The Spin Cycle
By Ira Basen
May 26th, 2004
There is nothing like a good leak to advance a party’s election agenda.
Over the past few years, the selective leaking of stories has become one
of the most popular weapons in the spin doctor’s quiver. Governments
everywhere do it all the time. Now, so do political parties. In both cases,
what the leaker is hoping to get out of it is a free ride in the press.
What readers, viewers and listeners get out of it is much less clear.
On the morning of Tuesday May 25, readers of Canada’s largest newspaper,
the Toronto Star, as well as dozens of other papers across the country,
were greeted with a front page story from Canadian Press, outlining the
Liberal’s new health care initiative. The plan, the showcase of
the Liberal campaign so far, was to be announced in Cobourg, Ontario,
later that morning. But in what they presumably considered to be a service
to their readers, the newspapers decided to beat the Liberals to the punch
and reveal all the important details in advance.
The publication of this story raises a number of important questions.
1. How did the Canadian Press get this story? As much as we’d like
to think that this big scoop came about because of days of diligent digging
by an enterprising reporter, the reality is much more mundane. The story
appeared in the papers because the Liberals wanted it to appear. Whenever
a story like this quotes anonymous sources close to the story, you can
be pretty well bet the farm that the story was leaked to the reporter
by those sources.
2. Why would the Liberals do that? You can find the answer to that question
simply by looking at what happened when Paul Martin made his announcement
in Cobourg later that morning. Within hours, the opposition parties were
on television criticizing the Liberal plan. The “news cycle”
in an election campaign is extraordinarily compressed. It can be measured
in minutes and hours. That’s all the time you have before the other
parties will be jumping on everything you say. But the Liberals were able
to widen the cycle by several hours by getting the details of their plan
on the nation’s doorsteps at the crack of dawn. The next day’s
newspaper reported on the Liberal announcement, but it also had the criticisms
levied by the opposition parties, health experts and others. By leaking
the story, the Liberals got their proposals out in front of the voters
first, and managed to escape the expected deluge of criticism for several
3. Why would the newspapers want to do that for them? Media is a very
competitive business. Everyone wants to beat the competition. If you can
get an important story like this on your front page before the other papers
in town, that’s considered to be a big deal. It is not as if your
purpose is to do the leaker any favours, that just happens to be the price
you have to pay for getting that particular scoop. You have become an
important cog in the party’s strategic communication plan, which
is not normally a comfortable place for the press to be.
4. What about the public interest? The party is happy that this story
appeared, the press is happy that it got its scoop, but the public is
generally not well served by this kind of leaky journalism. That’s
because the public needs context more than it needs an early start on
the day’s big announcement. More often than not, these stories provide
little or no context. Is three billion dollars a lot or a little to fix
health care? The Liberals think it will do the trick, but we all know
this is one of the most complex of all of today’s political issues.
Waiting until the next day to get context really isn’t good enough.
There should be no free rides in a free press.
It is not hard to see why selectively leaking information to reporters
has become so popular for spin doctors everywhere, but it is a disturbing
trend nonetheless. Budget secrecy in Canada used to be sacrosanct. Now
every major budget provision is leaked to the media in advance. Before
the last federal budget, we were not only told in advance virtually everything
that was in it, we were also told it would be a “back to basics”
budget. Not only was the press reporting what was in the budget, it was
also reporting the spin that accompanied it, all before ever getting to
see the actual document itself.
We are all subjected to so much spin, especially during a campaign, that
it seems curious that the press would want to make itself available as
a conduit for even more. Reporters and editors should ask themselves one
question before accepting these leaks: whose interests are being served
here? And if the answer is the party and the press, but not their readers,
listeners and viewers, then this is one freebee they might think about
saying no to.