MEDIA WATCH

The media’s role in the GST ‘chaos’

Post-New Year’s stories saying that Canadians were at sea about the GST were not so much news as a massive admission of failure

GEORGE BAIN January 21 1991
MEDIA WATCH

The media’s role in the GST ‘chaos’

Post-New Year’s stories saying that Canadians were at sea about the GST were not so much news as a massive admission of failure

GEORGE BAIN January 21 1991

The media’s role in the GST ‘chaos’

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

Post-New Year’s stories saying that Canadians were at sea about the GST were not so much news as a massive admission of failure

Borden Spears, who had been senior consultant to Senator Keith Davey’s committee on mass media, and one of the principal authors of its 1970 report, wrote some years later as ombudsman at The Toronto Star of the criterion that had been established by that committee—“that the best measure of an effective press is how well it prepares the public for the dislocations of social change.” He did so in passing, in responding to the published criticism of Grant Maxwell, a self-styled “social journalist,” that the media failed to prepare Canadians for “any kind of political-economic changes beyond fine-tuning.” Spears neither fully accepted nor rejected the criticism, but said that it reflected one of two views of the function of the press: “He [Maxwell] sees it as initiator and agent of radical change. The press sees itself rather as interpreter and forecaster, not as prime mover.” Where Spears felt that left the media in relation to the criterion he had helped establish—did the media get a passing or a failing grade?—he did not say. Neither did he try in the space of a short column to define the sort of social change the media should be in the business of preparing Canadians for, except obliquely by appearing to accept as a sort of start line “political-economic changes beyond fine-tuning.” Surely, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) would now fit within that, especially as part of a package incorporating privatizations and efforts to raise revenues and cut expenditures in pursuit of a national debt reduced to manageable proportions.

The Davey committee’s criterion enjoyed some mild favor among the Ottawa media at the time. Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s was relatively ebullient. Change, or talk of change, was in fashion and everything seemed possible. Now, the idea that readiness to prepare the public for change might constitute the best measure of media effectiveness sounds quaint. More often, the purpose of the news pages of the newspapers and the news reporting on the nightly television news shows

seems designed instead to create resistance and to blunt any nascent sense of realism that would lead to the conclusion that change might even be necessary.

(Here it is necessary to note a particular Canadian media phenomenon: that editorial writers and columnists in newspapers and their equivalents elsewhere, the people with a mandate for opinion, nowadays are often more objective in their analysis of events than their colleagues filling the supposedly unopinionated news spaces. As the news is at least skimmed by more people, the constant reiteration there of any slant is likely to have wider effect than anything said by the so-called opinion-makers, who appeal to more specialized audiences.)

Had the media set out to demonstrate how little they had prepared the public for the “dislocations” of the GST, they scarcely could have done better than to have run so many stories the day it came into effect declaring the country awash in “confusion” and “chaos.” At least one editorialist complacently blamed the government’s information services, which may even have been blameworthy—in part. But two facts are not to be evaded. First, there is the fact that it is the proclaimed mission of the media to inform, which presumably means to eliminate

confusion and chaos on public questions. Second, the GST had been a long time in the public domain, more than enough in which to have its salient features thoroughly understood, which would have meant less dramatization—of, for instance, the outbreak of insanity in the Senate—and more elucidation. Given those facts, the post-New Year’s stories saying that Canadians were all at sea about it represented not so much news as a massive admission of failure.

A lot has changed since 1970 when Davey’s committee confidently laid down its criterion. Most particularly what has changed is that the adversarial approach of the media in Canada to government has hardened to the point of becoming nearly undiscriminating. It is not necessarily what government does that matters, but that government does it. Along with that, the news pages have become more opinionated, not necessarily openly, but often through the device of the reporter regularly turning for comment to persons whose known views accord with his or her own. Third, there has arisen a sort of journalism of gratification, which accepts as practice that what “the street” wants, as indicated by polls or by simple reporter divination, “the street” is going to get.

One result of those changes, and others, is that, to the two views of journalism to which Borden Spears referred—the media as initiators, or agents, of change, and the media simply as interpreters and forecasters—must be added a third. That is the media as opponent, adversarial not just in the sense of being alert to the mistakes and excesses of government, but adversarial to the point of feeding resentments. Some of that was evident in the coverage of the long GST wrangle. The routine prefacing of the very name or initials with such adjectives as “unpopular,” “controversial,” and even “hated,” “despised” and “dreaded,” could only be expected to reinforce prejudice against a measure that was never destined, being a tax, to be greeted with hosannas. But declare anything unpopular often enough, and the likelihood is that people will settle for saying that they hate it, rather than bother to try to understand it.

In September, 1989, and in January and November, 1990, Gallup Canada Inc. put nearly identical questions to polling samples: Are you in favor of replacing the manufacturers sales tax with a new national goods and services tax? Notwithstanding that the proposed rate for the GST went down to seven per cent from nine after the first poll, the numbers opposed went up from 72 per cent, to 74 per cent, to 76 per cent. (The parliamentary opposition was saying in the late stages that 85 per cent of Canadians were opposed.)

The specific question Spears considered from the Grant Maxwell book was “the competence of the mass media to meet the challenges of the next decade.” In the pinched 1990s, when paying the interest on the national debt will consume $41 billion in 1990-1991, onethird of all the revenue Ottawa takes in, the question is whether they are realistic enough to accept the nature of the challenges of a quite different time and not foster the illusion that ugly facts can be wished out of existence.