Death by media line

I’ve been watching the endless federal election campaign with some interest, but also with a certain degree of ennui. Sure, the Duffy trial and the refugee crisis have served to shake up the proceedings somewhat, but the sense that I am listening to a series of audio tracks playing endless loops is overwhelming. I am not hearing so much a debate as a cacophony of everyone’s carefully pre-packaged, pre-tested, focus-group-approved, talking points.

Politicians planning out what they’re going to say it and saying it is as old as the political arts themselves. A couple of decades ago, we called the canned “news” the parties would dish out during campaigns the “Gainesburger” of the day; just enough meat to keep the hungry media wolves satiated.

Putting the incumbent or frontrunner in a bubble and isolating him or her from distractions such as too many media questions is also nothing new.

But it seems today that nearly all spontaneity is gone from the proceedings, and the chance for reporters to follow-up, probe and look for the weak points in the arguments has been largely squelched by tactics that try to make them into virtual spectators. The Gainesburgers aren’t even tasty anymore. The most entertaining moments are when events push one or other of the party leaders off script for a moment, but the moments don’t last and then it’s back to the audio tracks.

The Conservatives have famously perfected the art of message control, with Stephen Harper refusing to take more than five questions at any campaign event, banning follow-up questions, and surrounding himself with partisans who applaud on cue like those talking Barbie dolls with a string in their backs.

I think what we are seeing is the logical end point of the controlled communication that is becoming the norm not only during political campaigns but every day when one or another party forms the government.

Communication between the government and the media, who are still the main conduits between politicians and the voting public, is reduced to canned statements that in Ottawa are called “media lines.” They are written by communications staff, then typically vetted up and down the lines of authority until ever last morsel of meaning has been squeezed out.

“The government of Canada is aware of concerns and taking measures to mitigate them…Inspectors regularly inspect under a regime approved by regulations. Canadians can be confident we’re protecting their interests.” My favourite part is always the extra line at the bottom, to be used in the event that a reporter persists in wanting something, anything, that sheds true light on whatever issue is at hand. “If pressed,” it will say, before dishing out one more line of Pablum.

I remember a time when, as a young reporter freelancing in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, I could call up a middle-level public servant and he or she would answer my questions. Sometimes it had to be on background, but if you played fair and wrote an accurate story, your call would be answered next time.

Today, the only such calls are back-channel, confidential conversations because any up-front call is going to be met with the standard line that you have to call “media relations.” And in case you don’t call, the public servant is supposed to report your call up the line anyway. When you do contact media relations, you’re usually greeted by a voicemail message that allows your call to be filtered from the very start.

If and when you get a call back, if you’re asking about anything for which there are no media lines available, get ready to wait, and wait and wait, while officials argue what, if anything, they can tell you. And when they do say something, it’ll be some of those media lines copied into an email. You don’t even get a chance to press anymore, unless by pressing we mean replying back and putting another question by email. And if you get the idea of filing access-to-information requests so you can see original records, that route will be effectively blocked too, with three, six and nine-month extensions to the legal deadline to reply becoming the norm for anything beyond the innocuous, and the most revealing information probably not recorded at all, but traded in instant messages and other ephemeral forms that have raised the alarm of the federal information commissioner.

So we end up a clamping down of any kind of real information,where nothing is said or revealed that hasn’t been carefully vetted and approved. The only shift comes when events force it, or when information gets out some other way, such as through the courts, and the previous talking points have been rendered obsolete.

This kind of tight control, not unique to Ottawa, ensures that free-flowing, conversations, in which real insights might be shared, don’t happen. Instead, the civil service becomes the mouthpiece of power, and the citizens are effectively told, as one of my grad students liked to put it, “There’s nothing to see here; move along please.”

Entering real and meaningful debate and discussion seems to be have been deemed too risky.

Is it any surprise then that the same sort of controlling approach is taken on political campaigns? If it works, it works, and what powerful person will deliberately take actions to sabotage his or her chances of reelection? The problem is that the public is left without genuine information on which to make important decisions, such as for whom to vote. We are left with the battle of the talking points, backed up with careful stage managing of images, and negative messages to make the other guy seem scary. This is hardly a way to encourage people to make informed choices. Voters are left sorting between this media line and that media line, this carefully packaged statement and that one. And for that, we’re all poorer.