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Col Mustard, with the Camera, In Camera

November 16, 2012

Today Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was testifying in a libel case against him. I just tuned in for a few minutes and her this gem:

“…in camera” is a bit of an oxymoron because no cameras are allowed.”

– Mayor Rob Ford

I know it’s a small thing, but it’s  really bothering me.

I was involved in a student council briefly at UBC when I was a graduate student. They use Robert’s rules for their meetings which I was unfamiliar with. I think I went through maybe two  hours of sessions before I asked “why the hell is it called ‘in camera'”?  If you’ve never been in these kinds of meetings or in government “in camera” essentially means you have a part of the session that is off the record; no notes, no pictures, and you shouldn’t talk about the details outside the room.

So yes, at first glance it’s a strange term. What does ‘going off the record’ have to do with my Canon pocket digital camera? So…I asked someone and then I looked it up.

The phrase In camera come from Latin and means “in a chamber” or “in a dark room”. The reason the digital wonders in our pockets are called cameras  is because the first cameras were essentially large boxes, or “rooms”, for capturing light onto a photosensitive plate, later these cameras become smaller, switched to film and then to computer chips instead of plate. But the darkness inside the box is still an essential part of how they work, it’s a lot easier to see the light outside when it’s dark on the inside. In a metaphorical sense you’d hope that’s what an in camera discussion in Toronto City council would allow as well. Everyone can speak their mind more freely and come to a real compromise rather than constantly worrying about their exact words ending up in the newspaper the next day. According to Rob Ford these sessions are more often than not an excuse for secret deals and corruption. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know.

But what I do know is that either he has a ridiculous confidence in his own ability to deduce how the world works without bothering to ask anyone or he is simply one of the most uncurious people to ever participate in Canadian politics. How could he sit in a room for over 12 years as a councillor and Mayor without doing a quick, discrete, search through a dictionary or Google to find out why the hell they call those off-the-record, private sessions in camera?

He calls it an “oxymoron”.  First of all, just to be completely anal, that wouldn’t be an oxymoron under his definition, it would be ironic. But that’s subtle. What I want to know is where did he think the term came from?  Did he think it was just some crazy term that was decided for no reason at all? Because that’s actually quite rare. Did it not occur to him that the length of time people have been having official meetings that may have required in camera sessions is actually a lot longer than the amount of time that picture taking cameras have existed?

Now granted, I’m a very curious person who obsessively wants to understand everything around me and why everything is called what it is. Not everyone is like that, fine. But I just don’t understand how you could encounter an important term for so many years as part of your job and rise to the pinnacle of your job in local politics and then in a public trial with the media there still spout out an idea about this term which is no different than what the understandable first reaction of the average person on the street would be upon hearing the term explained for the first time.

It’s not really important, but it certainly feeds into the feeling that Mayor Ford doesn’t particularly care about the details of the job he is doing or being an expert at it.  Call me crazy, I for one, do expect my elected representatives to know more about the process of how government works than the average person. If not when they initially run for office then certainty after 12 years doing the job. By then they should know every detail of it backwards and forwards if they are taking it seriously.




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