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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

Spinning Leaks
By Ira Basen

May 26th, 2004

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

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 hours.

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.

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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