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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

Debate Spin
By Ira Basen

June 11, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

Get ready for it! Coming this weekend to a political talk show near you - DebateSpin! Impossible, you say? The debates are not until next week! How can the party spin doctors be spinning their stories already? Well, never underestimate their ability to spin anything, at anytime, but in the days leading up to the leaders' debates, they are not the only ones in full spin mode. The press is doing it too, inflating the importance of these debates way out of proportion to their actual relevance in the campaign.

The reasons why this happens are not hard to figure out. Like all good stories, campaigns have an arc to them, and this campaign is desperately in need of a new narrative to carry it through to the end.

The first story line was established in the opening days of the campaign. It had several related themes: Liberals stumble out of the blocks, Martin "desperate," Liberal support tanking everywhere, the NDP "resurgent" under Jack Layton, and, perhaps most significant of all, Stephen Harper is "not scary." This latter point was repeated endlessly by our so-called "experts," proving once again that you don't really need a lot of depth to become a political pundit in this country.

But all of these themes have now pretty much run their course. They may all be true, and there may be fresh evidence to present every day, but saying the same things over and over again gets tedious for both the journalists and their audience. At the moment, Campaign 2004 is struggling to stay on the front page. With Paul Martin temporarily off the trail, and Stephen Harper spending more time up in the air than on the ground, there is precious little to talk about, save for the moronic musings of various current and wannabe backbenchers.

Enter DebateSpin! The purpose of DebateSpin is to convince you that the debate will be "the defining moment in this campaign." Try to count how many times you will hear that phrase between now and Monday night. The rhetoric from the DebateSpinners may sometimes border on the extreme. In the days before the last federal leaders' debate, Craig Oliver of CTV said that in order for Mr. Chrétien to succeed he must "annihilate" Stockwell Day's credibility. And then, of course, there is the hoariest and most meaningless cliché of all, the "knockout punch."

The problem with DebateSpin is that like much of the political spin that follows the actual debate, a lot of it is simply bogus. The leaders' debates have largely become over-hyped non-events. In the absence of any real "news" to report from the leaders' campaigns, the debates offer the tantalizing prospect that something real might actually unfold before our eyes. But they are almost always a disappointment.

There has been no real "knockout punch" in a Canadian debate since Brian Mulroney bested John Turner over patronage in 1984. And don't count on seeing one next week either. The format of these debates is now so constricted, the leaders so well rehearsed and risk averse, that debate day is fast becoming just another day on the trail, with only the smallest chance of anything genuinely revealing or enlightening actually happening.

A few days after the debate in 2000, the CBC's Jason Moscowitz reported that the event looked quite different from his vantage point inside the debating room, than it did on TV. For viewers, there appeared to be a great deal of tension and animosity. But Moscowitz pointed out that all the participants knew exactly what was going to happen, and a lot of what went on was just "acting." Has it come to this? Is the campaign's defining moment really just a piece of political theatre?

Part of the appeal of DebateSpin for reporters and pundits is that it allows them to talk about their favourite subject; winners and losers. An Ipsos-Reid poll taken during the last English language debate determined that Stockwell Day had won the night, followed by Joe Clark, with Jean Chrétien in third place. This led the ever-eager Mike Duffy on CTV to declare that because of the debate, "the race is starting all over again," and the Prime Minister was now "in the fight of his political life." So much for his prognostication skills! But Mr. Duffy was not alone. Over the course of three English and three French language debates, Jean Chrétien was never selected as the "winner" by the pundits. But the voters had other ideas.

Is it possible that the debates don't really matter in the end? It is probably safe to conclude that they don't count for nearly as much as the cheerleading DebateSpinners would have us believe. An Environics poll conducted after the 2000 debate found that more than half of the people who offered an opinion on who won or lost, never actually saw the debate. Only eight percent said it would help them to decide who to vote for.

So what's a voter to do to counter the spin coming from the pols and the pundits over the next few days? Here's a suggestion - make sure you're in front of your television for two hours on Monday night for the French debate and two more on Tuesday for the English debate. Until then, if you come across some pundits trying to sell you a bill of goods about "defining moments," find some other way to occupy your time. And as soon as the proceedings are over at 10:00 (ET) on Monday and Tuesday, turn your television off. You don't need DebateSpinners to tell you whether Stephen Harper looked "Prime Ministerial" or Paul Martin delivered a "knockout punch." You can make your own decision on that if you really think it matters. Yes you can.

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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