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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

Going "Off Message"
By Ira Basen

June 2nd , 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

"Thou shalt not go off-message."

In the modern political campaign, where spin has achieved the status of a secular religion, the number one commandment appears to be "thou shalt not go off-message."

Spin works most effectively when alternate versions of reality are not permitted to see the light of day. Most of the time, political spin is built on such shaky foundations that it is unable to withstand even a modicum of scrutiny. It is not intended to be a point of departure for political debate, it is designed to pre-empt and replace debate. That is why politicians and their spin doctors go to great lengths to silence those who either intentionally or inadvertently deviate from the official party line.

When a candidate goes "off message," he or she is said to have committed a "gaffe." There are several ways of thinking about campaign gaffes. One American commentator defined a gaffe as "a moment when a politician accidentally tells the truth." The best Canadian example of this sort of gaffe occurred in the 1993 campaign when Prime Minister Kim Campbell opined that an election campaign was probably not a place to discuss serious issues. No one who has followed political campaigns since the dawn of the television age could seriously question the accuracy of Ms. Campbell's observation, and yet it was seized upon by an opportunistic opposition and a gleeful press as evidence that the hapless Prime Minister was clearly unsuited to occupy the country's highest elected office.

When a leader, or candidate, or party official goes off message, reporters rejoice. It gives them something to talk about other than regurgitating the daily pre-packaged spin that comes off the leader's bus or plane. And with so many reporters on the look-out for gaffes on the campaign trail, and with their definition of what constitutes a gaffe so all-encompassing, it is not surprising that Campaign 2004 has already begun to yield a rich harvest. Three political reporters speaking on a recent Newsworld panel happily noted that we have finally begun to see some off-message remarks coming out of all three parties, thereby livening up what they believed was a rather dull start to the campaign.

The first of these gaffes was committed by the Liberal's Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre, who was caught musing to a reporter about the possibility of a minority government. It is not clear what exactly Mr. Lapierre did wrong. Surely it is a classic example of a "politician accidentally telling the truth" kind of gaffe. It is also an entirely media-driven gaffe, in that it involves no expression of policy or anything else that voters would actually care about. Only the press, politicians, and other spinners get excited about this kind of thing. One suspects that Mr. Lapierre is not well liked by the Quebec press who are only to happy to take this opportunity to embarrass him. In any event, Mr. Lapierre seems to have emerged from the experience somewhat chastened, and has vowed to be much more careful in the future when talking to the press.

The second gaffe occurred when the Conservative critic on language policy, Scott Reid, told a newspaper reporter that a Conservative government would consider making changes to the Official Languages Act. His position was immediately contradicted by his leader Stephen Harper, who re-affirmed his party's support for official bilingualism. Conservative spinners were dispatched to all the various media outlets to confirm that Mr. Harper, and not Mr. Reid, spoke for the party on this issue, and thus there was no need for Mr. Reid to resign his position as party critic. But several hours later, Mr. Reid did resign. The reason, never articulated of course, was that the party wanted to ensure that this gaffe remained a one-day story, and did not continue to haunt the Conservatives as the campaign progressed. In the meantime, Mr. Reid has gone to ground, refusing all requests for interviews on the subject of language policy.

Finally, we have the NDP's first gaffe of the campaign. Last week, Jack Layton suggested that Paul Martin was personally responsible for the deaths of homeless people in Toronto. Interestingly, this was not considered to be a gaffe by Mr. Layton. The gaffe occurred when an NDP MP from Windsor named Joe Comartin suggested that Mr. Layton's remarks were "too much." The next day, Mr. Comartin received a phone call from his leader, after which, Mr. Layton declared that he and Mr. Comartin were "of one opinion on the responsibility of the Paul Martin government." Mr. Comartin has not been heard from since.

All three of these gaffes speak to the modern campaign's obsession with staying "on message." Even the slightest deviation from accepted truths can lead to ridicule, recrimination and even resignation. Ultimately it leads to silence. Jean Lapierre, Scott Reid and Joe Comartin didn't follow the script and paid a price for it. That lesson won't be lost on others who might be tempted to speak their own minds.

The losers in all this, of course, are the voters. Campaigns become sterile and devoid of substance and debate. The media is reduced to stirring up phony controversies and making mountains out of molehills. And while the ability to stay resolutely on message may now be a winning formula for electoral success, it might not be what we need or want in a Prime Minister.

The job these men are applying for is not performed inside a bubble where success is measured by the ability to stay on message. This is apparently something Stephen Harper has yet to realize. On the campaign trail, he regularly deflects unwanted questions by telling reporters "we're doing a message event here." He also rarely ventures outside his carefully constructed "message events" because he worries about being "grand-slammed." "If somebody gets up and says I think you're a warmonger and all that," he recently told reporters, "then that's what gets covered, and why would we do that?"

Well, here's a reason: if he succeeds in his quest to become the Prime Minister, he can expect to get "grand-slammed" every single day. Running a campaign that is more open to the kind of disagreement and debate that he and the other leaders will ultimately have to face in the real world, might give us a better idea of who is really best qualified to lead.

Past Spin Cycles

Ira Basen has been with CBC Radio since 1984 as a documentary maker, senior producer and executive producer. He has written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus, and has taught a course titled "Spin: PR, Journalism and the Search for Truth" at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Ira's book on public relations and the media will be published by Penguin Books in 2005.

You can subscribe to Ira's column and have each new edition e-mailed to you.

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