With Labour Day behind us, the federal election campaign now begins in earnest. What we have seen in the five weeks since Stephen Harper called the election is a kind of “phoney war,” reminiscent of the first 12 months of World War 2 where not much was happening. Ahead still lies the equivalent of a normal election campaign of five weeks. This campaign so far   has been the most tightly-scripted contest in memory. Much is made and rightly so, of Harper’s attempts to control the message in a number of ways. He limits his national press entourage to five questions per day. It has been reported that he has hired ex Canadian Forces members to supplement his RCMP security detail. Apparently the RCMP security team has orders only to remove Harper from touchy situations but not to interfere with would-be disruptors. Presumably the ex-soldiers on the Harper team will be more hands-on with riff-raff. The latest word is that Harper has told his candidates to avoid local all-candidates meetings and to stay away from local media. The Tory campaign is in a Ziploc bag, safe from all outside threats.

Clearly Harper is in a class of his own when it comes to controlling the message, but for their part, the Liberals and NDP are heavily scripted as well. Really, for all of the parties the daily campaign pattern is similar—a late morning announcement-photo op, where regional candidates and so called “representative” people provide a backdrop behind the leader. If it’s a factory we will see hard hats and safety vests. The audience is carefully balanced as to age, gender and, most important, ethnicity. The news bite thus provided is repeatedly broadcast throughout the rest of the day on national and local newscasts, and the pattern repeats itself the next day. Except for maybe the waning days of a campaign, gone are the time-honoured evening rallies in auditoriums, arenas and movie theatres, because frankly nobody in this overworked era would turn out.

The chances of us ever again seeing a Robert Stanfield fumbling a football, or a Kim Campbell saying elections are no time to be discussing serious stuff (she was right, by the way), or a John Turner patting a female colleague on the derriere are zero; so great is the fear of the political gaffe. The result is a bloodless televised slow dance where all participants walk on eggshells. It can’t even be called reality TV because it is frankly, not real. There is plenty of blame to go around. We in the media are to a good degree responsible for this. It was we, after all, who mischievously capitalized on the aforementioned Stanfield-Campbell-Turner miscues, and so many others since; grossly inflating what were really matters of no significance and squeezing serious policy issues out of the news. We’re still doing it. Harper’s Nixonian need to control messaging and events stems from his early days with the Reform-Conservative party where the media were constantly and gleefully pouncing on some politically-incorrect eruption by one of the right’s guileless candidates, of which there was no shortage it seemed.

It is more than ironic in an Internet era, where information– the quantity (if not the quality)  of which has never been greater; that, nonetheless, Canadian voters will go to the polls this year probably less equipped to make an intelligent decision than ever. For the sake of preventing our democracy from sliding into irrelevance, we need to fix this.

Written by: John Best


John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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