BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

On TV, it’s John the Actor versus Just Plain Mike

Peter C. Newman February 25 1961
BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

On TV, it’s John the Actor versus Just Plain Mike

Peter C. Newman February 25 1961

On TV, it’s John the Actor versus Just Plain Mike

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

Peter C. Newman

The election strategy of the Conservatives has now been set: to make the majority of voters believe that no other government could do more, John Diefenbaker and his ministers plan to spend the remaining time until the next polling day making a great deal of noise about what they've done for their fellow Canadians.

The centrepiece of this operation will be the television set that now squats in 84% of Canadian homes. In the process, television will, for the first time, become a dominant factor in Canadian politics, one that could well decide the results of the next election.

It's estimated that during his energetic 1958 campaign, John Diefenbaker was seen in person by about

100.000 Canadians. The only national political show currently on Canadian television is The Nation’s Business, broadcast every second week, with time allocated to the parties according to their parliamentary representation. The program ranks 66th in popularity among CBC network presentations, just after Tide water Tramp. Yet even with this poor rating. The Nation’s Business attracts an audience that averages

425.000 viewers—more than four times the number of people the prime minister was able to meet in six exhausting weeks on the hustings.

During the last two campaigns television electioneering was largely limited to the six hours provided free to the parties by the CBC. But in the next campaign the many private stations that have since been established will be able to sell virtually unlimited time to the politicians.

This doesn’t mean that the next election will become an electronic vote-getting contest. It does mean that all parties will in future add the asset or liability of a man’s “television personality” to their qualifications for choosing candidates. That could be a considerable handicap to the kind of politician who has trained himself to garner votes by stemwinding a rally or torch parade into righteous frenzy against his opponent. That kind of approach doesn't work on television. The audience is scattered in tiny groups, lounging in brightly lit rooms, looking at a dim image. Many are knitting; some are reading. They’re not in a mood to get worked up over national issues. The very best that a TV politician can achieve is to instill in his viewers a feeling of trust. “His politics matter less than the fact that human feelings and emotions are imputed to him which a viewer may sympathetically share .... The figure is judged first as a human being, and only secondarily in terms of his political role and performance.” Kurt Lang, the CBC’s research sociologist, concluded recently.

At the same time, a man who just keeps his mouth moving with evasive generalities can be very quickly exposed by the TV screen as a phony. No amount of charm can save a politician who is reading a ghostwritten speech he doesn’t understand. Television will probably improve the honesty of political speeches. On the hustings a man can make one kind of speech to workers outside a factory gate, and quite a different presentation to the local Chamber of Commerce; on TV he’s got a heterogeneous audience.

Television will also drastically alter political conventions. Lester Pearson is being criticized for his TV address during the national Liberal rally in January, because his gestures and general presentation were tailored to the audience in the Ottawa Coliseum, rather than the much larger viewing public.

John Diefenbaker is better than Pearson on television for the simple reason that the prime minister is an actor, while the Liberal leader is not. Pearson’s personality is the same on the hustings, in his office, and on TV. Diefenbaker has the ability to make a role out of a TV appearance. On the platform his righteous rhetoric can shake the second balcony; on television his lofty diction can genuinely touch his listeners.

Unlike Pearson, Diefenbaker enjoys performing on TV. He recently decided to stop using makeup. “The harsher his face looks under the studio lights, the more he looks like Abraham Lincoln,” said one of his aides with enthusiasm. Because he must appear more subdued between elections, Diefenbaker has recently ■been using a desk, but he’s planning stand-up telecasts for the next election campaign. Allister Grosart, Diefenbaker’s chief television adviser, is a veteran of broadcasting; he was once “Mr. Adventure” in a CBC series he wrote and narrated.

Diefenbaker uses a teleprompter when he’s on the air, but he ad libs a great deal. The teleprompter is a crutch that can have surprising consequences. The tw'o party leaders in last year’s New Brunswick election, for instance, received opposite advice from their Toronto television advisers. Dalton Camp warned Hugh John Flemming, the Conservative leader, against the teleprompter, because the viewers would catch on and resent its use. Louis Robichaud, the Liberal leader, on the other hand, was advised by Ned Belliveau to read his speeches from a teleprompter mounted right above the TV camera, and to look straight into the lens as he talked. Both sides now admit that one of the important factors in Robichaud’s victory was the reaction of the viewers. Flemming emerged as a plodder who had to read what he wanted to tell his people, while young Robichaud was complimented again and again on “the way you knew what you wanted to say on TV, and looked right at me as you said it.”

More and more Ottawa cabinet ministers are saving explanations of important announcements for the CBC’s late national news show, which has an average audience of 1,300,000 viewers. Ministers’ executive assistants actively lobby with CBC reporters for air time, and some ministers pre-film interviews, if they’re planning to break news in speeches at towns that have no TV facilities. One Toronto cabinet minister even manages to get himself on the French TV network by pinning a list of typed answers on the interviewer’s jacket, where viewers can’t see them. Then he glances down at the answers as he’s asked prearranged questions.

Probably Ottawa’s most adroit television performer is Paul Martin, the former minister of health and welfare, who can arrive at the studio with a few figures scribbled on the back of an envelope, launch into a speech, and finish within 10 seconds of his allotted time. Top performers among the Conservative cabinet are George Hees, whose facile charm seems to glow right through the cathode-ray tube, and Alvin Hamilton, minister of agriculture, who, as a former highschool teacher, is trained in explaining serious problems in a high-minded way without being stuffy about it.

In planning their television campaigns for the next general election, the parties are seriously handicapped by Canada’s broadcasting regulations, which prohibit all forms of dramatic presentation in political programs. This provision bans the use of music, cartoons, most film clips and still photographs — in fact just about everything that could make the telecasts interesting. There is mounting pressure to have these rules changed. “We wouldn’t be averse to altering the regulations if we get suitable representations from parliament,” says Caryle Allison, vice-chairman of the Board of Broadcast Governors.

One thing that the Conservatives are determined to resist is the Kennedy-Nixon type of debate that was so influential in the U. S. election campaign. They argue that the situation here is different, because the contenders for the prime ministership are not all outof-office politicians. The CBC offered the parties extra half-hour periods during the last two election campaigns, if they’d put their leaders on for a round-table discussion, but the offer was never taken up. During the next election campaign, television will be especially important for the New Party, as a quick and efficient way of building their leader into a national figure.

Despite the attractions of television, most Canadian politicians still distrust the medium. Even when it’s successful, a TV appearance doesn’t provide the reassurance of being able to hold a clipping in your hand, permanently recording your words and expressions. The politicians agree that television will never wholly replace newspapers and magazines. After all, you can’t swat flies with a TV set.