Frontlines

Politicians, the party lines . . . and the press

Robert Lewis May 21 1979
Frontlines

Politicians, the party lines . . . and the press

Robert Lewis May 21 1979

Politicians, the party lines . . . and the press

Frontlines

ELECTION '79

Robert Lewis

Pierre Trudeau’s aides are passing out bottles of beer as the press bus bounces past the hulking fortress of the B.C. Penitentiary, outside New Westminster. The radio on the bus is tuned to the news, and the news is the prime minister: “There is significant anti-Trudeau sentiment in B.C. . . .” the announcer is saying and, without skipping a beat,

Trudeau press aide Pat Gossage cuts in on the PA system: “A spokesman for the prime minister denied the report.”

His banter evokes little reaction from the 40 sullen scribes. It’s not so much that the kibitzing is a playful imitation of reallife press agentry; it’s that this is Saturday, the sun is g breaking out and, one rally 2 just over, another awaits in | Vancouver’s Chinatown. §

Later, there’s a press conference and a nighttime meeting in Terrace, 250 miles up the coast—and 45 days still left in the election campaign.

But the ebullient Gossage, a former TV producer, is undeterred in his attempts at merrymaking. In a mock briefing, he announces: “There will not be a full dragon in Chinatown. I understand that requires 140 people and there aren’t enough Liberals.” Groans and a few chuckles from the back of the bus. “It will be another of our media-hype events.” At last, roars of laughter.

Setting the mood on the bus—not to mention quenching the professional and personal thirsts of roughly 180 reporters and media technicians—is a full-time job as the three leaders careen the skies in their rented jets. Bonecrushing, 14-hour days across the time zones are turned into 80-second snippets on television and printed stories that can be read in three minutes. But if the leaders in the skies are to sustain their political momentum on the ground, it’s vital that the over-all im-

pressions created by these brief reports are positive. That’s where Pat Gossage and his colleagues come in.

Manipulating—sometimes badger-

ing—the messengers is a full-time job in Election ’79 as parties strive to put their best quote forward. The three leaders rarely make a move without consulting their media experts, most of whom have journalistic backgrounds. For Trudeau, press adviser Arnie Patterson is a former Toronto Telegram reporter who now owns a thriving Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, radio station; press secretary Jean Charpentier served Radio-Canada television as an Ottawa and foreign correspondent. For Joe Clark, communications adviser Tim Ralfe is the ex-CBC and CTV Ottawa correspondent who goaded Trudeau into his celebrated “Just watch me” line during the October Crisis of 1970. For the NDP, Ed Broadbent’s executive assistant, Mur-

ray Weppler, is a late-night bon vivant who worked at the Ottawa Citizen, while Press Secretary Peter O’Malley was a student editor for the Canadian University Press.

What the aides advise, mainly, is that their leaders avoid uncontrolled events and stick to their scripts. In Winnipeg during the early weeks of the campaign, Patterson candidly turned aside a reporter’s cynicism about the staging of a Trudeau press conference on a Saturday afternoon—the first opportunity to ask questions about a report that criticized his government’s management of finances five days earlier. “Look,” Patterson conceded disarmingly, “we have a line we want to get out, and we don’t want to scoop ourselves.”

Clark and Broadbent adopt the same stance—the political equivalent of the hit and run. In Toronto, after Clark read a prepared statement on unemployment, an aide cut off reporters’ questions by declaring that “the leader” had another appointment. What he didn’t say was that it was four hours later.

In Halifax, after a tour of the troubled shipyards, O’Malley set up a multimicrophone stand for Broadbent to read a statement with the harbor in the background, then pleaded with reporters to move around to the front so as not to obstruct the pretty view for television. As reporters responded to the statement with questions, adviser Cliff Scotton tugged on Broadbent’s sleeve, literally pulling him away, and O’Malley shouted: “The bus is leaving.” Because of skimpy resources, Créditiste Fabien Roy is the only leader without a plane. He was so dismally organized for the party’s first rally that paid employees from an ad agency—not loyal volunteers—distributed copies of the party’s program. Planned “photo opportunities” were scotched when fac-

Frontlines

tory managers refused to admit photographers. There was one unfortunate exception: Roy was filmed in an abattoir as freshly slaughtered pigs, dripping blood, moved behind him on meat hooks. Before the week was out, Roy fired his advance man.

Few such problems have marred the smooth travels of the other leaders. In contrast to Clark’s world tour, when he was at the mercy of scheduled commercial carriers, his leased plane is a model of business efficiency. Little wonder, since the tour group consists of a core of some 40 executives who have volunteered their services to the Tories for j every campaign, provincial and federal, since Premier William Davis’s election in 1971.

The Liberals, ironically, are even more obsessed with luggage. Two assistants from Trudeau’s office are detailed, full-time, to pick up bags inside rooms—using pass keys, they tiptoe in j while journalists are still asleep—two hours before the usual 9 a.m. departure time. (Conservative and, of course, NDP i staffers and reporters carry their own bags.) At last report, only one bag had been misplaced on the Liberal tour, that of Globe and Mail columnist Geoffrey j Stevens. “But we got it back within an hour-and-a-half,” boasted an aide. In j Quebec, where meetings are mostly in j French, Charpentier pulls out a pad and makes notes for the numerous English reporters who can’t follow the proceed: ings. Sometimes the attempts at assistI ance and fellowship go beyond the call of duty. In Nanaimo, B.C., during an j impromptu Frisbee toss at the airport,

! Pat Gossage broke his elbow trying to retrieve the disc from the top of the Liberal’s press bus. He was back with the tour the next day, his right arm in a ! cast.

Why do they bother to coddle the ! press, to watch the luggage, to see that the orange juice, champagne and croisI sants are ready at takeoff? For starters, j the close attention is a practical way of j ensuring that 40 to 60 people are on time for the dentist-like schedules of : the party leaders. But there is, as well, the subliminal drive by the parties to suggest that if they can run an efficient national tour, they can also wrestle inflation to the ground.

For the dozen regulars who stay with ; one leader throughout a campaign, the plane, almost literally, becomes a home on the road. On Trudeau’s DC-9 there is an informal system of self-assigned seating as reporters plaster walls with their names and pictures. Typically, Standard Broadcasting’s Jim Munson, whose reports are carried by 57 stations, slipped back into his seat after a

long day out on the land and sighed: “It’s good to be home again.”

Sometimes the enforced familiarity between staffers and reporters can breed contempt—as Munson knows. In the second week of the campaign, fellow Maritimer Patterson offered Munson an unspecified sum of money to tape and edit voice clips of Trudeau speeches. The Liberals planned to send them to private radio stations which don’t have their own staffers on the tour. Outraged, Munson refused the offer and told the story to the rest of the press corps.

The Liberals and New Democrats at least make an effort to mingle with the press, even if the mission sometimes is misinformation. Conservative aides, in contrast, travel on a separate bus on the ground and, on the plane, isolate themselves up front. Broadbent is the only leader who has strolled the aisles regularly from the beginning of the campaign, cigar in hand, ready to talk to the press. Trudeau usually works alone on the plane at a front-row desk. Clark began by granting interviews in a separate compartment aboard his plane but by the fifth week of the campaign, Tory campaign manager Lowell Murray sensed that the party was taking the heat for a Saran-Wrapped strategy. Clark promptly accepted the television debate and held a news conference. The Tory leader, gaining confidence, also started strolling the aisles occasionally in his yellow Perry Como cardigan, chatting with the press. And he even joined a singsong on a long flight from Sydney, N.S., to Toronto.

The Liberals’ Patterson (left) chats up a reporter; Broadbent and wife Lucille on the NDP plane: home on the trail

For outright chumminess, nothing matches the Broadbent plane. Perhaps because reporters realize there is less at stake, the atmosphere is often reminiscent of a teen-agers’ clubhouse. Their stories are not necessarily softer, although sometimes they are. The importance is that never before has an NDP leader’s press entourage been so big and, although Broadbent campaigns at half the speed of the other leaders, he gets roughly equivalent news coverage. The good-humor man of the tour is not a Broadbent staffer but Standard’s Fred Ennis, a gregarious broadcaster who runs a weekly limerick contest, reads a daily bulletin of plane social notes over the PA system and assigns seats to new reporters joining the tour. In its selfdescribed “campaign of issues,” the NDP

is not above the occasional flimflam. In St. John’s, on the night of a key planning meeting in Ottawa for the television debates, Broadbent adviser Scotton boarded the press bus and asserted that “technical objections” from Conservatives had ended the negotiations. What Scotton didn’t say in his briefing—although he had been told—was that another meeting on the debate had been scheduled four days later. By the time that fact was known, Broadbent already had scored his media points by denouncing Clark.

Since the parties are spending more than $10 million on their national campaigns for the hearts of Canadians, it is hardly surprising that they take some shortcuts of the mind. Joe Clark, a former reporter himself, could have been speaking for all the leaders when he once allowed to reporters: “Quite honestly, you people come prepared with your own news angles. And I’d like to have a few of my own.”^