Saturday, October 20, 2007

Harper's media phobia

Via Impolitical, Christopher Dornan, director of the Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs at Carleton University, provides a clear analysis of the acrimony that now exists between the Harper government and the traditional news media in Canada.

Dornan explains how Harper came to view control of the media, particularly the Parliamentary Press Gallery, as not only possible, but something that needed to be done to ensure his political success.
For Canada's so-called new government, rhetoric about the media being trustees of enlightenment is the height of absurdity. It considers the media an impediment, not only to the Conservative partisan agenda, but to democratic politics. If you believe that, or if you can be convinced of it, then the passive-aggressive hostility the Stephen Harper government has shown toward the media makes perfect sense.

It springs from a deep-rooted conviction that, because the media are fundamentally opposed to the Conservative platform, they will at every turn portray its policies as extreme, hysterical and not wanted on the voyage.

Or as Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary political science professor and former Harper campaign manager, puts it succinctly in his new book, Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, "The media are unforgiving of conservative errors, so we have to exercise strict discipline at all levels."

Since the mission of the Harper Conservatives is precisely to shift the mainstream thinking of the nation - to make their priorities the new common sense - they cannot help but see the media as anti-democratic. In their eyes, the media labour to restrict what will count as a legitimate policy alternative. It is bad enough that reporters are nuisances poised to cause trouble for whoever happens to be in power. It is infuriating to think they can usurp the national debate. It is time, the Conservatives believe, to put them in their place.

Dornan highlights two (of several incidents) in the 2004 campaign during which the media mercilessly raked Harper and left him with no doubt that the media viewed, not just a conservative agenda, but that of Harper's party, as extremist.

First, with 10 days until the vote, the Conservative war room issued an electronic news release headlined, "Paul Martin supports child pornography?" It accused the Liberal government of being soft on child porn for supporting exemptions for material deemed to be in the "public good" and for refusing to establish a national sex-offender registry.

At a campaign stop in Quebec, reporters rounded on Mr. Harper over the incendiary headline. Instead of admitting that it was uncalled for, he defended it in a heated exchange - and the press mauled him for it. Mr. Harper resolved never again to allow himself to be put in a position where he could be trapped that way.

The other object lesson for Mr. Harper was the way abortion emerged as an issue. Early in the campaign, Conservative health critic Rob Merrifield mentioned in an interview with The Globe and Mail that it would be "valuable" for women contemplating abortion to receive counselling before making their decision.

When the story appeared, its headline suggested that the Conservatives favoured drastic changes in abortion legislation that would include mandatory counselling. This, despite the fact that the party proposed no such thing, that Mr. Merrifield had said nothing about making counselling mandatory and that, indeed, compassionate abortion counselling is a policy of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.

Dornan makes a valid point in his discussion but misses one important element in what was to become a hostile relationship: the media had a reason for their collective belief that Harper's Conservatives were pursuing an extremist and hidden agenda.

Harper himself, while vice-president of the National Citizen's coalition, had publicly expressed some ideas which most Canadians considered extremist. In the years between that 1997 venting of his mind and the 2004 general election, Harper and his followers and advisers did little to alter the impression he had left with the media and the public. In fact, from the opposition benches of the House of Commons, the extreme ideas were combatively argued as policy alternatives to liberal governance.

That latter position would not normally form an impediment, given the fact that members of the opposition are supposed to argue against the government on behalf of the electoral minority. But in Harper's case, because of his previous public statements before he actually took a seat in parliament, there was (and is) some firmness in the belief that, given the opportunity, he would actually pursue that agenda.

The media was also aware that the Conservatives were/are possessed of a rather large number of extremists and were supported by a constituent block of homophobes, anti-abortionists, racists and Christian fundamentalists, all of which went against the flow of the majority view of the Canadian electorate. Surrounded by this kind of support, the media, and Canadians generally, believed that, should Harper gain power, that extremist block of the Conservative Party would expect to be compensated for their support in the form of legislated social change.

For that reason, the media was watching closely for any sign that Harper and his political adherents were holding back an agenda other than that advertised in the election platform document. And when they saw something, they jumped on it, perhaps far too aggressively and without full possession of the facts.

Dornan continues:

Nor is this Prime Minister the first to shy away from the National Press Theatre, a dowdy Pearson-era room ill suited to the needs of an image-conscious government.

As Winnipeg writer Allan Levine points out in his 1993 book Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media, in 1978, "in an attempt to exercise greater control over the prime minister's meetings with journalists," Pierre Trudeau's communications director, Dick O'Hagan, "moved the weekly gatherings down Wellington Street to the Canada Conference Centre. Now the conferences were chaired by Trudeau's press secretary Jean Charpentier, who decided which reporters could ask questions."

Looking back today, Mr. O'Hagan recalls that Mr. Trudeau was exasperated by the press and especially hated being buttonholed in "scrum" sessions with reporters. "But we pulled back. We weren't going to go to the mat over this. We weren't going to compromise our relations with the gallery."

The current PM, however, "is in a different situation and is a different kind of guy," he adds. "I've been kind of amazed at how far he's prepared to go with this. I'm surprised how determined he has been to prosecute this issue. He's trying to change the terms and conditions of the relationship ... make it into a different kind of relationship altogether. It's an Americanization of the process, but so far he's been successful."

In fact, to describe it as "Americanization" is too simplistic. It is more than that; it is Rovian. The communications strategy being pursued by the Harper government is the same one developed by Karl Rove to insulate his then boss from the national media in the United States. Aware that the national political media would tear George W. Bush to shreds, Rove executed a plan to bypass the big media outlets and get the Bush message out via regional media. In short, the Harperites are copying the Rove-developed practice of keeping the leader away from the capital-based national media and having the message spread through delegates and appearances at a regional level.

CTV reporter Roger Smith points out that at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Australia, Mr. Harper refused to talk to the press for three days. When he held a controversial meeting with the President of China, Canadian reporters had to resort to other sources. As a result, all anyone back home knew about the private discussions came from Chinese officials.

The communication strategy has been implemented so rigidly that it is now impossible to know what we are not being told.
Thus, the Conservative communications strategy can be reduced to a simple line. We are the message and we alone are the messenger.
Ottawa media consultant Barry McLaughlin respects the message discipline the Conservatives have imposed, but he wonders whether it may not backfire in the end. "If you get a lot of negative filtering through the media to the effect that the government is controlling and secretive," he says, "voters may indeed start to see them as aloof and arrogant. You can go one step too far with control."


And so relations between the government and the media bear watching. They are a political Rorschach blot that reveals either a leader true to his principles and uncompromising in his commitment to realizing them, or a man who, for all his grasp of political machination and the apparatus of government, is at root deeply distrustful of the messy business of democracy.
And that is the issue. Whether we appreciate them or not, the people who research and report for the media form one of the pillars on which a functioning democracy rests. When a government attempts to intentionally hide its internal workings from the public, exposure and transparency become the obligation of the media. And even a government supposedly operating in the open needs to allow an independent voice to verify to the public that openness.

Any attempt to shut that down is a deliberate attempt to weaken the democracy itself.

And more: From the Gazeteer almost a year ago. The Rovian efforts of Harper's communications director, Sandra Buckler, were becoming plainly obvious to most of the media, but it was Anthony Germain who pushed the secrecy of the Harper camp into the light after reporters were kept away during his Far East visit last year.

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