by Peter Raymont, negotiated extraordinary access to Premier Kathleen Wynne. For weeks leading up to the introduction of the 2015 Ontario Budget, camera crews were allowed into places that the Queen’s Park Press Gallery never see: behind the doors of the premier’s office, into her home, to be a fly on the wall in meetings and conversations away from the public eye.

But in May, TVOntario cancelled plans to air it. Director Roxana Spicer resigned. The reasons behind the blowup are in dispute but reportedly revolve around whether the premier’s staff could view the film in advance and whether necessary release forms would be signed. Wynne was forced to deny that her staff was attempting to bowdlerize or suppress the film.

The Toronto Star’s Robert Benzie, the most plugged-in reporter at Queen’s Park (and in the interests of full disclosure a friend and former colleague) reported that the premier’s aides were “alarmed” at the documentary’s focus on the Sudbury by-election scandal.

Star headline

The best of intentions had gone awry. The desire for Kathleen Wynne’s team to demonstrate openness had morphed into a narrative that they were censoring a story they did not like.

The concept of the film is almost as old as documentaries themselves. There is a version in daily news coverage that is known as the “ride-along”.   The idea is that you take your camera along to follow the daily life and/or work of someone in the news and hope to capture revealing moments.

As the carding controversy roiled in Toronto in the fall of 2013, I arranged a ride along for me and a Global News cameraman with the TAVIS unit of the Toronto Police service, the team that was being accused of focusing unfairly on young black men, of stopping, questioning and “carding” them for no other reason than the colour of their skin.

After many hours of cruising around in a police car through one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods we saw no fireworks, one minor arrest and not a single case of a young black man being carded.

STAVIS creen Shot 2015-10-14 at 10.34.00

The officer who was our guide was articulate, friendly and caring—the model of a community policeman. Although we had no restrictions on what we could shoot we could be fairly certain that the team had been briefed extensively about how to behave in our presence. The Toronto Police Service was (and is) facing withering criticism about carding and wanted to be sure to put its best foot forward with this opportunity. It did.

Similarly, although the White Pine film described Wynne as “unscripted” there is no doubt that everyone in the premier’s office was given clear instructions on the protocols of speaking while a documentary crew was in the room

As they were shooting over several weeks, the filmmakers could hope that the facades might slip a bit. When do you a ride along you pray that something unexpected will happen, something true and telling—something the subjects might not necessarily like, something like the Sudbury scandal.

For the most part the premier’s team maintained discipline. A rare exception came when Wynne’s spouse Jane Rounthwaite referred to a reporter as a “twerp”. There was an awkward silence in the room for a moment. Ms. Rounthwaite had let a sincere and impolitic word slip out. The premier reminded her that she was wearing a microphone, to which Ms. Rounthwaite replied that she knew, did not much care and that she could have used a worse word.

The twerp moment probably helped Wynne more than it hurt, with Ms. Rounthwaite emerging as a fiercely loyal, no-bullshit political spouse, not unlike, say, Barbara Bush—a comparison that would likely horrify both women.

In the end, CTV’s W5 acquired Premier and broadcast it. CTV Toronto’s Paul Bliss showed a few excerpts in a preview:

CTV Toronto previews: “Premier”

Both sides should be pleased with what went to air, even if feeling bruised by the earlier imbroglio.

So what should media advisors learn from this affair?

As a journalist for most of my adult life, my bias remains openness. Now that I make a living as a communications consultant, I tell clients that they must tell their own stories—otherwise you leave it to your critics to tell it for you.

That said, not every public figure would do well under the scrutiny of a ride along. Wynne is one who could risk it. From my days covering her at Queen’s Park, I know that, whatever you think of her politics, she is affable, genuine and likeable—pretty much the same person away from the camera as she is in front of it. Her press advisors could be confident that there would be no profane, Nixonian meltdowns.

The lesson from Premier is that if you agree to let camera crews follow you, the rules of the game need to be established firmly and clearly from the beginning. Everyone who will be in range of the camera needs to be sternly briefed: be true to yourself but remember anything you say could be broadcast to the world. Best to save the edgy jokes for private moments.

Most importantly, you need to understand that the journalists are not working for you–a key lesson of media training. No matter what agreement the premier’s staff made with the filmmakers in advance, practically speaking they would have exactly zero control over the final product. Even if they never intended to exercise any influence, the way the story played out gave the impression that they did, that they were spooked and were searching for a way to minimize any negativity. In politics appearances matter most, even if the reality is more nuanced.

If the feces hits the fan while the cameras are following you, it will most certainly become the highlight of the documentary. You have to just grit your teeth and accept it. If you are not ready to face the risks then do not let the filmmakers in the door.

And perhaps remember that your boss’s response to crisis might just win her new admirers.