BACKSTAGE

Why Diefenbaker thinks the press is against him

IN OTTAWA

Peter C. Newman May 19 1962
BACKSTAGE

Why Diefenbaker thinks the press is against him

IN OTTAWA

Peter C. Newman May 19 1962

Why Diefenbaker thinks the press is against him

BACKSTAGE

IN OTTAWA

Peter C. Newman

A distillation of all the frantic elements that make up the current election campaign reveals a major differcnce between the Grits’ and Tories’ approach to the arduous task of wooing voters. Most simply expressed, the difference boils down to this fundamental question: can more votes be won by political education, or political persuasion?

In their appeal to the country, the Liberals are attempting to teach Canadians how to recognize the defects of the Diefenbaker regime, while at the same time trying to educate them in the value of Pearson’s election promises. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are convinced that it’s political persuasion that really counts.

Ihe chief aim of the l iberal educational program is to inculcate in voters a feeling of such violent dissatisfaction with the Diefenbaker years, that they'll feel some sense of personal gain by casting their ballots for Pearson. Tory strategists are concentrating on only one thing; trying to convince the country’s ten million electors that John Diefenbaker is the man best suited to be prime minister of Canada. “The decision of the voters on June 18,” says one of the Conservative Party’s chief planners, “won’t be made on the basis of the Coyne affair, the state of Canada’s trade balance. General McNaughton’s second thoughts on the Columbia, or our schizophrenia over the Common Market — not any one of these things. What most people say to themselves when they get behind the curtains of the polling booth, is: ‘Do I entrust the next four years to Diefenbaker or Pearson?' ”

Nobody really know's, of course, exactly what it is that motivates people to vote one way or another. After all, the vast majority of electors who cast ballots for a particular party have nothing much to gain, except perhaps the satisfaction of being on the winning side. Voting is an emotional outlet not dissimilar to betting—beefed up by the feeling of having had some minute say about who forms the next government. But all the surveys of electoral behavior do show that the “image” which the voter has of the party leader is a cardinal factor in deciding his vote.

This “image” of party leaders is largely formed by the treatment they receive from the nation's news media. That’s why no single factor has been worrying Ottawa’s Tory strategists more than the realization that John Diefenbaker went into this campaign with singularly sour press relations.

The marked deterioration of the prime minister’s personal popularity with many reporters in the parliamentary press gallery is in sharp contrast to the 1957 and 1958 campaigns, when it seemed that most Ottawa correspondents regarded John Diefenbaker not so much as the Conservative candidate, but as their personal idol. During the sixteen years he spent in Ottawa as an opposition backbencher, Diefenbaker made many friends in the Gallery. He seldom went for a trip without sending reporters postcards describing his journeys, and often entertained correspondents in his centre-town apartment. There are few reporters who didn’t owe him at least one favor for being tipped off on a news break affecting their home towns. Just about all the stories written about him in those days were favorable portraits of an admirable underdog, fighting the arrogance of The Establishment. This friendly, casual relationship held during the brief 1957-58 parliamentary session, but declined soon afterwards.

“The main trouble,” says one veteran Gallery newsman, “is that after Diefenbaker became prime minister he expected that his past friendships with reporters would prevent them from criticizing his performance. He can’t understand that good newspapermen won’t let personal feelings interfere with their objectivity. At the same time, the reporters feel betrayed, because he no longer shares his confidences with them. Of course, he can’t, no prime minister can; the office necessarily formalizes human relationships.”

Diefenbaker feels so strongly that the press has deliberately turned against him that he recently told a friend he thought the really effective opposition

during the past five years had come, not from the Liberal Party, but from the reporters on Parliament Hill. During a meeting of the P.C. Association of Toronto last January, he complained bitterly about “the servile press which day in and day out preaches the doctrine that we in Canada are economically not making the advancement we should.” By election eve, the feelings between the country’s political press and the prime minister had deteriorated to such a degree that some Ottaw'a correspondents were convinced Diefenbaker was trying deliberately to goad reporters into intemperate criticism so that he could appeal to the electors' sympathy as the victim of a spiteful press that deliberately distorts all the good he has tried to do.

Much of the resentment felt by Ottawa correspondents against the prime minister has been prompted by his habit of holding exclusive press briefings with reporters of the Ottawa Journal and the Toronto Telegram—-the two papers that have unquestionably supported most of his moves. This has placed other reporters at an insurmountable disadvantage; so much so, in fact, that to know' what the prime minister is thinking, most Ottawa correspondents have resorted to reading the dispatches of the Telegram and the Journal, instead of attempting to seek interviews themselves. The same preferential treatment has been shown by the prime minister in picking the reporters who have accompanied him on his many official trips outside Ottawa. Instead of following the former Gallery tradition of placing a number of names in a hat and picking the winners, the same retinue of cronies has been invited on most of the prime minister’s important journeys.

Paradoxically, while the prime minister’s press relations have been degenerating, most of his ministers have enjoyed excellent rapport with reporters. George Hees, Howard Green, Alvin Hamilton, Michael Starr, Ellen Fairclough, Davie Fulton and George Nowlan have been particularly approachable.

One reason why the ministers have improved their press relations is that the number of aides whose job it is, among other things, to maintain the minister’s personal relations with reporters, has almost doubled, since the Conservative administration took office to a grand total of seventy-five.

Any recent improvement that has taken place in the press relations of the prime minister’s office has been due to the appointment, last April, of John Fisher. the well-known promoter of Canadian tourism, as Diefenbaker’s special assistant. Although dealing with the press is not Fisher’s prime responsibility, he has at least made the office (if not the man) far more accessible. Although there was considerable doubt expressed at the time of his appointment whether two vivid personalities like Fisher and Diefenbaker would get along, Fisher has fitted into his job as if he’d been doing it all his life. He is rapidly becoming recognized as one of the prime minister’s chief confidants, a distinction he has earned by virtue of the fact that unlike some of Diefenbaker’s political advisers, he has no special causes to plead.

One of the accomplishments that Gallery reporters attribute to Fisher’s influence has been the recent increase in the number of the prime minister’s press conferences. These meetings have been useful, even though the actual news they’ve produced has been marginal. Diefenbaker likes to turn the conferences into cross-examining sessions, invariably giving enough of an answer to be formally satisfactory without ever opening himself to a new question which might go further than the first. He seems to regard the occasion as a contest of wits between himself and reporters, loves to taunt them if they make a factual mistake in their questions and sometimes to ridicule a particular questioner, though without venom.

“The PM's sole criterion for measuring how he’s going to respond to press criticism,” says one of Diefenbaker’s close advisers, "is to put himself in the place of the man on the street and view its effects from that vantage point.” The prime minister often paraphrases Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his associates by saying: “There are more votes on Main Street than Bay Street.”

Diefenbaker realizes that every Canadian prime minister has two separate reputations: the “professional prestige,” that exists in Ottawa among the men who spend their days working in close contact with him; and the “popular prestige” which is the image the Canadian public at large has of him.

During the last two decades of the Liberal regime, the “professional prestige” of Louis St. Laurent and Mackenzie King was very high, while their “public prestige” was eroding away. According to some of his closest advisers, Diefenbaker regards the maintenance of such professional esteem not only as unnecessary. but actually as dangerous. He believes that Ottawa professionals tend to be aloof from the palpable goings-on that touch, in a vital way, the private lives of the average Canadian. He is far more interested in fashioning the image of himself as a man capable of reflecting regional aspirations and local idiosyncracies in his public posture.

To gauge how this image is being projected he regularly reads eight daily newspapers (the three Toronto papers, the Montreal Gazette, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Prince Albert Herald, The Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times). Eight women are employed full-time in the prime minister’s office preparing a daily ration of clippings for him from other newspapers and magazines. These clippings are digested in astounding detail. During one recent press conference. Diefenbaker chided one reporter for having described his scheme for increased university grants as a mere bookkeeping entry. “You called it that in the second line of your first paragraph,” he said. Then another reporter asked him whether he thought he was being given adequate treatment in the press. "That,” said the prime minister, rather testily, “all depends on your definition of the word ‘adequate.’ ” ^