Paul Wells on Press Gallery motives

Re: Trudeau, Conservatives, paid and earned media

Using the #sawanad (“Saw an ad”) hashmark on Twitter, readers are sending in reports that they’ve been seeing the Conservative ads criticizing Justin Trudeau on several shows. Most of the reports are from morning and prime time, although that’s when most of the viewers would be watching TV too. The Conservatives seem to be concentrating (or maybe the Twitter crowd is disproportionately watching) sports broadcasts and cooking shows (Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares — wait, are those the same show?). Anyway, it’s a real buy.

One Conservative acquaintance with long experience in communications points out an explanation for the ads, and their timing, that I didn’t mention in my previous post on the subject. The Conservatives may simply have wanted to level the playing field. 

One thing that’s clear to anyone who walked past a newsstand on Monday, the first full day the ads ran, was that newspaper coverage of Trudeau’s unsurprising victory in the race to lead a party that has lost seats in each of the past four elections was (a) abundant and (b) credulous. Even Le Devoir, which is not busting out with Justin fans these days, ran his beaming mug across a third of Page 1. The big English papers were even more enthusiastic.

What makes me think the Conservatives believe they can’t get a fair shake from the newspapers? The Conservatives told me so. The fundraising page of their website is full of flattering quotes from my Press Gallery colleagues about Trudeau and his predecessors. “These journalists are entitled to their opinions, and to carefully select whatever facts they think best advance their views,” the page adds. “But, since all news passes through their journalistic filter, we need your help to get our message directly to Canadians. No filter. Just the facts. Without their snark and spin.”

Gathering nuts and crumbs for my next book, I asked one of Harper’s advisors: “You’re pretty convinced the gallery is left-wing, aren’t you?” “Not left-wing,” came the answer. “Liberal.” I don’t think it’s a baseless accusation, although, of course, everyone’s motives are always complex. What reporters hate most of all is incumbents and boredom, often synonymous, and the free ride Harper got in 2006 against Paul Martin was something to behold.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of pundits flattering non-Liberal leaders. In 2008 I wrote about the campaigning Stephen Harper: “There is something novel and, if you must know, charming about the Conservative leader’s sudden ebullience. In a spanking-new barn in Saskatchewan the other evening I started to wonder whether he had been inhabited by the ghost of Peter Gzowski… In the early days of this campaign he has been on his game in a way that is simply impressive to watch.” In 2000 Lawrence Martin, now cited on the Conservative money-button page, compared Stockwell Day favourably to Kennedy and Reagan.

But I’ll tell you who absolutely believes the Conservatives have to pay to see their view of Trudeau reflected before Canadians: the Conservatives do. Walking past a newsstand on Monday, they probably felt it was money well spent.