Guest Column

Why should television control elections?

Stewart MacLeod September 9 1996
Guest Column

Why should television control elections?

Stewart MacLeod September 9 1996

Why should television control elections?

Guest Column

Stewart MacLeod

With a federal election call probable within a year, this is becoming urgent: we must, somehow, wrest control of the campaign away from television and back into the hands of the people. It won’t be easy. Federal election campaigns, over the past 30 years, have become such made-for-TV events that the public’s role has been reduced to that of studio audience. But now that the courts have upheld a partial ban on pre-election opinion polling, could we not pray for a similar ban on television coverage?

Just think of the joys. Why, we could force political parties to return to live rallies. There could once again be live jazz bands. We could get back to those evening appearances by political leaders on the West Coast—now a definite no-no because of missed TV coverage in the East. Good Lord, we could conceivably see our party leaders engage hecklers. And, with a bit of luck, might once again see a leader marched into the arena by a drunken piper.

We don’t stand a chance with today’s thinking. The 30-second TV bite has become so central to political strategists that nothing, absolutely nothing, is done without deciding how, and when, it’s going to be played on the tube. Ah ha, if we get Mr. Chrétien flipping pancakes in Penticton at 3 p.m., we can make the late-night news in the East. And if we get Preston Manning whacking the Prime Minister at 8:37 p.m. in Winnipeg, there’ll be no opportunity for a TV reply until tomorrow.

God forbid that we expose our precious leaders to hecklers. You never know how TV will play it, perhaps just showing our man— or woman—looking embarrassed.

Far cry from the day when Tommy Douglas, working towards the leadership of the New Democratic Party, stood on a platform in Crystal Lake, Sask., to face shouts from a big-bellied Tory on the floor. “I could swallow you in one bite,” the big boy roared.

“If you did,” shot back the diminutive politician, “you’d have far more brains in your stomach than you have in your head.”

That’s the real stuff of political campaigns, not the contrived sound and sight bites designed specifically for late-night news. Those adoring fans clustered around a hamburger-tossing leader are not real voters, subject to conversion, they’re card-carrying supporters. And, the reason you never see a modern-day political leader at a skating rink, as in days of yore, is because TV might show empty seats—a devastating display. Every hall must overflow. Size doesn’t matter.

There was a time, according to ancient ancestors, when party leaders actually debated openly in public. Now, it’s their strategists who

do the debating—over the format of an on-again off-again television debate. Meanwhile, the network is debating about the format of a post-debate discussion by a politically correct cross-section of “ordinary” Canadians who will explain what it all meant to them. Without drastic interventions, it’s only a question of time before we allow one of those dreadful TV “town-hall meetings” to vote on our behalf.

We must insist on public involvement. For the sake of our sanity, not to mention our sense of humor, we must get back to the days when political leaders risked life and limb before packed audiences—even if they occasionally forgot the name of the candidate they came to support.

“I want you to support my good friend Chester McLure,” said John Diefenbaker, to a Fredericton audience. His good friend sat beside him, trying to make the best of it. Trouble was, his name was Chester McRae. Diefenbaker’s predecessor, Louis SaintLaurent, was even more embarrassed in Ontario’s Bruce County back in 1957, seeking support for “my dear friend, Mr. Brown.” Oops, wrong color. The red-faced candidate was Mr. Blue.

But Lester Pearson, back in the days before TelePrompting, outdid them all in Burnaby/Richmond when he not only slipped up on the name of the Liberal candidate, he actually named an opponent—the NDP’s Bob Prittie. Prittie, no doubt flushed with appreciation, easily won the riding.

You see, these things don’t happen any more. Just as the pollsters took the excitement out of election night, party strategists and TelePrompTers have taken the fun out of campaigns.

Hard to believe it’s been 34 years since the Doukhobor women did their strip act in front of Diefenbaker in Trail, B.C. It would indeed be interesting to see how one of today’s leaders would handle the situation. But Dief had no problems. “Anyone raised on a Saskatchewan homestead knows all about this,” he said. Then, raising a disdainful finger towards the press table, he said: ‘Try to contain yourselves; don’t rush to the front.”

And we shouldn’t forget the time in Prince Albert when, in the middle of a rousing anti-Liberal tirade, a section of the plaster roof fell in front of Dief. Without missing a beat, he said: ‘Though Heaven fall, let justice be done.”

Back in 1962, then-Social Credit Leader Robert Thompson received this generous telegraphed offer from his friend, the Emperor of Ethiopia: “Can send you two million voters if you provide transport.”

“Appreciate your offer,” was the telegraphed reply, “but sufficient aircraft not available on such short notice.”

As Thompson said during that campaign: “These are the friends, my facts.”

When campaigning was fun.

Without TV, we could go back to live political ralbes. We might even see leaders having to face hecklers again.

Allan Fotheringham is on assignment. Stewart MacLeod is an Ottawa columnist for Issues Network.