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Analysis & Commentary

The Spin Cycle

The spinner scorned
May 31st, 2004
By Ira Basen

Ira Basen
Ira Basen  

Politics, it appears, hath no fury like a spinner scorned.

The spinner in this case is Warren Kinsella, though he would likely not be too happy with this designation. He prefers to think of himself as a practitioner of the dark art of "oppo," or opposition research. That's a polite way of describing the process of getting the goods on your opponent, and getting that news out to the electorate during the campaign.

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Mr. Kinsella has been doing this for the Liberal Party with considerable success since 1993. But he's not doing it this time. He's a Chrétien loyalist to the core, and clearly unhappy with the way his man was treated by Paul Martin's people. And they, in turn, appear to have little use for his services in this campaign. But Warren Kinsella is not sitting quietly on the sidelines. In the National Post recently he delivered a blistering attack against one of the men who has taken over the "oppo" file for the Liberals this time around. And in so doing, he exposes the emptiness that lies at the core of so much of today's political spin.

What provoked Mr. Kinsella's fury was a remark made by Liberal strategist Mike Robinson on a Newsworld political panel. According to Mr. Kinsella, Mr. Robinson alleged that a white supremacist group called the National Alliance made a $100 donation to Stephen Harper's campaign for the Canadian Alliance leadership. And though he acknowledged that Harper rejected and renounced the donation, Robinson then went on to point out that Stephen Harper has never revealed who else donated money to that campaign.

Mr. Kinsella does not question the veracity of Mike Robinson's remarks. But he believes that making any kind of link between Stephen Harper and the National Alliance "represents the worst kind of politics." It is "odious," it goes too far, and he demands that Mr. Robinson apologize for his transgressions.

Now Mr. Kinsella is something of an expert on white supremacist groups, having written a well-received book on the subject in 1994. He makes a convincing case in his Post article that the National Alliance is one of the most despicable of all neo-Nazi organizations. But in 2002, Warren Kinsella wrote another book, a political memoir called Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics. And what is curious about his broadside in the Post, is that in attacking Stephen Harper's failure to name his campaign donors, and even by hinting that that white supremacist groups might have donated money, Mr. Robinson appears to be following the recipe for successful opposition research drawn up by the reigning Canadian expert on the subject, Warren Kinsella.

According to Mr. Kinsella, the number one commandment in running a political campaign is "kicking ass." His own resumé is full of examples where he did just that. In the last federal campaign, he famously mocked Stockwell Day's views on creationism by holding up a stuffed purple dinosaur on Canada AM, while reminding the Alliance leader that "The Flintstones is not a documentary." Mr. Kinsella believes that a campaign is a war. The objective is to win, not to make friends. It's hit or be hit. You don't take prisoners, and you most definitely do not apologize. He takes pride in the title "the Prince of Darkness" given to him by some of his political opponents.

Not everything goes in Warren Kinsella's world. He does have rules that he professes to play by. But nothing that Mike Robinson did on Newsworld appears to violate those rules. Mr. Kinsella believes that as long as the facts are accurate, the information is already on the public record, and it does not involve activities of a strictly private nature, it is all fair grist for the campaign mill. Questions about Mr. Harper's fund raising would appear to fall in that category. And based on past performances, there is no reason to believe he would not have raised those same questions himself. And yet in the Post, Mr. Kinsella describes Robinson's attack as "a new low in an election campaign that is already shaping up to be too much about personalities and not enough about policies."

The sight of Warren Kinsella in high dudgeon about a campaign that focuses on personality rather than policy must be a source of some amusement to both his political friends and foes. On page five of Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics, he tells us that in 1989, he thought the Meech Lake Accord "stunk." It is the only place in the book's 224 pages that we get any glimpse of what Mr. Kinsella thinks about anything in politics, other than that Liberals are good, and the enemy must be destroyed.

He proudly admits that in the past decade he has helped "define" Kim Campbell, Preston Manning, and Stockwell Day in the minds of Canadian voters. Some would argue that what he did was not "define" them, but destroy them. But could we be seeing a kinder, gentler side to Warren Kinsella now that he has been relegated the sidelines?

Mr. Kinsella believes the Liberals have made a mistake by waiting until the beginning of the campaign to try to "define" Mr. Harper. But that is precisely what the party was able to do against Campbell, Manning and Day, all of whom were virtually unknown to the Canadian public until Mr. Kinsella succeeded in "defining" them during the campaign. He also argues that it won't be possible to do to Stephen Harper what he helped do to the other three because Harper is "smart, strategic and moderate." More "moderate" than Kim Campbell? Maybe he thinks the people doing the "oppo" now are just not up to the job. Or maybe he is heading over to the other side. What do spin doctors like Warren Kinsella really believe in anyway?

You will likely be seeing and hearing quite a bit more of Mr. Kinsella and some of the other princes of darkness and spin during this campaign. The media love people who can take us inside the grand old game of politics. And that's the problem. One of the reasons why today's politics seems so vacuous so much of the time is that it is populated by people who are all about spin, not substance. They don't seem to actually believe in anything other than winning the game. Warren Kinsella is right to worry about a campaign that puts a premium on personalities over policies. It is encouraging to see the prince of darkness making a plea for more light. But will he still feel the same once he gets off the sidelines and back into the game?

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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