Grant Devine was Premier of
Saskatchewan, Jeffrey Simpson was a columnist with the Globe and Mail in
Toronto and David Smith was Professor of Political Science at the University of
Saskatchewan at the time this article was written
The following is an edited version
of a panel discussion which took place during the Twenty-Seventh Conference of
the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held in Regina in July 1987.
Grant Devine: Our subject today is the role of the media
in the democratic process I am going to comment from my vantage point on what
the media does to a leader and, to some extent, what it has done to politics.
Let me start with a couple of
quotes. One is from Lawrence J. Peter, a Canadian educator and author of The
Peter Principle. He said "an ounce of image is worth a pound of
performance". This humorous truism explains, to a large extent, what we
see happening in North American politics and perhaps even the world. The image,
and particularly the image of the leaders, is increasingly important often.
Weighing this ounce of image against the pound of performance, the image may be
more important than performance. Now I am not saying whether that is good or
bad and I will have some further comments on that later.
Another quote is from Fred
Friendly, professor of Journalism at Columbia University. He said "today's
reporter is forced to become an educator more concerned with explaining the
news than being first on the scene". He also argues that journalists have
not only become interpreters rather than observers but often become part and
parcel of the story themselves.
I think these two observations are
facts of life for parliamentarians. Image clearly is important. The way the
media interprets what we do is important. We live in a pretty competitive
environment in terms of having to be elected and being judged on our
performance on an ongoing basis. I think it is important that we understand how
things work in practice.
When we examine the relationship
between the politician and those in the media we have to keep in mind that we
are dealing with somebody who is going to interpret our performance, judge it
and explain it to the public through the eyes of their own biases. Thus it is
pretty important that a politician understand, not only the media in a generic
sense, but the media in an individual sense, in a personal sense. This raises
the question of how intimate a relationship should you have with the person
who's going to be telling your story or their version of your story. It raises
further questions about the point at which you sacrifice your principles
saying, "Well I'll give him a pat on the back because he is a good old boy
and I'd better not antagonize him". The other words "how far do I go
before I back away from my principles?"
In my own case, before I was
elected, I was known as the invisible man. That is what they called me. When I
was running around campaigning and trying to get somebody's attention because I
was invisible. So even when I knocked on your door, you didn't see me because I
was not there according to people who were.
After you are elected, then
obviously you become visible but they do not want to see you either. Because
you may be looking at it saying well I'm not so sure everybody would do that in
agriculture and do this in trade or some other things. Well I could comment
more about that perhaps a little bit later but I would say that in terms of the
relationship between leaders and politicians and the media, it's something that
will be studied more and more and I just want to quote a few observations that
I believe are relevant.
One piece of research that I've
looked at is a publication by Comber and Mayne. They make several observations
Professionals notice a significant
difference between what the media does today and what it used to do. The
authors comment "today the news anchorman or anchorwoman plays the role of
a genial host who provides a minimal level of continuity as the picture zooms
off to the far reaches of the earth to present the up--to--minute developments
in the latest catastrophe. The stories are fast-paced and relentless. All the
modern techniques available are used to present the illusion that the viewer is
right there as the story breaks ... an eye witness to history in the making".
"But we are not seeing history as it happens. The pictures we see have
been carefully selected based on such criteria as the amount of action and
amount of colour in the individual event. The fast-paced and clipped approach
has led to a superficial and sometimes cynical style in political news
reporting. The reporter has become a tour guide who shows us the news wonders
of the world".
The change professionals are
talking about, both in the teaching and practice of journalism is something we have
to be aware of as elected representatives. The concept of news service is
changing. Once journalists were taught to never say I. This emphasized that the
journalist's role was to present facts and sometimes other peoples' opinions
but not to insert his own into the news. This was so in the past, today it's
not. Today's newspapers and television programs, once bastions of impersonal
reporting, feature journalists in the forefront of their news stories. They
interpret their own story.
"Reporters' comments, have
become the dominant feature of political news reporting. Reporters have access
to more air time, more column inches to let us know their opinions than do our
elected representatives". I think this is the key to the whole article.
This is the key to the authors' main contention: reporters have more time to
explain what they think is going on than do the people who are making the news.
It seems to me clear that the interpretation of a news release by a reporter is
a very powerful influence. The fact that the people who make the news are often
not quoted and often not even shown on television but in fact, are interpreted
in terms of what they were going to say is something that is increasingly
powerful and something that we have to deal with as politicians.
The modern style of journalism is
that the personalities and the opinions of individuals should not enter into
the story but in fact, they do, hidden as they are behind the facade of
objective reporting. Such influences have considerable impact especially in
reporting on a political campaign or on policy interpretations.
The authors go on to point out that
when opinion and biases are meshed together in a single news item, the reader
has no way of recognizing assumptions and political biases of the reporter.
Well, what is wrong with that? So what if the reporter has a bias. What if
certain assumptions are made that are not shared with the media and shared with
the public. What's the downside? The downside is that you might not have the
truth. You might not have the facts.
If we have a democratic process
that is not built on facts, then it is built on fiction, on untruths, on
misinformation, its built on propaganda
I am just finishing the book Modern
Times by Paul Johnson. The propaganda machines of the world's big leaders in
the last 100 years are extremely frightening and obviously could not work in a
democratic process. If you go back to Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or others you see
the need for truths as absolutely essential to safeguard democracy. We all,
particularly politicians, are involved in saying well (my side has better
ideas" in terms of policy to generate a solution. Others claim they have
better ideas. I suspect truth lies in the middle. There is thus tremendous
responsibility on political scientists and on the media to seek the truth.
Let me close by saying this.
There's no doubt that the role of the media and the relationship with the new
technology has a tremendous impact on what politicians are going to do today
and in the future. We have to be sensitive about how we manage our campaigns
the way we walk, the way we talk and what we do. Whether we are going to ride
horseback in a campaign, throw a football, get our luggage lost or do other
things, we have to be extremely careful because the power of the media has
I do not think we are about to
change that, I would only say I believe that recognition of the power of the
media is the first step in making sure that we make effective use of technology
and the power that's there so that we do not abuse it and it does not distort
our democratic process.
Jeffrey Simpson: I am always a bit, shall we say,
perplexed, in discussing the press because it is a generic word used for
purposes of convenience which I understand, but which mask a tremendous number
Its very hard to make
generalizations that stick when you consider the differences between or among
radio, television, magazines and newspapers. And it is difficult to make
generalizations that stick when you consider that media or the press involve
national organizations, regional organizations and local organizations. But
having entered that caveat it can be said that parliamentarians and the press,
to use those words, do find themselves in an inescapably symbiotic
It is theoretically possible for
parliaments to meet in secret just as it is possible for the media not to cover
anything that happens in parliament. But under those circumstances, neither of
us would be discharging our responsibilities to the people whom we serve.
There are two aspects of the
relationship between parliamentarians and the media that I would like to
address. One is the power of the press to make or break political careers.
There are various ways this can be done. The most obvious are those which
involve scandals. These can come to light, it seems to me, in several ways and
any one of them can "break" a political career.
A politician can make public what
he or she has done. This happened, for example, a few years ago when the then
Solicitor General stood up in the House of Commons and announced his
involvement in the signing of certain papers for procuring an abortion for a
It also happened in this Parliament
when Marcel Masse resigned because he was being investigated by the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police for certain election irregularities in his
constituency. Secondly, allegations by members can be made in the House and
these are covered by parliamentary immunity. The media, provided it accurately
reports and reflects what happens in parliamentary exchanges, is also covered
by parliamentary immunity.
Thirdly, the press itself through
reporting can make allegations and these can be and often are investigated by
official institutions. These can be judicial inquiries, parliamentary
committees, royal commissions or the police and the courts. And one gets,
generally speaking, from such official investigations either a definitive
explanation as to what actually happened or the public is left to believe
certain events took place and to form certain opinions that can break a
The classic example of all of this,
of course, was the Watergate situation in the United States where the press,
principally the Washington Post, took the story to a certain point and then the
story was picked up by and carried to its ultimate political conclusion by
Congressional committees, special investigators and indeed by Judge Sirica.
Finally, the press can make
allegations and the politician can reply and there is a standoff with no
outside adjudicating body, no judicial enquiry, no royal commission or no
police investigation. At that point you are into an extremely grey area in
which political careers can certainly be broken perhaps because the original
story was incorrect but the impression still lingers or because you haven't
adequately answered the allegations that have been made against you and,
therefore, they are allowed to stick.
Now in the first two of these four
examples the press is not the instigator of what happens. The press reports,
comments upon what others have initiated. In the second two, the press is a
player directly, either by launching an investigation or by reporting certain
facts. It is inserting itself very directly in the political process. The most
dramatic and sometimes unfair way in which the press can break political
careers is the fourth category. The third category -- the independent enquiry
or the outside investigation -- can, in fact, clear the air and the politician
of any allegation of wrongdoing. Indeed this has been done in recent years in
Canada and elsewhere. And even in the last case -- the activities of the
politician who happens to get his or her activities reported so that
allegations are made -- he or she is really the author in some cases of his or
her own misfortune.
Now political careers can also be
broken in much more subtle ways, by interpretations of men and women in
politics that the press may collectively take or indeed reputations can be
seriously hurt if not broken. But they can be remade rather quickly. Indeed
sometimes the media is accused with justice of forming snap opinions about
politicians. Part of the reason for this is that at least in the Canadian
context, we have developed a rather curious system whereby e hand the leadership
of political parties to men and women who have not had extensive years in
Premier Devine was speaking about
his early years when he was the invisible man. Well Grant Devine had not spent,
as has happened in Britain, 15 or 20 years in political life before he became
the leader of his party. It would have been difficult at the time for people to
get a long-term fix on what kind of person Grant Devine was because there was
no track record. Now it's different, he's been in office for x number of years.
If you look at federal politics how
many years did Mr. Mulroney have, or Mr. Clark or Trudeau or Mackenzie King or
Louis St. Laurent, or Lester Pearson? None of these people had spent a long
career in public life before they became the leader of their party. So that
it's often difficult for the media to get a fix and the consequence of that is
that you can often get a terrific flip-flop where the media takes a certain
view of an individual politician and then finds out to its horror a year or two
later that they got it somewhat wrong. That, under the pressure of events, this
individual isn't the person they thought he was and does not react as they
thought he would. You saw this, I suppose most dramatically in the case of Mr.
I had occasion, for something else
I'm doing to read the press coverage, or a lot of the press coverage, of Mr.
Trudeau's leadership run in 1968. For those of you who could remember it, I
assure you it was exceedingly positive and helped to create a momentum which
subsequently carried him into office. Yet within 12 to 18 months a revisionist
view of Mr. Trudeau was setting in. People were saying, we may have misjudged
this man. We may not have got a rounded picture of him. So this is a phenomenon
that occurs. But I am, notwithstanding the points that Premier Devine has made,
distinctly skeptical of the argument that although we do live in a television
age, that politicians' success, that parliamentarians' success or failure can
be exclusively or even largely ascribed to their media image except within a
limited time frame. Over time, the media image, if divorced from reality or if
substantially incomplete, will be corrected partly by the media itself and
largely by the innate, intuitive and uncanny ability of voters to size up their
leaders. It is my misfortune or at least my obligation to know on a personal
basis all of the major polling "experts" in this country. We argue
all the time. But they are unanimous on the same point when you ask the
following question; what does the public know of their politicians and public,
what does the public know about what's going on. They will all tell you ...
Allan Gregg, Martin Goldfarb, Michael Adams, Maurice Pinard ... they will all
say the public is weak when it comes to the details of issues and sometimes
even to the outline of issues. But the public is exceedingly shrewd on the
personalities, values and attitudes of the leaders of the political parties.
They fairly quickly get a good fix on who these men or women are.
Senator Michael Kirby once told me
an interesting anecdote. The Liberals did focus groups asking questions of a
small group in an effort to plumb the publics' mind. They said tell us what you
think of Mr. Trudeau. He said the answers these focus groups gave about Mr.
Trudeau and what kind of a man he was were almost identical with the reaction
of the people who had worked for years in the closest proximity with Mr.
Trudeau. In other words, the public had an uncanny grasp of the man they were
dealing with. It's very difficult therefore, despite all the efforts that
politicians pour into image manipulation and creation to fool the public and
therefore very difficult over the long-term to turn a politician's image
Therefore, I never believed that
the reason why Joe Clark or Bob Stanfield lost elections had to do with the
fact that they dropped footballs, ate bananas, had a double chin or lost their
luggage. These were peripheral factors. It had more to do with what they said
or didn't say about the substance of issues. It had more to do with Jerusalem.
It had more to do with mortgage and property tax deductibility. It had more do
with budgets, it had more to do with the parties' inability to get an energy
policy that united the country.
What does happen between
parliamentarians and the press sometimes is that the press judges
parliamentarians by what they see of the parliamentarian in Parliament. That
begs the question of what the press does see? It does not see very much. It
does not see much committee work, it does not see much constituency work, it
does not see, in the case of ministers, administrative work, it does not see
any caucus or party work. Television, therefore, has probably accentuated the
emphasis on the performance aspects of politics. But performance in the sense
of the theatrics rather than substance. It has certainly allowed opposition
members of parliament to become instant celebrities, by virtue of the
shrillness of their attacks as opposed to their consideration of issues and
they find themselves praised for their instinct for the jugular rather than for
the cut of their minds. The opposition is favoured by television or more
precisely by what television chooses to report of parliament and government
members of parliament, whatever their political party, are hurt because if they
are good, their work generally goes on away from press scrutiny.
So the making and breaking by the
press of political careers have these sorts of limitations. But it is
important, I think, to situate what is happening in the context of the
evolution of the press. This relationship is changing and has changed, at least
at the national level for reasons that have to do with the structure of the
press. It used to be that there were two middlebrow papers, sometimes three in
most of the major centres of Canada. These middlebrow mass circulation papers
were partisan. You knew in Ottawa that the Citizen was Liberal and the Journal
was Conservative. You knew in Toronto that the Telegram was Conservative and
the Star was Liberal. You knew in Winnipeg that the Free Press was liberal and
the Tribune was Conservative. You knew in Vancouver that the Liberal organ was
the Sun and so on across the country. This was the pattern of Canadian
journalism from long before Confederation. The press was inextricably tied to
political parties and highly partisan.
It is sometimes argued that there
was a golden age of the Canadian media where everything was pure and without
bias and what we've got these days is a bunch of opinionated reporters. You
just have to think about the press 20 or 30 years ago, let alone 100 years ago
to know that there never was such a golden age and that the press now if you
talk about bias is less biased in a partisan sense than it has ever been in
To condense a long argument: what
we have in major centres is the loss of middlebrow papers under the influence
of television and shrinking advertising markets. Now one middlebrow paper, the
Globe and Mail is able to span the country and take in politically alert people
across the nation. In the regional markets, what is left is one paper with a
monopoly. It wished to expand it's circulation as much as it could and
therefore could not afford to be blatantly partisan so it became less partisan.
Then coming in later, at the bottom
of the markets were tabloids principally for the entertainment value in terms
of the presentation of news and comments. So we have gone in a reasonably short
space of time from a situation in which most major centres had two partisan
middlebrow mass circulation papers to markets which are stratified and not
defined on partisan lines. Now what is the significance of that for the press
In the days when there were at least
partisan organs in most of the major centres, the government of the day could
always assume that it would get a favourable hearing in some of the nation's
newspapers. Even a government at 23% in the public opinion polls. In the old
days, the Toronto Telegram the Montreal Gazette and other papers would try to
buck up the Conservatives. No government has that kind of outlet anymore. The
media have adopted, for reasons that partly have to do with the structural
changes, a kind of all-pervasive skepticism of all governments whatever their
political stripe and whatever the level of government.
That is where, to come to the
second point briefly, the editorializing is creeping into news copy. It used to
be flagrantly partisan, then it became reasonably partisan. Now the
editorializing is creeping in, not from overt partisanship but because of this
easily observable, but nonetheless somewhat insidious form of editorializing in
the form of analyzing and commenting upon. Television has clearly made
newspapers more anxious to comment and put into perspective the daily news
since television, I regret to say, is the principal source of news for the
majority of the population in this country and in the United States.
Journalism in this country in
comparison to Britain or the United States has always lacked prestige.
Journalists generally work for lower salaries than they should. Their working
conditions are quite poor. I just had lunch with a good friend of mine from the
Financial Times of London, where I spent four years. He's just been on a
three-month, fully paid sabbatical which s written into his contract. They
generally work four days a week, they generally work 32 hours a week.
Columnists in the United Kingdom consider themselves very hard done by, if they
have to write two a week. Well, few people in Canada under these circumstances
have been willing to make journalism a lifelong career. Those who stay in the
game tend to tire and become entertainers like Allan Fotheringham or Charlie
Lynch or pontificators like Peter Newman. The Blair Frasers, the George Bains
the Bruce Hutchinsons are very few in the landscape of Canadian journalism. So
you get a tremendous rotation of people covering parliaments and you therefore
get very little experience.
In the next campaign, for example,
the CBC will assign to the three leaders travelling across the country three
very competent journalists, all covering their first election campaign. The
same thing happened in 1979. The reporters covering the leaders were all doing
their first campaign.
Now, in a theoretical sense, all
news presentation can be considered a form of editorializing because in the
assembling and ordering of information, you make an active selection and the
active selection is a form of judgement and judgement implies bias, if you
like. It is inescapable and we are gate keepers for information. But the line,
as the Premier has said, is becoming blurred in an age of reporting and
analyzing and editorializing. Therefore, my guiding principle has always been,
when I was a reporter, and now that I'm reporter and columnist, you've got to
try and be fair. That is the last and best bastion for reporters in the modern
David Smith: The relationship between parliamentarians
and the press goes back a long way in our history. People such as Joseph Howe,
Alexander Mackenzie, Étienne Parent, Francis Hincks, Nicolas Flood Davin and
Amor de Cosmos were all journalists who entered politics. This has changed a
great deal in English Canada, maybe less so in French Canada when one thinks of
Lévesque and Trudeau and Ryan and their role in the quiet revolution.
I have just completed a biography
along with a colleague, Norman Ward, on James G. Gardiner who for forty years
held political office, provincially and federally. He left 65,000 pages of
paper which I have read and I must say it is quite remarkable how little he
ever referred to the press. Now he left office in 1958. To the degree that he
referred to the press, he saw it as a practical utility. It was a supplement to
the political party in presenting the government's programs and its policies to
There were key journalists that
appeared, Grant Dexter, John Defoe, Bruce Hutchinson but the press was not seen
in an adversarial capacity, it was not seen as particularly critical. On the
other hand the parliamentary debates, as revealed through his own papers, were
extensively covered and reported.
Today this is not so and I am
interested in some of the reasons. Government turns out a vast quantity of
information. It uses modern technology to do it and perhaps it has to do that
because the media could not cover that amount of information even if it tried.
The result is that the press has become much more of a synthesizer than it once
was and what we have with the press and here I mean all of the media, a
transition from an internal to an external observer of the political scene.
This leads to the so-called interpretive journalism. Politicians are judged
more critically and in turn the press is seen by the politician as more of an
adversary than it once was.
It seems to me that the
specialization we see in government, we now see in the press. We have
environmental reporters, reporters on education, labour and health, a type of
reporting we did not see earlier. There are some areas where we do not have
reporters. One would be agriculture, at least in the national press. Coming
from a region dependent upon agriculture, I think it is interesting if not
alarming that agricultural interpretation tends to be done by regional reporters.
One result I think is hat it feeds the regional biases of Canada.
There is also less interest
displayed by the press in legislatures and parliaments than before. Some
reasons have already been suggested. I would like to ask some questions related
to that. Are journalists less capable, less knowledgeable than before? In the
past the press gallery was often seen as the peak of a career. Today it does
not seem to be so. On the other hand, are legislatures less important than they
were now that first ministers' conferences clearly determine the fate of
Canada? The recent first ministers' conference on the Constitution and on
native rights are examples.
The emphasis on the daily question
period does not tell us a great deal about what is going on in legislatures and
in Parliament. It doesn't tell you what the difficult issues are and the
consideration of legislation.
Canadian coverage of elections
outside of Canada leaves much to be desired. I think of the last British
election. If we were told once, we were told thirty times that if Mrs. Thatcher
won the election it would be for a third term, the first time since Lord
Liverpool that this has happened. Well, this is an interesting fact but I am
not sure that its one that is of great significance in the modern period. On
the other hand, we were never told on television what the results of the
election were in Britain. We had to wait until we saw the newspaper and even
then very frequently it was quite fragmented. The media seemed to me, to be
quite caught up with the technology, particularly the graphics.
I have yet to see an election
coverage in Canada where all the election returns, at least on television, are
reported. It does seem to me the one piece of information one wants to know is
who has won and who has lost the election.
One sometimes sees the press and
the politicians cooperating almost to deprive the public of information. Not
perhaps deliberately, nonetheless it happens. I am thinking here of leaks by
the government or parliamentary committees and their use by the media or of the
Forget report and its coverage and the debate that did not take place on it.
I also have some questions with
which I would like to end my comments. Are we attaching too much importance to
the press and the media in making and breaking careers? How important is it to
a career? Mr. Devine as a leader of a party which had never formed a government
with the majority in this province was able to bring the Conservatives to one
of the largest majorities in provincial history. This has happened in other
provinces before. What was the importance of the press and the media to the
Conservative success in 1982? Quite clearly, as he suggested as the invisible
man, it was not a decisive influence. Was it of any influence or was it the very
negative effect of the press actually working to the benefit of the
Conservative party? What is the importance of leadership conventions which are
frequently referred to as media events. We do see this great emphasis on
personalities in Canadian politics. The apparent creating of reputations such
as those of Mr. Clark, Mr. Turner and most recently Mr. Broadbent. He's been
around for a long, long time but we are now being told about all his great
virtues. I think probably Mr. Broadbent always had those virtues, if they are
virtues, but they are being reinterpreted by the press for Canadians.
What happens in the provinces? Much
of what has been said deals with national politics. But in the smaller
provinces where the press may be limited to one or a handful of daily
newspapers and to local television, what is the relationship between the media
and the politician? How does the individual Member of Parliament or the member
of the legislative assembly reach his or her constituents? Especially in
competition with the high visibility of the party leaders and cabinet
ministers. What is the effect of the electronic Hansard? I have asked this many
times to members of legislatures in parliament, I have never really had a
satisfying answer. They ill say that many people watch it. How many people?
What people? What is the effect of what they see? It strikes me as a very
passive medium. How do parliamentarians see the respective role of the press
and television? Is the influence different upon them? These are some major
questions that might be considered and are central to the general question we
have been asked to discuss.