The Prime Minister and the media

George Bain August 22 1988

The Prime Minister and the media

George Bain August 22 1988

The Prime Minister and the media


George Bain

The town of Comox, one-third the way up the east coast of Vancouver Island from Victoria, holds an annual four-day midsummer festival called Nautical Days, at the end of July and beginning of August. This year, on the holiday Monday, Aug. 1, the guests of honor were Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his family. A space was set aside from which the visitors could watch the parade. The Prime Minister’s media advisers could be content at the thought of pictures that night on home screens across the country showing their about-to-be campaigner enjoying a relaxed summer outing among happy crowds in an attractive setting.

A media event, then, calculatingly arranged for the purpose of gaining low-key publicity for the coming election? Or simply a public appearance of the sort that prime ministers have an obligation to accept because the people, from time to time, have a right to see in person, and to hear from, the leader of their government? Both— with the slight balance of truth probably to the former.

Estimates that several local media people say are about right are that there were 3,000 to 4,000 people out for the festivities when the Mulroneys were there. One reporter, who was situated near where the Mulroneys were seated, says that there were about a dozen sign-carrying young peoplesome quite young teenagers—positioned there in advance and about another dozen older protesters who carried anti-free trade signs and became more active in seeking the attention of the cameras. In total, then, 25 or 30 protesters in a crowd at least 100 times as large.

The first I heard of the Mulroneys’ visit to Nautical Days in Comox, except what I had seen on television and read in the newspapers, was that a national television reporter had told someone, who told someone, who told me, that one of the demonstrators, when asked where he got his placard, said it was at Robert Skelly’s headquarters. Skelly is a senior B.C. New Democrat, in this election joining his brother Raymond Skelly, already an MP, in contesting one of what are now two Comox-area seats.

Robert Skelly flatly denied to me by phone that he or any of his workers had handed out placards to anyone or that

he had organized the demonstration, although he acknowledged readily enough that some, probably most, of the demonstrators were New Democrats—and why not? There was no mystery about the NDP’s being totally opposed to the free trade agreement, which the demonstration mainly was about.

A local newspaper reporter, again by phone, said that he overheard a CBC French national news television reporter, whose name he did not know, say in the wrap-up to his piece that the protest was organized by the NDP. Eventually tracked down, the reporter, Georges Tremel, said he had not said that, although he did comment on the organized opposition that Brian Mulroney could expect anywhere in British Columbia from the closely aligned NDP and labor unions.

Another local reporter, this one in radio, said that the impression he got

Comox demonstrated that raising a stink works—not just on TV but in print, which more and more mindlessly follows

was that the outside media had come to Nautical Days looking for conflict. The way he put it was: “That’s what everybody wanted. You know, ‘Mulroney is hated here and free trade is not wanted.’ That sort of thing.” He added that, watching television news that night, he was surprised to hear that the Prime Minister had been unable to avoid protesters because he himself had been able to get to Mulroney at the hotel across the street, and “if he was unable to avoid the protesters, they would have been there as well.” Evidently, however, there were more signs and shouting at the nearby airport when Mulroney left.

The common impression of the several local people I talked with was that, if not by the NDP, the demonstration certainly was for the NDP—and that it was organized.

At the other end of the country the next day—and no doubt in newspapers across the country in roughly similar terms—the Halifax Chronicle-Herald declared in a six-column flare across a main national news page: “Mulroney unable to avoid anti-free trade demonstrators.” Newsclips on national televi-

sion the night before had featured the same placard-waving demonstrators.

Beneath the headline, the Canadian Press (CP) story from Comox said: “Try as he might, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney couldn’t avoid anti-free trade demonstrators at a parade here Monday. When he arrived at his spot to watch the Nautical Days parade, he was greeted by about 50 people waving placards reading ‘Stop the deal,’ ‘Let Canadians decide’ and ‘The 51st state.’

“ ‘Tell us about the free trade deal,’ one man shouted. ‘Mulroney, tell us about the sellout.’

“The Prime Minister turned his back and worked his way into a friendlier crowd. That didn’t stop Mark Salter, who got past security long enough to ask Mulroney to autograph his stopthe-deal sign. But ‘he didn’t say anything,’ Salter said later. ‘All his goons moved in. And they wouldn’t autograph it either.’ ”

A true picture? In narrow focus, yes. The protesters (although, by local count, fewer than CP estimated) were there, as were the placards and the shouts. And, true, the Mulroneys had been relocated to other seats to get away from the signs being waved in their faces.

But in a broader sense, no: what was reported, both on TV and in print, which had been seduced by the theatre staged for TV, was a distortion of the larger reality. The Prime Minister had spoken only a few words at Comox, but, as reported, the first words spoken at all, except by the protesters, appeared in paragraph 15.

Douglas Fisher’s always astute column in The Toronto Sun, on Aug. 3, was headed “Brutal days on the trail”—a reference to the campaign ahead and the punishment that Brian Mulroney, and to a lesser extent John Turner, faces. This will be at the hands of a media corps seemingly bent on giving Edward Broadbent what Fisher termed “an angelic free ride,” and from union leaders who “have rarely been persuasive arguers or friendly visages through televised exposure” but who have learned to orchestrate street and hall scenes that “raise a stink . . . and make The National.” Fisher wrote that countermeasures might be needed.

What Comox demonstrated, not for the first time, is that raising a stink works—and not just on TV but in print, which more and more mindlessly follows.