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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

An evening in Spin Alley.
By Ira Basen

June16th, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

Craig Oliver, the veteran CTV Ottawa Bureau Chief was pulling at his suit jacket and staring into a camera. He was just moments away from his appearance on the CTV National News with Lloyd Robertson. It would be a pivotal moment in the 2004 election campaign. Oliver, who earlier in the evening had been one of the questioners in the English language leaders' debate, was about to pronounce his verdict on who won and who lost.

But before that, it was time to rehearse. "Well Lloyd, there was no knockout punch, but you could say that Harper won by a technical knockout".

Oliver seemed pleased with this new variation on politics' oldest cliché, and he waited patiently for the red light to go on to deliver his judgment to the nation. Seated off to the side, two senior strategists for the Conservative Party waited nervously. They understood the importance of what was about to happen.

"Is the debate won up here, or down in the theatre where the leaders are?" they were asked. Goldy Hyder didn't hesitate. "This is really important," Stephen Harper's advisor explained. "Columnists and bureau chiefs like Craig really shape public opinion."

The red light went on, and campaign 2004 took a giant leap towards being over. "Well Lloyd, sitting at ringside, my impression is that the Prime Minister was TKOed. That is to say there was no knockout punch. It is to say that on points, if I had been the judge, I would say Mr. Martin lost just about every round."

Game, set, match, Harper. Goldy Hyer's face broke into a wide grin.

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Twenty years ago, on October 21, 1984, the day of the second Presidential debate between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan, a New York Times editorial writer coined a new phrase that has since become part of our political lexicon. In describing the "bazaar" that would unfold once the debate was over, he wrote, "a dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won't be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They'll be Spin Doctors, senior advisors to the candidates, and they'll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs."

Two decades later, it is hard to imagine a time when Spin Doctors did not walk the earth. And never are they more ubiquitous than during debates between party leaders. In the U.S., they even have a name for the place where the spinners hang out during debates. It's called Spin Alley. And for the past two nights, Canada's Spin Alley has been two adjoining theatre lobbies on the upper floors of Ottawa's National Arts Centre. It is here that the cream of Canadian political journalism, and senior advisors to all the party leaders, gather together to watch the debates and ultimately share their analysis with the Canadian people.

Spin Alley has its own unique rules of engagement. In the first place, nothing is off the record, which means the spin is constant. Cameras and microphones are everywhere. You can identify who the party spin doctors are because they whisper very closely in their colleague's ears. Second, it is considered bad form for a spin doctor to engage in unsolicited spin of a reporter. The spinners are seated prominently in front of one of the many TV sets in the smaller of the two rooms. Most of the reporters watch in the larger room. Reporters are encouraged to wander out to the smaller room if they are looking for a dose of spin. The spinners are not particularly welcome inside the larger room.

But in this campaign, their presence is felt in other ways. Blackberries have become indispensable to the spin doctor's tool-kit. Down in the party war rooms, a whole different group of spinners are pumping out a steady stream of e-mails to reporters. Transcripts of the leaders' opening remarks are available within minutes of the start of the debate. Wondering what Paul Martin said about weapons of mass destruction to the Calgary Herald in January 2003? The Conservative war room e-mailed that quote almost as soon as the Prime Minister denied ever claiming the weapons existed.

Why does Spin Alley even exist? Reporters have eyes and ears. They can draw their own conclusion. In another theatre in the National Arts Centre last night there was a production of The Graduate underway. It is unlikely the director or the writer or the producer were there trying to convince the reviewer to give the play a favourable notice. Why do it for this peculiar form of political theatre? The reason, of course, is that, as Goldy Hyer and the other spin doctors know only too well, the debate, and to some extent the campaign, is won or lost in Spin Alley on debate night. The New York Times editorialist was right twenty years ago. These are very high stakes. Spin doctors understand that their ability to influence a reporter's opinion is limited. But with the election possibly riding in the balance, it is worth taking the shot.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with Spin Alley. In its Canadian context at least, it seems well mannered and fairly benign. But there does seem to be something fundamentally wrong with a campaign that consumes thirty-four days in an endless loop of largely meaningless "message events," and a total of four hours in useful dialogue between the leaders. As the reporters packed up their gear last night and prepared to hit the buses for the final twelve days of the campaign, it was hard to escape the feeling that Spin Alley is about as real as it gets in the modern campaign. Which means the real losers last night may have been us.




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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