MEDIA WATCH

Mulroney and the media hounds

George Bain March 24 1986
MEDIA WATCH

Mulroney and the media hounds

George Bain March 24 1986

Mulroney and the media hounds

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

Ken McCreath, CBC Radio’s national bureau chief in Ottawa, reported from Brian Mulroney’s postbudget swing through the West that the Prime Minister was seeking to escape the Ottawa press corps in hopes of faring better at the hands of a less critical regional press. When I talked to McCreath later by phone, he added that the Prime Minister’s reason for going outside Ottawa was that “he doesn’t want the message filtered through us because he thinks he’s getting a bad shake from us, so therefore if he takes it to the regions, he may get a better shake.” He added, “I am not convinced that he did.”

The idea of the Prime Minister fleeing like Eliza before the hounds is widely enough held in the press gallery to represent the collective wisdom. It is not, therefore, to take a shot particularly at McCreath to say that it is simultaneously self-glorifying and condescending. What it suggests is that the Prime Minister, in order to get away from those infinitely informed, pertinacious fellows (both sexes) in the parliamentary press gallery, has chosen instead to propagandize the less perceptive rubes out in the hinterland.

There are three possibilities at least worth considering that this analysis leaves out of account. One, the Mulroney government may not be wrong in believing that it has had a bad shake from Ottawa media people, including reporters as well as commentators, who have a professional licence to editorialize, whose coverage at times has seemed to reflect not so much judgment as settled hostility. Two, if reporters and editors in the regions find themselves less critical, it does not necessarily follow that their critical faculties have atrophied, that they are not attuned to the nuances of national politics or that they are gormless boobies. Three, other reasons, even more compelling than a desire to get away from the fierce watchdogs of the public good in Ottawa, exist for prime ministers, other cabinet ministers, leaders of the opposition and other parties occasionally to seek platforms away from the capital.

Under the latter heading would come the fact that the House of Commons has been rendered almost irrelevant as a forum for debate on national issues—largely by the media, which do

not cover it. Getting out of Ottawa is not necessarily an escape. The national media go along—as witness the CBC’s McCreath and others on the recent western trip. Where they will not goor at least do not go, except for short clips from Question Period—is to the House of Commons.

So far as I know—and Ivan M. Barclay, chief of the broadcasting service in the House of Commons, could not produce an exception—in all the time the television cameras have been in the House of Commons, no network has ever covered a significant portion of any debate. Budget night coverage of the finance minister’s speech is the closest they come. (To excuse the lack of news coverage of Parliament on the ground that the parliamentary channel on cable TV carries the proceedings intact, or nearly so, would be the same as to excuse print for its neglect by

The idea of the Prime Minister fleeing the press gallery suggests that he has chosen to propagandize the hinterland rubes

saying that Hansard is available to anyone who wants to pick through it.)

In the circumstances, there are attractions to going outside. The speech to, say, the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce will get more attention. It will be covered because it is an event, as distinct from a mere parliamentary occurrence (and the reporters will be on expense accounts). It will get undivided attention because spokesmen of other parties will be left to react to it extemporaneously rather than to deliver their own reasoned (and perhaps better) arguments. It may even be easier to schedule, since any speech in the House of Commons—except in the debate of the speech from the throne and the almost equally unfettered budget debate—must be relevant to some closely defined subject that is before the House at that moment.

Mike Duffy, of the Ottawa bureau of The National on CBC TV, is thoughtful in such matters. He says: “The national media write a story saying that Mulroney insists on talking to the regional media because he is afraid of us, which says that we are the only ones who really know what is going on. I

think there can be a lot of valid reasons for talking to the regional media, including that we tend to be issue-ofthe-day-driven as opposed to issue-ofthe-region-driven. The fact is that Mulroney has been quite available for scrums with the national media. He’s not evading the national media in anything like the way Trudeau did, where he’d hustle in and out doors and totally ignore you. The national media, by constantly writing about how inferior the local reporters are and how this is why Mulroney is going to them, make the locals come into these things loaded for bear and determined ‘we’ll show this guy that we’re just as tough as the nastiest guys in Ottawa.’ And so what you get is a building up of animus in advance. I think that some of this talk about tactics, and how he’s going to get around the national press, and so on, has created a kind of situation in which these regional people feel that they’ve got to be on the job like tigers at his throat or else they’re not doing their job. And that to me is just foolish.”

If that is a justifiable reading of events—I think so—there are interesting implications. Last July, Peter Desbarats, dean of the University of Western Ontario Graduate School of Journalism in London, cited in a column in The Financial Post some figures from an unpublished 1982 survey of 118 national journalists by Prof. Peter Snow of the same school. It showed a strong leaning away from the Conservatives—37 per cent felt themselves closest to the NDP, 17 per cent to the Liberals, 11 per cent to the PCs. Fortythree per cent said that they belonged to the political centre, 42 per cent thought of themselves as being left of centre, four per cent said they were right of centre.

All that is fine and probably unalterable. The Conservatives would be better off to accept it and get on with governing, knowing that no end of trying is going to make them loved in the press gallery. But if we say that this survey reflects reality, what is to be made, then, of the effort by national media people to portray any effort to go around them as somehow discreditable and to stimulate regional media to the same point of view by making them appear weak if they do not react similarly? Doesn’t it smack a little of an effort to stamp a sort of national media thought on the country—to institutionalize pack journalism?