Calling Dr. Spin: Episode 3
The third part of a series about spin, the spinners and the spun by Ira Basen for CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition
Originally broadcast February 2, 2007
It was perhaps the most celebrated exchange in the history of Canadian journalism.
Reporters Tim Ralfe (right) and Peter Reilly (centre) question Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the steps of Parliament Hill about the FLQ crisis and the invocation of the War Measures Act. The question by Ralfe elicited the famous quote by Trudeau, " Just watch me." (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)
On Oct. 13, 1970, Pierre Trudeau stepped out of his car in front of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. It was an exceedingly trying time for the prime minister and the country he led. Eight days earlier, the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, had been kidnapped in Montreal by a group calling itself the Front de libération du Québec. Five days after Cross's kidnapping, Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte had been snatched by the FLQ from in front of his Montreal home.
Accompanying Trudeau on that Tuesday afternoon were several Mounties wearing their ceremonial red tunics. A tourist who happened upon the scene would have been hard-pressed to know that the nation was going through one of the greatest crises in its history.
Not only was the prime minister not enveloped in a crush of security people, but as he made his way up the steps of the Parliament Buildings, only a small group of reporters were casually standing by hoping to "doorstop" the prime minister, namely force him to stop and answer some questions about the developing crisis.
This was not the carefully staged media opportunity that would later come to dominate political life in Ottawa. The prime minister had no apparent "message track" prepared for his meeting with reporters. Nor was this the raucous feeding frenzy, complete with dozens of cameras and microphones and shouting reporters, that such an occasion would provoke today.
Earlier that day, in the House of Commons, Trudeau had expressed his displeasure at the media coverage of the crisis. He said he thought the press had been behaving irresponsibly and hoped that reporters, especially the CBC, would show greater restraint in giving publicity to the FLQ. He wanted them, for example, to stop referring to jailed FLQ supporters as "political prisoners."
The prime minister had not been very forthcoming with the media in the days since Cross's kidnapping, and so his initial impulse may well have been to brush past the reporters. But the first question clearly caught his attention. It came from CBC-TV reporter Tim Ralfe.
"Sir, what is it with all these men with guns around here?" Ralfe asked, pointing to soldiers who had been stationed around the nation's capital.
"What's your worry?" Trudeau shot back.
"I'm worried about living in a town that's full of people with guns running around," Ralfe replied.
"Have they done anything to you, have they pushed you around or anything?" Trudeau asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
And so it went for the next six minutes, a pointed and often testy exchange between the prime minister and a reporter from the country's public broadcaster. Ralfe seemed more interested in arguing with Trudeau than in questioning him. Trudeau appeared to revert back to his previous life as a university professor, constantly challenging the reporter as he would an overly aggressive student. "What's your position? … "What's your own logic?" the prime minister demanded.
It finally ended with Ralfe asking how far Trudeau was prepared to go to protect Canadians.
"Just watch me," the prime minister famously replied.
It was an extraordinary confrontation on the steps of Parliament, one that seems inconceivable in the tightly controlled world of press/politician interaction today. But in many ways, what happened next was even more remarkable.
Peter Trueman, who was in charge of The National on CBC-TV, was monitoring a live remote feed of Ralfe's interview and he "hit the roof."
"It was not, in those days," Trueman later recalled, "the place of a CBC reporter to argue and attack and confront the prime minister."
Today, Ralfe would likely have won kudos from his superiors from his aggressive line of questioning. But in October 1970, he received a letter of reprimand from his boss on the Ottawa service wire where Ralfe's colleagues could read it.
According to Trueman, Ralfe had "defied every journalistic standard I had ever heard of" and Trueman suggested that the next time the reporter got to interview the prime minister, he should stick to interviewing him. Trueman then proceeded to remove Ralfe's more aggressive questions from the piece that would run on The National, a decision that outraged Ralfe and many of his fellow journalists.
It also seriously disappointed people in the Prime Minister's Office, who thought Trudeau had been so effective in dealing with the reporter's more aggressive questions that they distributed an unedited transcript of the interview to the press themselves.
Three days later, prime minister Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act for the first time in peacetime.
Was Trueman correct in arguing that Ralfe had gone too far in his questioning? Judge for yourself. The entire fascinating exchange between the prime minister and the reporter is in the CBC Archives.
If you are looking to find a militant non-smoker, it is often best to look in the ranks of former smokers. And if you are looking for someone to deliver a critical analysis of television news, you are most likely to get it from someone who has emerged from inside the belly of the beast. Elly Alboim is one of those people
Alboim's TV career began in the CBC Montreal newsroom in 1970. From 1977 until 1993, he was the CBC's parliamentary bureau chief in Ottawa. He left to join the growing ranks of "strategic communications consultants" in the nation's capital, working for both private- and public-sector clients. He is a principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a lobby firm whose close ties to Paul Martin, both when he was finance minister and prime minister, have been the source of considerable controversy over the years. He also teaches journalism at Carleton University.
What Alboim has to say about the state of television news does not sit well with many of his former colleagues. What is interesting is that he is not just critical of TV news today, but looking back, he sees serious shortcomings in the coverage of stories that he was responsible for while at the CBC.
'Burying the lead'
In my interview with Dan Miles, the communications director for federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, he explained that one of the keys to successful political communications is to anticipate how journalists will be covering a story.
"You ask yourself: what is the lead," he explained. "You know, as a journalist you never bury the lead. Basically what you are trying to do for journalists is to make it easy, and make your lead their lead. That is a crucial part of what we do."
On Oct. 31, 2006, Flaherty made a very important policy announcement. He announced a plan to tax the distributions of income trusts. It was a sharp reversal of previous government policy, would impact the retirement plans of thousands of Canadians and broke a promise made by the Conservatives in the 2006 election campaign. At the same time, Flaherty announced various tax measures to ease the burden on seniors who would be adversely affected by the trust decision.
So what would be the lead in the news that day? Income trusts, of course! But take a look at the press release issued by Miles when Flaherty made his announcement. You won't find a mention of income trusts in his lead. Instead, the headline reads "Canada's New Government Announces Tax Fairness Plan."
This is a classic example of political spinning. The income trust decision was controversial; it was strongly opposed by many in the investment community and by Canadian seniors. But who could object to a "tax fairness plan"? Miles's job was to try to divert attention away from the more objectionable part of the announcement and get people to focus their attention on the good news. Of course in this case, it didn't work. But you can't blame a guy for trying!