Before I begin I want to plainly state two things. First, I have listened to the CBC since my age could be counted in the single digits, so the habits and tempo of that organization’s broadcasts are something I feel without thought. The sound of the CBC is like the sound of a relative, familiar and occasionally even comforting. Second, I have been a vocal critic of the CBC’s tendency toward heavily biased spin favouring their own agenda since the time of Mulroney. So if you don’t believe such a tendency exists, or if you are a silent defender of same, then you will probably want to stop reading here. I am likely only going to anger you, and we can’t have that now can we.
In this article I want to briefly examine my thoughts on the CBC’s influence in other elections, and more importantly examine where they might go in the election of 2011. As I have stated previously, in my opinion this election is between Harper and Layton, so it is with that in mind I will be watching the CBC’s reporting. Although Ignatieff will almost certainly get more seats than Layton, the ideological contest is between the Conservatives and the NDP. The Liberals in this contest, at least based on their prior actions and current policies, are really not much more than conservative lite. They will always have their old guard voters, but without their media wing working their image at every opportunity they are not much more than populist poll chasers. In other words, vote for them if you want, and pass the Kool-aide.
Which leads me to my first point. Ever since Mulroney slashed the CBC’s budget, they have been Canada’s most predictable anti-conservative Liberal booster. When Mulroney’s government lost all but two seats in 1993, I have always suspected they were a bit taken aback at the sheer power of the venue they possessed. Over the years you could watch them use that power in various rather interesting ways. The one I learned the most from was Avi Lewis and his not-even-a-little-bit-subtle attacks on the show CounterSpin against anyone not left wing enough. Between camera angles designed to include the well placed tut-tutting audience members just behind the targeted speaking guest, or his five good guys against one bad guy tableau, he was eventually censured for being more of a purveyor of propaganda than a talk show host, and the CBC had to replace him after just one season.
Watching the CBC in subsequent elections their style altered a bit to suit the mood of the day, but essentially the story always remained the same. Liberals Good. Conservatives Bad. When Chretien assumed power in 1993 he enjoyed the longest honeymoon of any Canadian politician in history, lasting for such a long time he actually made it through his second election win before I can remember even the slightest negativity in anything the CBC had to say. Compare that to the treatment of Stephen Harper prior to the elections of 2004 & 2006, whose portrayal as a dry and boring bureaucrat, a scary capitalist vulture, or the king of the so-called hidden agenda were all standard fare on the CBC leading up to, and then well after, his first election win. To this day most Canadians are unaware of the fact he is actually from Toronto, not Calgary. Then there was the equating being a real Canadian as something only Liberals could achieve, as if the population which chose to vote elsewhere were somehow not cut from the same cloth.
Because Harper was the Conservative Party leader in three prior federal elections, it’s interesting to view the differing manner in which the CBC chose to approach Harper’s ambitions to lead the country. As I just mentioned, the first two elections were an out and out smear campaign, tempered only by the fact Canadians had recently witnessed the character assassination of Stockwell Day with not a small bit of distaste. Even CBC supporters have stated since that time that they believe they went too far in their pursuit of Stockwell Day’s head. When Harper won a minority in 2006 I imagine there was a collective sigh of relief at the CBC, primarily because they feared a retaliation from a majority Conservative government for their actions throughout the Chretien era.
Harper’s third attempt at a majority government in 2008 was a much more subtle affair for the CBC, and I was quite impressed at their apparent efforts to keep things on as even a keel as possible. Of course, within two weeks of the election it was becoming clear he might actually succeed in getting a slim majority. Considering the Liberals were being led by Stephan Dion, thought by most pundits to be the weakest leader in that party’s history, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Predictably, one week before voting day the gloves came off and Harper was once again cast in the role of the evil right winger, intent on feeding on our children.
For those not in the know, “Stephen Harper eats babies” was a meme which was initially perpetuated by Canada’s left, in 2006 even appearing on the rolling displays of GO Transit trains in Toronto.
As it turns out, no babies were eaten that day, but the Conservatives were once again kept to their minority status. However slim the majority might have been, the CBC managed to keep them under the line.
And so here we are in 2011. Let’s see what the CBC has to work with.
It’s early days in the campaign, but at this point Harper is ahead in the polls by enough of a margin that once again he threatens to assume a majority of the seats. To his credit he has weathered one of the worst economic meltdowns in western history, and did so with calm and confidence. As well, Canadian voters no longer see him as a dangerous unknown but instead as part of Canada’s political furniture, and although they might not agree with everything he does they clearly understand he isn’t out to eat their children. Working against him are various issues such as the G20 debacle, the pandering to American interests issue as portrayed nicely by his seeming acceptance of ACTA, and the ever present problem of this being his fourth try at a majority and the questions of lame duck leadership that might garner.
How about the other three? The coalition created after the election of 2008 it is still active, at least technically on paper anyway, but of course it’s members are all denying that it will reappear in earnest if they lose. Maybe denying is too strong a word. Duceppe and Layton seem to be inferring it won’t happen again, but they don’t seem to be willing to completely close that particular door, leaving only Ignatieff to come right out and say he would never do it.
In fact, it’s the only thing Ignatieff has been solid on since the start of this young campaign. Talk of helping families, assisting relatives of the sick to better cope, corporate tax hikes … promises of love and generosity ad infinitum … he is literally reading boiler plate marketing text designed to appeal directly to the currently beset upon middle class. I can’t lie, he reminds me a whole lot of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons trying to run for political office. It’s such blatant poll chasing material that if I catch myself believing something he says in the next few weeks I will seriously consider scheduling a brain scan. Granted, he is certainly better than Dion was, but not by much, and that sure doesn’t leave the CBC a lot to work with. In the end I find myself stuck trying to decide if I should call him the Kool-aide candidate or simply Mr. Burns. Keeping in mind that’s a feeling shared by a great many Canadians about this particular candidate, and the CBC’s only real options with him become pretty clear. Be as positive and as repetitive as possible when it comes to his policy statements, and give him a few thousand mulligans for the inevitable gotcha game. Perhaps using contrasting news items, playing a positive story about Ignatieff and then following it immediately by a negative story about Harper, might be helpful to the Liberal cause.
What about Jack?
Jack Layton has been consistent in his message these last few elections, in that he wants more for families, more for seniors, and far less for mega-corporations who demand constant corporate welfare. That will work for him like never before in this election because the middle class is getting more and more desperate for help. The CBC’s problem is simple. He is too good a speaker, and he is starting to look more mainstream than left of center. He will almost certainly take votes away from Ignatieff and the Liberals because of it, leaving the possibility wide open for a Conservative majority via a split centrist vote. Do they help Jack out and risk Harper getting the brass ring? Do they quietly pay as little attention to him as is polite? Tough call, mostly because they know who is buttering their bread. At this early stage I honestly don’t know what they are likely to do, but my best guess is as follows. Be accepting and positive of his policy statements, while pointing out that money doesn’t grow on trees. Always start every interview with a statement about how healthy he looks, thereby making damn sure everyone knows he has been very sick. About two weeks before the election, ask him about post election career plans, reminding everyone that this is his fourth try at making any sort of federal gains. In other words, speak to him with great respect, but do so in a manner that would be more appropriate for a retired general, as opposed to a front line fighter.
There we go.
I will be revisiting this topic throughout the election because I have always wanted to analyze in real time the tactics the CBC uses to influence public opinion. Considering CBC radio does a show outlining to it’s listeners the tricks and schemes marketing people use to influence consumers, I expect to learn a lot.
… and if you decided to continue reading against my advice and I’ve upset you, I am truly sorry.