Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Did Harper Learn How to Silence the Press from Mike Harris?

When I was doing a bit of research yesterday, I came across an old article on-line about Mike Harris and how he controlled the media.

For those who don't live in Ontario, or are too young to remember; Mike Harris was our premier from 1995 to 2002; and turned this province inside out, creating the highest number of homeless people in our history and a massive surge in the use of food banks.

He was also our first neoconservative premier, an experience we don't want to revisit. (sorry Tim Hudak)

Manipulation of the Media

The article I mentioned was from the summer of 2000, and appeared in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, under the headline: How Mike Harris and his minions manipulate TV news.

It starts out discussing Paul Calandra's old boss, Steve Gilchrist, and how the press was waiting for him to answer questions about the investigation that I mentioned here.

A dozen broadcasters file into the Speaker's gallery at Queen's Park, a legislative locker room perched high above Ontario's elected MPPs. They've reported dutifully for the annual Speaker of the House election, but their attention is focused, more or less, on another man: Steve Gilchrist. The Conservative minister of municipal affairs and housing is under Ontario Provincial Police investigation after allegedly telling developers to go through his own personal lawyer, Tory fundraiser Peter Proszanski, to get an audience with him — a privilege that'd cost them $25,000 each.

Even juicier, Gilchrist has a criminal record for tax evasion dating back to 1984, shared with his father, who was at the time a federal Tory MP. It's not quite Zippergate, but it's something for the boys and girl in the Speaker's gallery to yak about anyway. "Let's get one more shot of Gilchrist for the archives" .... but his communications staff has been doing its best to avoid that, staging photo op after photo op to force the cameras to focus on the brighter side of Tory life.

He was also in trouble at the time because as minister of municipal affairs he had just authorized a 50% rent increase. 50%! However, he avoided the media that day and not long after was replaced by Tony Clement.

And where was Mike Harris when this was all taking place? Was he holding a press conference or a scrum to explain the actions of one of his cabinet ministers? Not on your life.

Where was he? Wait for it ...... at a photo-op! And where is Stephen Harper anytime something unpleasant demands an answer from the prime minister .... at a photo-op!

TV newsmakers need vivid images to illustrate their stories. Harris's Tories, easily the most communications-savvy provincial government this country has ever seen, are delighted to oblige — on their terms. They dodge negative coverage at every chance and will go to ridiculous lengths — giving preferential treatment to friendly reporters, shutting out critical ones and staging elaborate, unrelated events — to avoid it. Because they know the demands of getting on the news are a lot like the demands of the Miss Universe pageant: you've gotta be sexy, you've gotta have charm and you've better have something interesting (but not too complicated) to say.

With expectations so superficial, many television journalists are losing the incentive and initiative to go out and chase stories beyond the pre-packaged photo ops offered up by government communications staff. Even if they want to go beyond these prefab items, with shrinking political reporting staff and dwindling resources, they can only pursue one or two stories a day. Government PR people know this and are prepared to make it easy for journalists to get their precious pictures, provided the coverage doesn't end up being too hard on them. The result is political coverage that serves no purpose other than promoting a government that's already very good at promoting itself.

This shouldn't be too surprising since Harris and Harper not only share several cabinet ministers (Clement, Flaherty, Baird and Van Loan), but they also share something bigger: Guy Giorno.

And they share the fact that they hone their skills, by taking direction from the U.S. Republicans:

Harris's communications staff, many of whom are trained by Republicans in the U.S., subscribe to the Mike Deaver school of thought: they know they can't control what journalists say, but they do their damndest to control what they show. Robert Fisher, a Global anchor and host of Focus Ontario, a weekly half-hour political analysis show, says he's never seen such tight control by a premier's office in his 19 years of political coverage.

"This government, unlike any governments before it, is absolutely obsessed with image," he says, "whether it's what shirt the premier wears or what the bus looks like or what backdrop he's in front of. I don't remember governments before being that concerned. If they stood in front of a grey curtain, they stood in front of a grey curtain. I've seen these guys change the curtain because it clashed with the premier's suit."

How's that for deja vu?


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