Harper's message control backfiring this time

Conservative organizers shouldn't be surprised when their own partisans erupt in public at the media. They primed the pump, Tea Party-style, by tapping into those wellsprings of anger, Neil Macdonald writes.

Conservative organizers shouldn't be surprised when their own partisans erupt

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper looks towards the media as his wife takes a photo of the cameras on hand for a photo op in North Bay, Ont. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As a loyal Conservative at one of Stephen Harper's campaign events squawked at the media this week, comparing Syrian refugees who drown during their escape from hell to Canadian kids who drown in backyard pools, the prime minister stood at the podium, wearing what a wire service reporter described as "an awkward smile."

Not a bad description, when you see the video. Heaven knows what the Conservative leader was thinking.

Once again, some guy was making his organization look like the party of crude.

Just like the other guy at another Conservative event last month, the one who told reporters they should stop asking about the Mike Duffy scandal because the media are "lying pieces of shit," and tax evaders, too.

You have to wonder, though, whether behind that smile Harper was reflecting at all on the fact that his organizers, following his wishes, had created a system that encourages such behavior, and that the system isn't working so well anymore, and might even be helping him lose this election.

It was a system that certainly worked once. There's no question about that.

Harper came to power regarding the media as an enemy force. Nothing new there. Previous prime ministers have taken the same view, to one extent or another.

But Harper and his entourage had a pitilessly clear understanding of reporters' weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and proceeded to use it with remarkable effectiveness.

They imposed new, more controlling U.S.-style rules of engagement. Then they effectively stopped engaging, at least in any substantive manner.

Reporters were fed centrally generated talking points, rather than actual responses, and mostly by email.

Those who played along with this command-and-control approach would be rewarded. Those who dissented would be isolated or ignored. Meanwhile, the prime minister's office gagged the public service, frightening important sources of real information into silence.

Media institutions that balked were accused of lacking "balance." Party officials used reports they considered "unbalanced" in fundraising messages, calling on the party's so-called base to send in money and help fight back against lefty media bias.

Reporters heckled over refugee questions at Conservative event

7 years ago
Duration 1:56
A heckler interrupts Harper to chide reporters for asking about Syrian refugees

People like Kory Teneycke, who is currently travelling with Harper as his spokesman, gambled that the public would see any media accounts about this new approach as self-serving whinging. He is quite open about this.

And, sure enough, the parliamentary press gallery sputtered and issued condemnations, then largely fell into step.

Over time, the control tightened, to the point where Conservative events have become largely hermetic, closed to outsiders, and sometimes just about entirely closed to the media.

Crowds comprise invitation-only party members, who are encouraged to cheer every phrase the leader utters.

Once they've been made participants, booing reporters with the gall to ask the leader inconvenient questions — say, about Syrian refugees — follows naturally. Hence Mr. Drowning Kids the other day, and Mr. Lying Pieces of Shit a few weeks earlier.


Other parties do this, too, of course, crowding their leaders with smiling, nodding partisans. But the difference here, it seems, is in degree, and in the resulting sense of embattlement and resentment.

At leader events, Conservative organizers try to prevent reporters from interviewing rally attendees, or the protesters who sometimes gather outside.

Conservative candidates have been told to shun all-candidates' meetings, and stick to talking points.

In August, most Ottawa-area conservatives distinguished themselves from other parties' candidates by collectively ignoring the city's mayor when asked to sit down with him and discuss local issues.

At one Harper event the other day, the foreign affairs minister (the event was in the riding next to his) was reduced to running away from reporters asking questions about the Syrian situation — foreign policy.

The Harper Conservatives long ago surpassed the tactics of American parties, even the Obama Democrats, who set new standards of control freakishness in Washington — monitoring interviews with public servants, insisting that expert briefings be "on background," using judicial orders to uncover media sources, and trying to blackball critical reporters.

Still, the White House press secretary faces reporters on camera almost daily, and Obama is constantly answering not just questions, but the more important follow-ups, which Harper refuses.

Americans demand a certain level of transparency. Canadians, the Conservatives wagered, take a different view.

Lack of balance?

Things have changed, though, since 2006, when Harper formed his first minority government.

A lot of today's campaign is being fought on social media, where talking points don't work very well.

Social media cannot be controlled, and has no editors to whom people like Kory Teneycke can complain about lack of balance.

Conservative Party spokesman Kory Teneycke. (Hannah Thibedeau/CBC)

And anyway, when you've foreclosed information and blocked the news media to the point where all there is at the end of the day is a canned statement, how can anyone credibly count minutes of coverage and demand equal time?

The answer is you can't. Particularly when you've invented a system effectively designed to prevent news.

For example, when the guy erupted about drowning Syrians the other day, Stephen Harper could have told him off, the way Republican Senator John McCain did when the invited participants at one of his campaign events in 2008 started in with the "Obama is a scary Arab" trope beloved by the party base.

No, no, McCain told them, that is not true. Obama is a genuine person, a decent man I happen to disagree with.

Harper, similarly, could have used his podium to say that's not the way real Conservatives think, and point out that there's a big difference between Canadian kids who drown in their pools, usually because they're left alone by some adult, and Syrian kids who drown while fleeing unspeakable evil, often because their parents trusted swinish human smugglers.

But to do that would require a certain old-fashioned agility and willingness to engage, not a system that has trounced the spontaneity out of everything and everyone, even the people who created it. 


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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