Scrummed Out

John Geddes April 24 2000

Scrummed Out

John Geddes April 24 2000

Scrummed Out


A peculiarly Canadian media tradition has resulted in some unpleasant surprises for the Liberals

John Geddes

Paul Martin had been through the drill hundreds of times before. The finance minister emerged from a routine meeting, put on his game face and walked into a half-circle of reporters. But on March 16, in Ottawa’s blandly modern Westin hotel, something went terribly wrong. The topic of the day could not have surprised him: political circles were buzzing with the news that his closest advisers had met a few days earlier with a group of supportive MPs to discuss Prime Minister Jean Chrétiens refusal to retire and let their man take over. Yet Martin seemed not to have rehearsed any good lines. “My staff meets with members of caucus all the time,” was the best he could muster. “It’s the way we developed the budget; it’s the way we basically sell the budget.”

To the uninitiated, that listless response, delivered at 10:33 a.m., might have sounded pat enough. But the veteran reporters holding out their tape recorders to catch his words smelled blood. A secret gathering of Martin’s inner circle with MPs known to be anxious for Chrétien to step down could not be shrugged off as a budget policy seminar. Martin was being disingenuous, and a media scrum, while a clumsy mechanism for gathering complex information, can be deadly efficient when it comes to catching a dissembling politician. In this sense, the rugby connotation of the word “scrum”—uniquely Canadian in its application to a politician confronting journalists—is misleading. Two balanced sides are not squaring off. Consider the shape of the thing: it’s more like a leg-hold trap waiting to be sprung.

Next question: “But, Mr. Martin, at these meetings, are MPs normally given polling data by your supporters about how you would do if you were prime minister?” Now Martin began to sound hesitant, stammering slightly. “I don’t know what went on at this particular meeting,” he said. “The question is, do they get polling data, for instance, on the budget?. . .” Well, no, that wasn’t the question. And so the feeding frenzy was on as Martin awkwardly tried to escape—another high-profile Liberal who has recently been left twisting in the glare of the TV lights.

According to experts in scrum technique—media consultants whose role in politics combines drama teacher and martial-arts coach—Martin showed bad form in trying to substitute his own question for the one posed. “You have to answer the question,” declares Bill Fox, author of Spin Wars: Politics and New Media and former press secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney. “You don’t have to accept the characterization of the question, but the scrum is an information exchange.” In other words, Martin caused his own downfall, as did Fluman Resources Minister Jane Stewart earlier this year in another embarrassing moment for the Liberals.

The notion that the way to escape a scmm unscathed is to pretend the awkward questions haven’t been asked is a common tactical error. Stewart may never live down the scrum, early in the controversy over mismanagement of grants in her department, in which she spent more than seven minutes doggedly ignoring virtually every question put to her when she emerged from a cabinet meeting. The clumsiness of that attempt to stay “on message” was compounded when Chrétien stepped up to relieve her. Stewart insists the Prime Minister was merely passing by—not sent out, as some reports said, by his handlers to cut her ofF. “Sometimes, circumstances conspire against a person,” Stewart told Macleans. “The Prime Minister was trying to get out for lunch.”

Location can be everything when it comes to staging a scrum. Stewart had no choice about hers; the cabinet room she was leaving is next to the Prime Minister’s office in Parliament’s Centre Block. Two designated spots for post-cabinet-meeting scrums are roped off in the corridor outside—so it is plausible that Chrétien was merely ducking out for a bite when he appeared like the cavalry at Stewart’s side. But the appearance of being sent to the showers by the boss made for a dramatic TV clip. The moment, which seemed to sum up Stewarts

woes, was broadcast live on CBC Newsworld, then frequently replayed. In the age of 24-hour TV news, the rare scrum that offers that sort of motion and drama has far more impact than the even rarer one that conveys vital new information.

Most often, politicians can decide where to face the cameras. Savvy media advisers urge them to choose their spots carefully to avoid such uncontrollable events as random passers-by disrupting the scrum. Even more crucial than avoiding traffic, Fox says, is what he calls “access and egress” planning. “You have to know how you are going to get into the scrum and how you are going to get out,” he says, adding with emphasis, “at a time of your choosing.”

Martin did not have a plan for swiff egress that day at the Westin. About three long minutes into the scmm, he’d had enough. But instead of being positioned under a hallway exit sign, say, for a clean getaway, he was stationed at the top of three flights of escalators leading down to the lobby. So, at around 10:36 a.m., he began a descent so tortured it might have come straight out of Dante. The hot TV lights stayed on as reporters poked him with questions. Almost immediately, Martin made an amateurish mistake. From the escalator, obviously irritated, he turned and insisted: “I answered the questions.” The chorus responded: “No you didn’t.” Insiders who have watched Martin at close range for years were surprised at this miscue. “He’s usually quite good at setting the parameters for a scrum,” says John Burke, a vice-president with the Ottawa-based firm Thornley Fallis Communications and a former senior parliamentary reporter for Global TV news. “Even before the first question, he’ll often say, ‘I just want to say....’ He establishes how long he wants to stay there and when he wants to leave.”

Not this time. By shouting back at the massed media, Martin invited a moving scrum, which can take on a life of its own. Spin doctors cringe at the very thought of one. Many can still call to mind that defining set-piece scene from the troubled first term of the Mulroney government: the disgraced minister—a Sinclair Stevens or a Robert Coates—fleeing a huge mob of journalists. Fox puts it almost as a maxim: “You always look bad mnning down a flight of stairs.”

High-profile members of the Chrétien cabinet have been left twisting in the bright glare of the television lights

To avoid just that sort of mayhem, the daily scmms in the foyer outside the House of Commons after Question Period have evolved over many years into a more controlled affair. Don Newman, senior parliamentary editor of CBC TV and Newsworld and host of Newsworld s daily Politics, says the big transition happened around 1970, when politicians stopped speaking slowly for the benefit of the reporters from the papers scribbling notes and began talking faster in order to look less stilted for the TV cameras. Starting in 1985, stationary pool microphones, called “unimikes,” were positioned in the foyer. Today, each of three unimikes has a wedge marked out on the floor in front of it. The cameras shoot in from the open end of the V, the politician stands at the pointed end, and the reporters line up along the sides. Once a politician turns heel to go, the journalists rarely follow.

The institutional aura and tug of tradition make the foyer hard to bypass. Journalists from Britain and the United States are amazed at the frequency of direct access to top politicians in Parliament. “The concept of ministers being available every day at a certain place just doesn’t exist in London,” says David Ljunggren, who spent four years covering the British government before moving to Ottawa last year to cover Canadian politics for the Reuters news agency. Burke, meanwhile, despises scrums—calling them “the most uncivilized exchange between media and politicians that could exist”—but still considers the post-Question Period encounters an unavoidable responsibility. His most basic advice to clients who must perform in the foyer: “No matter where the questions come from, face the camera.” Fox echoes that emphasis: “Go right to the camera, like you’re not afraid.” He also urges politicians not to try to size up individual journalists in the scmm as “friend or foe,” and instead think only of speaking direcdy to a Canadian voter tuning in at home.

For a politician in a jam, though, a scrum can be so suffocating that formulating a message for the outside world can be impossible. Remember former solicitor general, now ordinary MP, Andy Scott? Back in the fall of 1998, Scott was under fire for a private conversation on an airplane in which he allegedly prejudged the outcome of the inquiry into the RCMP’s handling of protesters at the previous year’s Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vancouver. In a prolonged foyer scrum that led to his resignation, Scott seemed pinned down like an entomologist’s specimen. He had little more to offer than assertions that he could not remember what he might have said only a few days before. “When I say that I do not

recall, I don’t recall,” he pleaded at one point. A reporter asked if he had been recently hit on the head with a rock.

No question so unnervingly rude was put to Martin at the Westin. But as the pack followed him, its tone grew piercingly insistent. Just after 10:37 a.m., Martin paused, between escalators, to try to calm things down. “I have made it very clear that what we are looking for as a party is the development of policy,” he intoned. “That’s what this is all about.” Nobody was buying that. By 10:38 a.m., he was back on the escalator, but still talking. “I have made it incredibly clear, OK. My position. I respect Mr. Chrétiens decision and I intend to run again.” Martin was still ducking repeated questions about whether he was ready to tell MPs loyal to him to halt all activities that might seem designed to push Chrétien out, but he was edging closer to direcdy addressing the leadership issue the reporters were pressing him on.

By then, however, no matter how forthright Martin became, he would still look evasive on TV. “The visuals couldn’t have been worse,” admitted one Martin aide. And there would be no chance to repair the damage: CBC Newsworld quickly put Martins ragged retreat on the air, and repeated it through the day. Newman defends live or almost immediate broadcasts of scrums: “People have a right to see what politicians are like under pressure.” Any hankering for the old days, he says, when scrums provided quotes for written stories, not images for round-the-clock television, is empty nostalgia. “It’s like saying that we shouldn’t have developed the automobile,” he says, “because it led to car accidents.”

Martin’s car wreck finally stopped rolling over in the Westin’s ground-floor lobby, where he composed himself. “Is everybody here?” he asked as the reporters closed around him again at 10:39 a.m. “If you want to know what happened at the meeting, you should talk to the people who were there,” he said. “As to the other question, individual MPs are elected; they speak for themselves. I speak for myself. My position is very clear. Mr. Chrétien has the entire right to make his own decision and I respect that decision.” (He pronounced each of the last four words separately: I. Respect. That. Decision.) Then he repeated himself in French, and broke free. It was nearly nine minutes after the scrum began. On the unedited CBC videotape, the last thing heard is reporters bursting into laughter. They couldn’t believe how well this one went.