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Opinion

Downloading ideology works efficiently in banana republics, juntas, and dictatorships, but not so well in democracies, as the Conservatives should have learned in 2015

By Michael Harris      

The Conservative Party is trying its best to suggest that the media is the enemy of the people. Certainly of conservatism. An important message in an election cycle—and a derivative one.

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have a lot in common with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, from the parades they attend or don’t attend, to a dangerous myopia on issues like climate change. But one of the most telling similarities is that the party continues to confound marketing with communication. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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HALIFAX—Like death and taxes, I suppose it was inevitable.

In not so subtle fashion, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is trying its best to suggest that the media is the enemy of the people. Certainly of conservatism. An important message in an election cycle—and a derivative one.

Like Donald Trump, whose constant whine is that the fake news media spreads false information about his presidency (while he lies his brains out), the CPC has been telling its supporters for some time about “Trudeau’s scheme to buy favourable coverage with your money.”

This silly extremism is an unforced error. Scheer could have legitimately criticized Trudeau simply because he put aside $600-million, mostly in tax credits, to help struggling media outlets. A lot of people, including yours truly, think that’s a bad idea. But did the PM do it to get fluffed up by grateful journalists? Only in Andrew Scheer’s fevered dreams of beating Trudeau.

The Conservatives have been at that messaging for a while. In a fundraising letter dated Feb. 25, 2019, the party’s national campaign manager Hamish Marshall cranked up the base with that claim and a few more. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Conservatives have been at that messaging for a while. In a fundraising letter dated Feb. 25, 2019, the party’s national campaign manager Hamish Marshall cranked up the base with that claim and a few more.

Among his more alarmist pronouncements was the conclusion that the Trudeau government’s bailout package for certain media was a “dangerous” development that changed “everything.” Trudeau wasn’t saving jobs, he was buying votes.

Marshall’s mailer was ordinary in one respect; like the political equivalent of a televangelist, he was dunning the base for cash. And not chump change. He wanted a “generous election-year gift of $800, $1,200, or even $1,600” to the Conservative Party of Canada from those who received the survey.

Marshall didn’t just want money. Included in his letter was what he called a News Media Evaluation Survey. Marshall wanted recipients to fill out the survey and return it to the party (along with a cheque), so that Andrew Scheer and his team could use the information to formulate the party’s “strategy” for the election.

One of the things the party wanted to know about was how a person got their news. They asked about this under a section called “Conservative Party Supporter Personal Profile.” What were a recipient’s “news consumption habits” and “preferred” source for “information about government and politics?”

Here are a few of the statements posed in Sec. 2 of the survey called “Media Bias.”

•“The mainstream Canadian news media actively seek out opportunities to portray Conservatives in a negative light.”

•“The mainstream media spend too much time covering left-wing social justice issues and not enough time reporting on the economy or international affairs.”

•“When union leaders who represent news media workers attack Conservatives, it creates an undeniable conflict of interest.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured in this file photograph. The Conservative Party has been telling its supporters for some time about ‘Trudeau’s scheme to buy favourable coverage with your money,’ which is a joke, writes Michael Harris. The Hill Times file photograph

Like Sarah Palin’s shotgun, every assertion is loaded. Marshall himself had already supplied the desired response in his covering letter. But the CPC wanted more than the “Right” answers to generic questions.

The survey also included a section where recipients were asked about the “political leaning” of particular news agencies. Print and TV were separated. The Globe, National Post, Sun, and Star were part of the survey. On the TV side, the CBC, CTV, City, Global, and TVA were featured.

The first of four choices in both the print and television questionnaire was “Left of Centre.” The last option, next to no opinion, was “Right of Centre.”

Recipients were also asked this question: “In your opinion, which of Canada’s major political parties is most favoured by the mainstream news media?” Once again, the first choice was “The Liberal Party” followed by the NDP, the Greens, and finally the Conservatives.

And what were all the questions about, besides copping some cash? Marshall claimed that input from respondents would help formulate the CPC campaign strategy for the 2019 election.

Judging from the questions posed on strategy, the party has already decided what its communications approach will be. It is exactly the same one as Stephen Harper followed when he was leader—demonize the press, then bypass it by alternate means of political outreach. Consider what recipients of the survey were asked under a section entitled “Conservative Party Campaign Strategy”:

“Instead of relying on the mainstream Canadian media to spread information about Conservative policies, the Conservative Party should focus on direct voter contact programs that will allow us to take our message to voters unfiltered.”

“To bypass the mainstream Canadian news media, the Conservative campaign should implement an aggressive social media strategy to communicate with people directly in their homes or on their mobile devices.”

“The Conservative campaign should prioritize local, community-based media outlets over the mainstream media conglomerates when dealing with the press.”

And finally this suggestion, featuring a few inscrutable phrases: “To counter the effort of pro-media news organizations, the Conservative campaign should invest heavily in TV advertising, digital campaigns, direct mail and a sophisticated ground game.”

Two things.

What on earth are “pro-media news organizations”? I am hoping it’s a misprint. And what does “sophisticated ground game” mean? A cynic might argue that’s what ratty robocalls were all about.

Here is the skinny.

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have a lot in common with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, from the parades they attend or don’t attend, to a dangerous myopia on issues like climate change. But one of the most telling similarities is that the party continues to confound marketing with communication.

The CPC is not even slightly interested in political dialogue, debate, or rational persuasion. What they hated about the media under Harper, and continue to hate under Scheer, is that it is not an echo chamber or vanity mirror.

When media is working the way it should, it points out not only the merits and value of a political policy or action, but the contradictions, obfuscations and deceptions. It is an alternating current of information—it goes both ways.

Ads, and to some extent social media, are the opposite of AC communication. They say only what the purchaser wants them to say—whether it is true or not. Direct current information travels only one way, from the sender to the receiver.

When the CPC talks about going to voters directly and bypassing the mainstream media, it is not because they want their message to be “unfiltered.” It is because they want it to be unchallenged. They just don’t want to have a conversation.

Downloading ideology works efficiently in banana republics, juntas, and dictatorships; not so well in democracies, as the Conservatives should have learned in 2015.

Michael Harris is an award-winning author and journalist. 

The Hill Times 

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