Is there anyone left who would dispute that in the matter of Harper v. the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the Prime Minister has thoroughly trounced the fourth estate? For all the bluster and angst, for all the projections of inevitable karmic comeuppance at the hands of aggrieved and all-powerful scribes, can the Conservatives not now claim complete and total victory in the battle to control who and how this government is defined?
For sure, these past two weeks have included some of the Harper administration’s least flattering moments. Never minding even the dramatic unravelling of Maxime Bernier’s political career, this government has struggled mightily to maintain its equilibrium. With the Prime Minister in Europe, desperate for good news, the PMO wrongly (or at least prematurely) announced the Italians willing to do more in Afghanistan. With the Bernier affair still making news upon Stephen Harper’s return, James Moore was then dispatched, bizarrely, to reintroduce the infamous Cadman tape—an attempt to discredit the opposition that was counter-productive at worst, silly at best.
Now, with revelations of Julie Couillard’s personal life still emerging every couple of days, a confidence vote to come Monday and law enforcement authorities due to testify publicly about what they knew and when about Bernier’s companion, the Harper government should be staggering toward the summer recess.
And yet. If this administration has lost control of itself, it has not lost control of the message.
On Friday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay appeared at an informal press conference in the House foyer to introduce Canada’s new top general. MacKay may not be able to tell you how much the war in Afghanistan is costing Canadians (“We have all kinds of figures”) and he may not be able to account for the treatment of military detainees removed from the battlefield (“Operational security”), but few in the Prime Minister’s cabinet are better equipped to sell Harper’s military agenda—equally adept at sounding and looking the part. Though without his trusty dog, and far removed from the potato patch back east, he managed, seemingly off the top of his handsome head, to win the day with a single phrase. “There’s momentum that is going to continue,” he said, “and we have in General Natynczyk a person who has enormous respect internationally, within the Canadian Forces and someone who I think is going to be an absolutely exceptional Chief of Defence Staff, a gentleman general.”
With those words, reporters had their story. “Gentleman general to replace Hillier,” explained the Globe. “Gentleman’s General takes lead,” concurred the Post. What seemed almost a throw-away line from the Defence Minister made it into dispatches from Canadian Press, AFP, CBC, CTV, the Winnipeg Free Press and Canwest News Service. It was, of course, two tempting a sound bite to ignore—neat, tidy, alliterative, seemingly definitive. And, hey, it might even be true.
Perhaps less artful was what dominated news on Sunday. Weeks earlier, the Conservatives had gathered reporters to debut a new attack ad, this one designed to out Stephane Dion as a man hellbent on spending the country into crippling deficit. Only it wasn’t an ad. Indeed, when a record label came calling for improper commercial use of the 1974 hit “For the Love of Money” in the clip, a party spokesman shrugged. “The Conservative Party has not released any ads containing the music in question,” he said. Indeed, after showing the ad to reporters, Conservative officials simply allowed the clip to circulate through the media. Reporting of the attack ad was all the advertising the party needed—wide-spread, authoritative and free.
But if the press gallery was particularly offended by such manipulation, it is proving impressively slow to retaliate. This Sunday, readers of the Ottawa and Toronto Suns were greeted by banner headlines heralding the latest Conservative attacks. An image taken from one of the ads filled half of each paper’s front page. The majority of the nation’s prominent media websites quickly countered with their own reports, most repeating the same image of a shrugging Dion surrounded by dire warnings of new and massive taxes to come. CTV helpfully aired one ad during it’s Sunday chat show (a “sneak peek” the hosts cheerfully announced), then offered readers of the network’s website a link directly to the entire online Conservative package.
By Sunday afternoon, the Liberals had clarified their rejoinder—claiming the placement of ads at gas pumps as proof of Conservative ties to big oil—but they were by then playing from far behind. Late to the game of defining their own policy.
If the government fooled media outlets into promoting their last round of ads, it is entirely unjust to criticize them for simply repeating the trick. For sure, no one is being fooled now. No reporter can legitimately claim to misunderstand the party’s intentions. There is no mystery to what the Harper communications team is doing or how they’re doing it. Rather, the question is how the press gallery adjusts—or rather whether it adjusts at all. Some may see the Conservatives as simply exploiting an unavoidable loophole in the business of reporting the day’s news. Some may see little difference between airing the latest attack ad and passing on the sort of strategic leaks that account for the many of the so-called scoops that dominate the day-to-day news here.
Asked how the Liberals might counterattack, one member of CTV’s panel put it simply—they should respond in kind. And therein lies the rub. There is nothing to prevent—or at least nothing to suggest the opposition parties will be prevented—from doing likewise. Were they so inclined, they could summon reporters to their own Ottawa bunker and release their own set of ads, of the attacking variety or otherwise. They would have to expect the same level and tone of coverage. Indeed, anything less would amount to evidence of a vast right-wing conspiracy. And at that point, Mr. Dion would be well-advised to initiate his own war with the press gallery. For sure, given Harper’s gains, that’s a battle he might consider initiating anyway.