Have you heard the exciting news? According to the Parliament Hill press gallery, there’s going to be a federal election this spring. Or this fall. Or next spring or later next spring or next fall or eventually. And you can take that prediction to the bank, Canada! (You may want to postdate it.)
Election speculation stories are great because they afford a journalist the opportunity to fill time or space without resorting to obsolete rituals like conveying useful information. They’re certainly easier to write than articles that require boring things like facts and thinking.
Here’s just one example from the recent past: “[Michael] Ignatieff delivered what was being billed by the Liberals as a major speech about Canada on the international stage,” a reporter wrote during the last wave of intense elec-spec. “However, his message about Canada’s place in the world was lost in the all the breathless speculation about an election.”
This is a classic media move: reporters write about how one event was overshadowed by another, but do so in a way that ignores their pivotal role in the overshadowing. The passive tense is critical here—Ignatieff’s message “was lost.” Got that? We didn’t ignore it. It “was lost,” like a kid’s homework or Stephen Harper’s capacity to feel. This sounds better than resorting to the more honest “What’s-his-nose Liberal guy gave a speech or whatever but we were following Harper and Layton to see if they’d hold hands down at the soda shoppe.”
Election speculation stories are often paired with another journalistic mainstay in Ottawa—the anonymous source. You know you’re dealing with rock-solid information when a person who refuses to reveal his identity forecasts the timing of an event over which he holds no influence.
Still, anonymity remains commonplace. When reporting on the Liberal party, for instance, reporters will often quote a “long-time Liberal” or a “senior Liberal” or even a “long-time senior Liberal”—though it gets confusing because does that mean the person is a) someone who’s been a senior Liberal for a long time, b) a long-time Liberal who’s now senior, or c) a person who’s been very old for a very long time. The least they can do is be more specific about the people they’re being completely vague about.
Don’t get me wrong: there are times when reporters need to shield their sources, such as when they’re breaking big news like Watergate or the Caramilk secret (get on it, Woodward). Less clear is why political reporters so readily grant anonymity, empowering unidentified people to take partisan shots, badmouth their own leaders or praise the magazine column they’re in as “rather astute and hilarious,” unidentified people said.
There’s always someone who disagrees with a political decision—it kind of matters who that someone is, doesn’t it? Is it Bob Rae who’s criticizing Michael Ignatieff? Or is it some old-timer in Saskatoon who thinks the party’s gone straight to hell ever since Louis St. Laurent passed? I suspect some people are quoted “off the record” so frequently, even their kids greet them at the door with a hearty, “Yay, former Conservative strategist is home!”
And then, of course, there are the political observers and experts—given space for their views but also routinely cloaked from our gaze. How exactly do you get certified as a political expert? Do you need to enter a political simulator and verbally emasculate Jack Layton? Or do you merely need to pick up the phone and have 10 minutes to spare when the lady from the newspaper calls?
Some aspiring journalists are surely thinking to themselves, “This sounds easy. Anyone can do this kind of ‘reporting.’ ” But there’s more to it. Those seeking to produce the perfect Parliament Hill story need to do more than speculate wildly and conceal their sources—they also need to work in the results of a new poll, whether it’s relevant or not. (Here in the capital, we’re sometimes forced to go whole hours without a new poll to tell us exactly how public opinion hasn’t changed in the last five years.)
To complete the Ottawa circle of life, this story will then be discussed on TV by a panel made up of party strategists or MPs, who will condescendingly dismiss its findings. They’ll do it even though they were likely the sources quoted anonymously in the first place.