Past imperfect, future tense

I finally got around to watching on YouTube the infamous ATV interview with Stephane Dion conducted during the election campaign. It is a journalistic travesty. There are so many things wrong from a reportorial and human standpoint, it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin by acknowledging that Dion was tired. Steve Murphy launched a lengthy first question on the economy. The wording contains snippets from Dion’s speech earlier that day and finally gets around to the nugget when Murphy asks: “If you were prime minister now, what would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?”

Dion begins to answer, flounders, wonders what timing Murphy has in mind, then asks to restart the interview. OK, so far. Restarts are commonplace in taped interviews. But Murphy does not rephrase the question to make it clearer, he goes through the whole laborious wording again.

Again Dion stumbles, an aide interjects an off-camera explanation, and there’s another restart. The third attempt ends quickly when both Murphy and Dion dissolve into laughter. The fourth works and Dion does fine.

As everyone was leaving, a Dion aide commented to the field producer something to the effect of surely you’re not going to put everything on air. “Don’t worry,” said the producer. But back at the station, they have second thoughts. They ask the higher-ups at CTV who review the tape and declare everything will air.

Despite the promise made.

Despite the fact that they humiliated Dion.

As someone who has worked hard to learn a second language and struggled to maintain it at some level of functionality, I can tell you that verb tenses are tough. I think the question that gave Dion so much trouble in English – his second language – was posed in the past pluperfect subjunctive. Little wonder he had trouble.

I was also reminded of my own former boss, Robert Stanfield, and his struggle to learn French, which was not bad. But it always helped if the interviewer stuck to the past, present and future tenses. They were hard enough. Hypotheticals in the past pluperfect subjunctive are ridiculous.

I think ATV fell into the trap of trying to prove the conventional wisdom that Stephane Dion wasn’t up to the job. In this case, maybe it was the journalists who came up short.

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