Spin Cycles: The spin doctor is in
Scott Reid Interview
February 9, 2007
IB: You've said that a lot changed in Ottawa with the launch of the National Post in 1998. Tell me what differences you saw.
SR: I think that when the National Post was launched it supercharged the journalistic atmosphere around Parliament Hill. It was an exciting, edgy newspaper blessed with incredibly gifted writers and strong reporters and wonderful columnists. Had an openly aggressive political agenda that certainly appeared to transcend its editorial page and influence its news coverage, not just page placement but the way stories were constructed, what they covered, what they didn't cover, and how news was covered on the hill. There were a lot of stories that were wrong but they made the front page and I think what people saw was that the head-shaking that occurred over stories being wrong wasn't as significant as the influence that style of journalism had and I think, notwithstanding the circulation troubles the National Post had, the eventual bleeding of many of its strains in terms of the quality of the writers and so on and so forth that occurred over the years. I think that the influence that it had in this town in terms of fewer sources, wholly anonymous sources, writing for the front page rather than writing to be correct - I think all of those influences were very significant and frankly, in terms of my job, there were periods where I was the beneficiary of that and there were periods where I was very much not the beneficiary of that. I don't mean me personally but I mean the government with whom I was associated in the exercise of my responsibilities.
IB: So how specifically did it change your job?
SR: Well I think that many people would tell you in the past decade there's been a pretty substantial cultural shift in the town in terms of how media and government inter-relate. I think basically there is or there ought to be a culture of "nothing is off the record now". I think that stories get told when they're not fully formed in terms of the conduct of your job from where I sat, it meant you had to very much plan from a perspective that - you had to assume that the median in terms of gallery behaviour was going to be pretty punishing, pretty insurgent, and you had to factor that in. There is no culture of being able to work on a story for a period of time and say, "well, hang on. You actually don't have all the facts straight. Why don't we - you should really get briefed up and we'll take a few days…" None of that. Speed became the imperative. Speed became the only imperative and that changed the way that other journalists and other news organizations worked and that changed the way the people who answered the phone and dealt with journalists, worked as well.
IB: It was interesting… you used the launch of the National Post as the point where things really changed, other people say it was the coming of 24 hour TV news and the shrinking of the news cycle…
SR: I'm sure it's a continuum. I guess in my experience I think the news cycle shrank. I guess what I would say is that with the launch of the National Post I think that standards, to be very blunt, shrank as well and that's what was so significant I think about it's explosion onto the landscape.
IB: What about the shrinking of the news cycle, what effect did that have?
SR: Oh, well, that's … from the perspective of one who did the job I used to, it means that you're going to get constant coverage of process. People have to tell a story before the story is done and so there' s constant analysis of how people are handling things, far more focus on personalities, far more focus on personalities in terms of what's this caucus member doing, what are these staff members doing, what are these officials doing - a lot more emphasis on the how as opposed to the what. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I think it has led to some bad tendencies in journalism to be honest. I think the sort of obsessive focus about the people around those who are elected is a bit silly, but it's had that effect. The other effect that it has is that 24-hour news primes the pump off virtually all other news. So, I'll give you a very concrete example. When it comes to election campaigns what you found out from about 1997 on was that if you were not going to, in a campaign period - if your campaign was not going to launch the day 8:30, 9, 9:30, then you couldn't expect to set the pace unless you had an extraordinarily significant announcement. So all things being equal, you couldn't afford to fly somewhere, land, do your first event at noon and expect to hold the day. What you were going to find was no matter really how significant or insignificant an announcement by a competing campaign might have been, you're going to find that you're actually being asked to react to what that other campaign did. I think that's almost entirely a function of 24-hours news or shorter news cycle. It means the price that you have to pay later in the day is higher than the price you have to pay earlier in the day if you want to make news as an election campaign. That's just one example.
IB: Seems to me another thing that's changed is that people in your position have a much higher profile than before. You become the focus of attention. How did that evolve?
SR: Well I think it's been an evolution in the resources that are dedicated to covering politics in general and the process of politics and I think it's really intensified in the last decade or even less. You see what 24-hour news channels demand to have, as an example, panels and they can't construct every single panel from just members of parliament so then they put on strategists and then they put on staffers and then they put on advisers and so you have that phenomenon so that, by definition, raises some profile. You can make decisions how you do or don't want to play that, who you do or who you don't want to put on. The other think, of course, that you can't influence, you can't influence much, is the amount of time that's committed by political journalists now on focusing on senior staff, particularly in the PMO but also in the Prime Minister's Office and there's actually even a cottage industry as a corollary of senior officials and you just see that. It 's much more ubiquitous and I think one of the things again, I read a lot about in the National Post, one of the things that they brought to the scene was an emphasis on character sketching of people that were practicing politics, whether that be elected or un-elected. And those stories just feed themselves. The tick-tock story, which I think is a … the tick-tock story is the story that is now assigned to virtually every political event, large and small, to tell the inside story of how it went down - tick-tock meaning the stopwatch of how the events unfolded. It's a ubiquitous term in Ottawa, borrowed I think from Washington by news bureaus, and there isn't a single story, single significant political story now that doesn't get accompanied by tick-tock. That places a tremendous focus on officials and others around the prime minister. It's also by the way, one of the, one of the strains in journalism I think that' s most open to abuse because you have a journalist who's assigned at say 9:30 in the morning to do a tick-tock profile of what went down on this issue and how did it come together and they've got to file that by say 5 o'clock in the afternoon. Truth is they can't go and collect ten [inaudible] perspectives and weave it all together using their own judgment and decide who they believe and how they believe it went. They almost inevitably, even if they're strongly motivated, must rely on one or two perspectives. So I think that that's a particular strain of journalism that, to answer your question, places a lot of focus on those that practice politics and then I think also that is open to abuse.
IB: Overall though, do you think that the fact that people on the inside have now become public figures, is that a good thing or a bad thing, can you turn the clock back?
SR: I don't think you can turn the clock back. I think that it's more or less enshrined. The water mark has moved if you will in terms of how those things are covered. I think that you can place more or less emphasis and I think that's a choice that every PMO will make but the degree to which they can make that choice will vary. I mean you can try and diminish some of that focus but you can't stop that trend. I think that one can argue that we brought a lot of it on ourselves in terms of the focus of the people around Paul Martin as an example. Susan Delacourt wrote a very interesting book but called "Juggernaut". It was interesting - the book was written and published before we actually took office and it focused almost exclusively on the people around Paul Martin and I think ultimately it primed the pump in a negative way. It intensified the focus on the personalities around Paul Martin in a way that I think that was unhelpful and I think that we, it's not at all a slight to Susan, I think that that was, that's something that those of us that worked for Mr. Martin had to take some blame for. But fundamentally over time, as you say starting with people like Billy Fox, this trend has intensified and it's intensified largely due to journalistic trends.
IB: I came across a reference to a panel you were on in 2005 called "The State of Truth in Communication". What is the state of truth in political communications today?
SR: Well you know I don't think the people have to approach us with profound cynicism. I think that government is largely populated by well-motivated people who have fairly obvious agendas and they end up pursuing those and you know they tend to be truthful and decent people and obviously when you are in politics one of the chief objectives is to claim and receive credit so a lot of communications in politics is driven by the desire to claim credit. I want to tell you what I'm going to do, I want you to understand that so that you now use it as a test to judge my performance by and then I want to tell you that I've done it. And so where truth and political communication often comes in, is in the emphasis that's brought and the candor that's brought in the terms of whether or not that objective was in fact met, how was it met and if it wasn't met, why not and whether that was well-explained. It's increasingly difficult for people to not meet an objective in politics, to not say "here's a priority I'm going to set, here 's a promise I'm going to make, and now I'm not going to make it because circumstances have changed and I'm going to explain to you why." That's the simplification of political communication has made that almost impossible, even if not delivering on your promises actually the appropriate thing to do and perhaps the publicly interested thing to do, the damage of allowing yourself to be branded as a promise-breaker, flip-flopper is too great to take on. But I think you have a symbiotic relationship in terms of story-telling between those who are implementing the agenda and those who are reporting on the agenda. I am one who believes that this notion that everything is a matter of spin is wildly simplified and overstated. I think that there are frames that are established by and which stories are told within and those frames get fixed very early and then they get furthered or they get corrected and it's very difficult to correct a frame. So as an example, Joe Clarke years and years ago was Joe Who? He was a screw-up, he couldn't do anything right and unfairly perhaps in many instances that dictated how a lot of coverage of things A to Z he did and his government did but…
IB: Is that the same thing that happened with Mr. Dithers?…
SR: Yeah, sure to a degree. Those frames get in place and then trying to buck those frames is very difficult. Once that frame, that sort of truism becomes established, people funnel their news stories into that and that becomes a kind of a decoder ring for people to tell many other aspects of what is going on in Ottawa. So Joe Who? as a screw up - so many things happening in that government got told through that prism. Later, of course, Joe Clarke was able to, and it took him years, to correct that and create himself as an extraordinarily competent, well-respected foreign affairs minister. You give the example of Paul Martin and dithering and indecision. I think that was an unfair frame but it established itself and it influenced widespread coverage and columns and commentary and that was a problem for us. It was a real problem for us and we didn't get the opportunity to correct it. We did a little bit in the 2004 election because he became a little bit of the come-back kid, but ultimately obviously in the 2006 election it didn't work out.
IB: Okay, so is the battle then between political communicators and journalists a battle over who gets to set the frame?
SR: Well I think it's a function of circumstance. I don't know that it' s always a battle. I think that it is a more organic process than that. Usually it's defined by what came before. I mean it's almost nauseatingly predictable in some ways. So going back many years, Mulroney came in as the un-Trudeau. He was going to be financially and fiscally responsible. He was going to be more open and less confrontational with the provinces. He was going to be far more focused and all of that sort of established a frame of renewal. He was going to have a good working relationship with the United States rather than a prevocational one. Do any of these things sound familiar? I mean then you go back to Mr. Harper and how he's positioning himself. Many of the same echoes. Of course the issue of financial responsibility and fiscal responsibility is morphed over the years but again, you know when Jean Chretien came into office he was the un-Mulroney. He played off being the anti-Mulroney for six, seven years so those things almost establish a frame and if you're a smart political communicator, you take advantage of what you assume the media are going to use as their signpost to decode and to explain this government and what it's about to Canadians and you play into that frame somewhat so that you can advantage your own stories.
There really are three stages. You fix a frame, you refer to that frame and then you try to fix that frame and trying to fix a frame is very very difficult. It almost by definition a year's long process. I mean Jean Chretien was "p'tit gar" lovable, everyday, let's have a beer, he's a real regular guy. For years, for 25 years he was that person. Withdrew tremendous political benefit from that frame and from that understanding of him. And then in the last four, five, six years of his time in office, he became this domineering bully. Probably neither definition is fairly accurate of the man but these are the things. It took years and years and years to move that frame from one thing to another so it's extraordinarily difficult.
IB: Does that depress you sometimes, … when a frame isn't accurate , and as you say it is very hard to change a frame, that maybe people aren't judging a candidate based on who they really are.
SR: Well, I mean you get into almost a philosophical discussion and you can lose yourself in a pool of superficialities I guess, but I think that the - no frame is going to be set that is at 100% variance to the truth. I mean there are events, there are characteristics that trigger a frame. They may not be wholly definitional in truth but they become in large part definitional in terms of media coverage and popular understanding. But that's life in the big city. They don't come from nowhere. So again, I think it's a more organic process. One of the things that I believe which may sound a little bit in contradiction to this, is that there is actually a popular wisdom among the electorate, general population, and I think that the character of leaders at the political level generally becomes revealed and understood to people and usually relatively accurately. I think that ultimately Joe Clarke was a guy who was seen as competent and capable, perhaps not the right man to lead the nation but a likeable decent person and I suspect that that's who Joe Clarke is and so when he is being judged on a daily basis and multiple times on a daily basis - those things that kept him from being the perfect prime minister probably were difficult but ultimately people [inaudible] popular understanding.
IB: Although you would say that Mr. Dithers was not accurate.
SR: But it was triggered by a couple of events which I think - it was triggered by largely the defense, the decision over missile defense. That was fundamentally what that Economist article was about and so that did not come from the clear blue sky but it was not wholly definitional and it was not my view necessarily of a fair reading of the complex journey that was that decision but it is what it is. Actually that example if you don't mind my saying, is more of a dog whistle about the power of certain kinds of medium and it tells you a little bit something about the Canadian character I think in that what is The Economist? It's a highly respected British public affairs business magazine. They don't have bylines. So that article was written - probably 800 words - not very big - that article was written by a person in Ottawa, a Canadian, who's a stringer as they say, part time journalist, maybe a full time journalist but they're not working out of any particular bureau, and that person anonymously attaches a label. Because it's in the Economist, however, it wasn't that journalist. It 's the Economist who's branded us this way. In Canada, Canadian media go wild. My God, we're being noticed in the Economist, the Economist, holy smokes, first they said that we were cool - that was like you know weeks and weeks of insecurity bleeding out of every pore as we talk about how we're perceived - and now they've made this judgment. Well they didn't make a judgment. A guy wrote a thing attaching a label and there's no sense in bitching about it. It's just a reflection of the power of media, even the power of media as it influences other media.
IB: Okay, let me ask you about this word spin. How do you define it?
SR: I define spin as emphasis. I think that the traditional notion of spin, this pejorative term meant to indicate some fast-talking, wise-cracker who got one over on journalists and managed to conceal the real story is a myth. I don't think that that happens. I think that's a disservice to media. I think they're smarter and more capable than that and I don't think that people who are capable that are in the job of political communications are shysters. Spin is emphasis. You take a single event and someone in government is going to talk bout that event with emphasis on certain things, certain elements, certain dimensions to it. And the journalist will either report that unfiltered or they'll challenge that and say, "hmm why are they placing that emphasis? What are they not emphasizing? What is their motivation for emphasizing what they do and what's their motivation for emphasizing what they don't." So I think fundamentally spin is emphasis and I think it falls to journalists to challenge emphasis whenever it's brought to them and then report based on their judgment.
IB: So spin is not lying?
SR: It's one of the fundamental rules of political communication - if you lie to a journalist, you're done. You do not lie. And it happens now and then but it is almost an amateur mistake if somebody lies to a journalist. It's one of the surer indications of the person who's doing that job is not capable and not a pro. If you don't want to answer a question, you have to say "I'm not going to answer that question." But if you want to emphasize one element of something then that' s, I mean it can go to a point I suppose where it's cartoonish and dishonest but you have to be skilled.
IB: So if spin is about emphasis, if you go back to the "beer and popcorn" remark of the last campaign, and the Conservatives responded by saying it proved that Liberals don't trust Canadians, was that an example of them spinning that in a particular way?
SR: Well sure, if spin is emphasis then they emphasized certain elements of it, but you know I… that's an interesting example because I provided them with the gun and then they shot the bullets at me. I don't know that I'm going to actually complain given that I was responsible for handing them the weapon. I don't think that… to delve into that example, to be honest with you, I don't think that that was the more pernicious element of it. I think the pernicious element that the Conservatives were able to surface in the real disservice that I did with that wisecrack, was that there was a frame already established on the Liberal party that we were having to fight, constantly, and that frame was arrogance. That frame was arrogance and that stems from being in government for 13 years, and … (coughs) I think that comment tapped an existing frame which was injurious to the Liberal party and to the Liberal government and that was the frame of arrogance. A frame that had been established after having been in government for a number of years so there's a certain degree of inevitability to it but it came out of the sponsorship crisis where people made claims about how arrogant it must be, that people would treat public dollars in this way, independent of whether or not this was actually treated in this way and who did it and all of that. You know, oh well, the frame established was one of Liberal arrogance and the thing that I really chewed my thumb about on that comment was that it permitted the Conservatives to return to that frame with beautiful ease…ah lucky [inaudible], they don't even trust Canadians to handle their own money. God these guys are arrogant. They're so arrogant that they think that they are better off to handle it - well I handed them that bat and then they beat me about the head with it and they beat the party about the head with it but it's a good example of how, in political communication you can try and generate something that fits into a frame that's to your benefit, or you can play off of something that's occurred externally that fits into a frame. So, they announce during the campaign, well we're going to have the Accountability Act and that plays into the arrogance frame 'cause we're not going to allow arrogance to set in and people treat public money like it is, right. So they're trying to reinforce that frame in that sense then I say something like beer and popcorn that allows them to again come back, play it, parry it very nicely and say, "well, there you go - there's another example of arrogance," reinforce that frame again in a campaign of a discreet number of days, we're losing days all the time and if you're losing days, you're losing ground.