Once the angry man of Canadian politics, Stephen Harper is suddenly cheerful, and that’s driving the press corps his direction
BY JOAN BRYDEN • Stephen Harper, we’re told by reporters covering the Conservative leader’s national campaign tour, is a changed man. The formerly media-shy (or downright hostile) Harper smiles more. He ventures to the back of the plane to kibitz with reporters and patiently answers their questions. In short, he no longer seems to regard them as the enemy.
What’s going on? An analysis from McGill University of newspaper coverage of the federal election thus far shows a surprising trend: the former angry man of Canadian politics may have won over the media. Since the second week of the campaign, overall coverage of Harper has been considerably more positive than that of Paul Martin. What’s more, on nine of the 10 top issues, Harper has won better reviews than his chief rival. “Basically, Harper moved from the bottom of the pack [in the first week] to the top of the pack very quickly and has managed to stay there, whereas Martin has been kind of bumbling along at the bottom,” said Stuart Soroka, co-director of McGill University’s Observatory on Media and Public Policy, which is monitoring newspaper coverage throughout the campaign.
The OMPP, whose findings are being carried by Maclean’s, has tracked some 2,000 reports and opinion pieces in seven major Canadian dailies: the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, La Presse and Le Devoir. It rates each article as positive, negative or neutral and then subtracts the percentage of negative articles from the percentage of positive articles to arrive at the “net tone” of coverage for each leader and party. Ordinarily, Soroka said he’d expect coverage of all the leaders to be “mildly negative,” given that editorials and columns during a campaign generally amount to critiques of policies, strategy or character. He said it’s striking that Harper has cumulatively scored a neutral net tone of zero, as has Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe. The New Democratic Party’s Jack Layton is not far behind, with a net tone of -l per cent. For Martin, once the darling of the mainstream press, the honeymoon is definitely over. He has scored a cumulative net tone of -12 per cent. Similarly, the Conservative party and NDP have each scored a net tone of zero, while the Bloc has done only moderately worse with a net tone of -3 per cent. The Liberals, like their leader, have fared the worst, with a net tone of -14 per cent.
On the issues, too, the news is grim for Martin. As the parties entered the crucial final stretch, Soroka said he’s struck that “the three most salient issues.. .are the issues that the Liberals are getting killed on.” In the first week of the new year, the OMPP found that corruption or government accountability and ethics soared to the top of the list of issues covered, driven by the recendy launched criminal investigation into possible insider trading involving Finance Minister Ralph Goodale. On corruption/ethics in general, the Liberals scored a net tone of -25 per cent, compared with -1.4 per cent for the Conservatives, -1.3 per cent for the NDP and 2.4 per cent for the Bloc. On coverage of the income trust and sponsorship scandals specifically, the Liberals scored a net tone of-15 per cent, with the Conservatives trailing at -4.6 per cent.
Crime was the second most frequently covered issue, fuelled by the fatal Boxing Day shooting of a teenager in downtown Toronto. On this, the Liberals earned a net tone of -25.3 per cent, the Conservatives 1.8 per cent and the NDP zero. And on social programs, the Liberals rated a net tone of-17-4 per cent, the Conservatives five per cent and the NDP 1.4 per cent. The Bloc was not mentioned in enough articles on either crime or social programs on which to base a net tone.
The Conservatives also enjoyed significantly more positive coverage on the economy, health care, national unity and taxes. Only on same-sex marriage did the Liberals (-7-9 per cent) do better than the Tories (-12 per cent). M
ON THE WEB: For more details on the OMPP media tracking report, visit www.macleans.ca/ election2006
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