Stop the presses! The Harper government is at it again. A couple of recent news stories have — once again — thrust government communications practices into the spotlight; the CBC’s Kady O’Malley took a measured look at some of the government’s latest tactics here.
The tone from journalists in reaction to these efforts has varied from slight ridicule to severe ridicule. But some of the online commentary from media has also been a wee bit defensive, and I think I know why: the media are ever so slowly coming to the realization that public doesn’t necessarily need them.
That isn’t to say the media aren’t meeting a public need. It’s the advertisers who have historically needed — and paid for — the distribution networks of news organizations. Now that newspapers and television stations no longer have exclusive control over distribution networks, they shouldn’t be surprised when governments or businesses use alternatives (i.e. the Internet) to go "around" them and try to connect directly with their constituents and/or consumers.
In other words, there isn’t a two-way relationship between the media and the people, there’s a three-legged stool between the media, governments/business, and the people. At least there was. That sawing noise you’re hearing is the Internet cutting off the media’s leg.
Why would governments choose to develop and use its own channels? Getting rid of the media "filter" is certainly one reason. But it’s not the only one, or even the key reason. Another benefit of having your own networks is the chance to bypass media apathy.
After all, the heart of the word "news" is the word "new," as in, if it ain’t new, the media ain’t gonna cover it. If I had a dime for every time a reporter told me that there was no news in what we were announcing (e.g. "Andrew, this isn’t new, it was in the budget"), I could probably plug the oil-sized gap in our public finances.
Reporters bored even when Canadians aren't
Governments, despite their tentacle-like reach into seemingly every nook and cranny of our lives, doesn’t necessarily have something to say every day. Certainly not enough to fill the 24/7/365 information overload we all suffer with today. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try. And nothing causes media pencils to be dropped — and media Twitter feeds to be silenced — than saying something a reporter has heard before.
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But that doesn’t necessarily mean the people the media write and report for have heard it before. While we’d all like to think that ordinary folks have the time to read or watch the news every day, the reality is quite different. And so governments and political parties usually have to repeat what they say hundreds of times — across a number of platforms — before consumers will hear it for the first time.
So, sorry, scribes, the government is going to keep banging on about what it’s doing, even if you’re bored to death, and only if it’s to core supporters. And while this would have been wasted effort even a few short years ago, today there’s a chance to reach these audiences because we’re all broadcasters now, thanks to technology.
Of course, just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come. The small viewership (to date) of some of the government’s channels proves the point. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and these are early days in the digital derby. Governments and political parties would be dumb to not try these avenues. I suspect no party will down their tools. Even if the government were to change come October, I can guarantee the new boss will be just like the old boss, at least in this respect.
Let’s not forget that all governments and political parties look to build and identify support, and one of the ways they do that is by taking the things they do, or positions they take, and publicizing them. In days of yore, that meant stepping behind a podium in a public event, speaking directly to supporters privately, or mailing out some pamphlets.
Journalists essential to democracy
This set-up suited media fine, as they were the ones who had to cover the podium and send the message along to Canadians, mediating the conversation as they saw fit. As for pamphlets and calls, the media weren’t in the business of direct voter contact, and so didn’t care if parties did mail outs or phone canvassing.
Now that those pamphlets get sent digitally, and the channels that get used to distribute them are also tools in the media’s arsenal, the media are standing up and taking notice. They shouldn’t be so precious. They should get on with their jobs, while they still have them.
And yet, it’s not all good news for news-haters.
While the prospect of media receiving a bloody nose is usually a reason for political partisans to cheer, a defanged media will bleed our body politic of an essential fluid. Returning to our trusty stool, let’s keep in mind they don’t have a habit of remaining upright if one of its legs goes missing. A properly functioning society requires the strong challenge function of a free and independent press.
This leaves us, as it usually does when discussing the media, with no easy solution. There is no prospect of regaining control over the means of distribution. Google has won that battle. In the meantime, let’s hope media spend more time worrying about filling their revenue hole, and less time sweating what the government is doing with its digital pieholes.
Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.