Maclean’s View from the Hill: Are talking points ruining democracy?

… and what next for Mali, Idle No More and Shawn Atleo?

Aaron Wherry, Michael Petrou, Nick Taylor-Vaisey and John Geddes consider pressing questions of the week:

  1. Are talking points ruining democracy?
  2. What will happen next in Mali?
  3. What has Idle No More accomplished?
  4. Will Shawn Atleo be forced out as Assembly of First Nations national chief?



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Maclean’s View from the Hill: Are talking points ruining democracy?

  1. Great comments on the “talking points” thing. But what Harper engages in goes far beyond the use of talking points. He has created a Soviet-style information control bureaucracy that stonewalls and propagandizes access-to-information requests, muzzles scientists, monitors and posts in online forums, stages fake online town-hall meetings, floods the airwaves with self-promoting ads, as well as cooking up scripts for MPs and minsters to parrot. (No Con MP can speak to the media without first getting prior approval via “Message Event Proposal” and then they must stay on script.)

    Harper’s Ministry of Truth is in constant war (campaign) mode, filtering out information that might make the Harper Government look bad and reinforcing its broad propaganda messages as well as micro-targeting voters in specific ridings. No doubt they use consumer psychology and other related fields to tailor their messages and test them in focus groups before shipping them out to the public. And this colossal monstrosity is funded entirely with taxpayer dollars.

    No other government has come remotely close to putting together something like this.

    So I think journalists need to drive a stake through the heart of this hideous thing before it becomes the norm. This is a serious threat to our democracy.

    • Here we go with the muzzles scientists thing again. You want to talk about talking points? You’ve just listed a bunch of them. Harper is not muzzling scientists. University and private sector scientists can spew off to the media all they want. Government of Canada scientists cannot nor could they ever. They sign a non-disclosure agreement when they get employed along with every other government employee and their work is considered to belong to the Government of Canada. It has been this way for a long time. As for message control, Harper came to power with a bunch of rednecks much like Mulcair has inherited Layton’s kindergarton. Harper spent his time in Opposition trying to control these loose canons. With a media out for blood, would you not control the message from these reps?

      • Public sector scientists work for Canadians, not the Harper Government. There’s absolutely no justification for a government to engage in the Medieval practice of suppressing scientific findings.

        • This is universal not just the Federal government. This is just a convenient piece of misinformation to bash the Harper Tories with. Both the provincial and municipal governments have the same rules. When was the last time you heard from the UK’s DEFRA (Dept. of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)? The real reason behind the “Harper muzzles scientists” is a push for an arms-length agency like NOAA in the US. Arms length agencies also have the right to speak out and be politically active.

  2. I want to comment on Wherry’s statements:

    Talking points are a reaction. They are a reaction to antagonistic, negative, attack journalism that seeks to seize upon any word uttered by any member of a given party to portray that party negatively. It is a result if the rise of, as Sun media puts it, the “media party”, who have their own agenda and will seek to twist the words of other parties for their own desires and motives.

    Why wouldn’t politicians talk to the media honestly if there were a net gain from it? The reason is that there is no net gain from it at all. The media party is in competition with the other parties. A group that is competing with you will not portray you fairly.

    Talking points are sanitized words that are designed to be resistant from being twisted to mean something else, from being seized upon, and from being used by the media party for their own means.

    Parties have tried alternative solutions, none of which work as well as talking points.

    One other solution employed by parties is to speak directly to people and to cut out the media party as a middle man. However, this is not easy to do, since of course it is difficult to avoid the media party. In the last election the Conservatives tried to hold rallies speaking directly to people, excluding antagonistic individuals from these rallies, but then the media party decided to portray this as a means of excluding ordinary Canadians from their rallies. The media party created their own campaign where they attempted to portray the Conservative rallies as exclusionary – which was ridiculous but the media did it anyway. So it is clearly not easy for politicians to speak directly to the people.

    Another solution was tried by the Conservatives in the last election campaign. The Conservatives tried to answer only five questions at the end of speeches. The idea was that if only five questions were asked, the media would not waste questions playing their games, trying to make politicians say things they could twist to their own advantage, rather they would ask the obvious questions that should be asked. This didn’t work well either. The media party decided to attack the five questions strategy itself.

    Talking points will remain as long as the media continues to behave as it does today.

    • So Harper cooks up negative, antagonistic, attack talking-points (propaganda) so his words won’t be twisted out of context? (Like how he twists Mulcair’s cap and trade platform into a “dangerous” $20B carbon tax, and sends 50 MPs out to propagate the message, even though he supported the same policy a few years back?) Yeah, that makes sense!

      Interesting how these con fanatics manufacture paranoia to justify their sleazy actions. These people are on the same level as cult members. Because they have an odious agenda, and are willing to do anything to attain political power, they have to make a preemptive strike against those who would expose them — fact-seeking journalists.

      These defenders of the faith demonize the media and any time their political party receives rational, valid criticism they cite it as proof they are being persecuted. What a load of bullsh*t!

      Journalists should not walk on eggshells around these fundamentalists lest they be accused of bias. They are being played. Balance in journalism means objectivity. It does not mean giving equal time to manipulative, partisan crackpots.

      • Actually I found the attack ads kind of wicked and not at all like the dirt they dredge up in the States. Dion – “Not a Leader”, Ignatieff “Just Visiting”. Can anyone prove these statements were not correct?

        • Harper’s attack on Ignatieff was disgusting. He was saying any Canadian who is an international success story is not a real Canadian. It was primitive, chauvinist nonsense. (And this was coming from someone who worships Republicans and wants to turn Canada into America.)

          As for Harper’s attack on Dion, it does call into question Harper’s own leadership abilities. He is an autocrat who believes he “makes all the rules” micromanaging the entire government from the PMO. He treats senators, MPs and ministers like pawns, puppets and crash test dummies, forbidding any talk to the media unless they get permission and then read from a script. Unless you’re the type who admired the leadership styles of Saddam Hussein and Adolph Hitler, you’re probably going to conclude Harper is a tin pot dictator, not a real leader.

    • Given your theory of cause and effect, could you explain the recent carbon tax campaign directed at the NDP?

    • Let me get this straight: you’re blaming the media for politicians’ reflexive resort to the use of TPs? That’s a crock.

      I think most objective observers would call the Cons’ ridiculous repetition of the “carbon tax” meme, day after day after day in the HoC, an example of the use of “talking points”. In what way is that inane campaign “a reaction to antagonistic, negative, attack journalism that seeks to seize upon any word uttered by any member of a given party to portray that party negatively”?

      The PMO cooked up that lame propaganda campaign all by themselves. The media certainly didn’t put them up to it.

      • What scf is essentially arguing is for the right to your own facts as well as opinions. Truth is not something that is emphemeral and difficult to root out by a series of probing questions – it is something to be “owned.” These guys actually think they should be above objective criticism. At least to the extent “hard” questions should be ruled out of court. As you say it’s a crock. The CPC has numerous ways to communicate its message to its supporters, but to suggest anyone should be excempt from media scrutiny just because the party doesn’t like the flavour of the question is both deluded and dangerous.

        • I doubt that scf is arguing in favour of “your own facts”…

          Instead, for example, think about the tendancy to search out MPs who have an opinion that is either slightly different or “ideally” significantly different from the official party line….and then to “highlight” this as a lack of party solidarity or maybe even weak leadership.

          Or, in a more general way, the shortfall of nuance and/or proportion and/or differientiation between a minor issue and a major issue.

          Btw, none of this is meant to excuse talking points in any way – I detest them, but if we want to rid ourselves of talking points it might be beneficial to try to understand how they came to be.

          • Sure i get you. I’m not trying to dismiss the argument against poor, lazy or gotcha journalism. It happens, but all parties have to deal with it. The solution is better reporting not TPs. I can’t except the “media party” argument on face value, but neither do i think they are the sainted upholders of a sacred public trust the way they sometimes portray themselves.
            If scf simply meant it is difficult to get your message out coherently against a media that likes to look for holes in arguments, inconsistencies and even sensationalistic tittle tattle – that’s one thing, i can sign on to that. But i don’t think he is. I think he clearly thinks the media doesn’t have the right to ask hard questions that all political parties would rather avoid or deflect. The media has the right to be sceptical and say so loudly at the very least.

          • And just to clarify my thoughts about talking points even more, I don’t mean to suggest that media shortcomings ultimately excuse the use of talking points in any way.

            Bottom line is that the media is not holding a gun to the heads of those who spout talking points. The political parties could decide, today, to stop using them. As an alternative they could begin to engage with all citizens in meaningful, open discussions, seeking to understand.

      • I love how scf approvingly quotes Sun Media while parroting Sun’s bullsh*t “Media Party” argument.

        Remember: Sun Media is the only one you can trust. All other outlets are hopelessly biased to the left.

      • I don’t know why you hit the reply button. Your comment has no relation to what I said.

        • Considering the “media party” endorsed a Harper majority that certainly blows your ridiculous conspiracy theory out of the water, now doesn’t it? (Guess minions were not put on this Earth to think…)

          • I have not the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Seriously, if you want to start a new topic, don’t hit the reply button.

          • Yes, if you’re the type who parrots drivel like “media party” conspiracy theories it makes perfect sense that you won’t have the slightest idea of what you’re talking about.

      • Did you ever think that was a feature and not a bug? The G&M in particular spends its waking life attacking Harper only to turn around and endorse him at election time. By doing that, it CAN turn around and claim to be impartial.

      • It is the journalists, of all types, that are in the face of the voters, not the back room publisher.
        If you have an accurate poll showing the percentage of journalists who supported the Conservatives in the last Election then show me that.
        If not then you might as tell us what percentage of plumbers or teaching assistants endorsed Harper in the last Election.

        • What journalists are “in the face” of voters, and exactly how? Was criticism of Harper’s phonebook-sized omnibus budget bills — which he himself condemned the practice of previously in a much smaller bill — an example of journalists being in the face of voters?

  3. The other three video commentaries were good. Taylor-Vaisey and Geddes have some good points. Petrou has some interesting facts about Mali.

    • Translation – the Kremlin sees no threat from them.

      • Do you think you are Wherry’s lover or something? Are you a stalker? You’ve got issues.

  4. Of course talking points are ruining democracy–that’s the whole point of them! Talking points were devised to hijack debate, which is central to the process that yields & maintains democracy. A talking point is a line spouted, like by an actor, no matter what is said, so is unresponsive to the flow of communication process. What sort of daze were the people in who posed this question?

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