As a loyal Conservative at one of Stephen Harper’s campaign events squawked at the media this week, comparing Syrian refugees who drown during their escape from hell to Canadian kids who drown in backyard pools, the prime minister stood at the podium, wearing what a wire service reporter described as “an awkward smile.”
Not a bad description, when you see the video. Heaven knows what the Conservative leader was thinking.
Just like the other guy at another Conservative event last month, the one who told reporters they should stop asking about the Mike Duffy scandal because the media are “lying pieces of shit,” and tax evaders, too.
You have to wonder, though, whether behind that smile Harper was reflecting at all on the fact that his organizers, following his wishes, had created a system that encourages such behavior, and that the system isn’t working so well anymore, and might even be helping him lose this election.
It was a system that certainly worked once. There’s no question about that.
But Harper and his entourage had a pitilessly clear understanding of reporters’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and proceeded to use it with remarkable effectiveness.
They imposed new, more controlling U.S.-style rules of engagement. Then they effectively stopped engaging, at least in any substantive manner.
Those who played along with this command-and-control approach would be rewarded. Those who dissented would be isolated or ignored. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s office gagged the public service, frightening important sources of real information into silence.
Media institutions that balked were accused of lacking “balance.” Party officials used reports they considered “unbalanced” in fundraising messages, calling on the party’s so-called base to send in money and help fight back against lefty media bias.
People like Kory Teneycke, who is currently travelling with Harper as his spokesman, gambled that the public would see any media accounts about this new approach as self-serving whinging. He is quite open about this.
Crowds comprise invitation-only party members, who are encouraged to cheer every phrase the leader utters.
Once they’ve been made participants, booing reporters with the gall to ask the leader inconvenient questions — say, about Syrian refugees — follows naturally. Hence Mr. Drowning Kids the other day, and Mr. Lying Pieces of Shit a few weeks earlier.
Other parties do this, too, of course, crowding their leaders with smiling, nodding partisans. But the difference here, it seems, is in degree, and in the resulting sense of embattlement and resentment.
Conservative candidates have been told to shun all-candidates’ meetings, and stick to talking points.
At one Harper event the other day, the foreign affairs minister (the event was in the riding next to his) was reduced to running away from reporters asking questions about the Syrian situation — foreign policy.
The Harper Conservatives long ago surpassed the tactics of American parties, even the Obama Democrats, who set new standards of control freakishness in Washington — monitoring interviews with public servants, insisting that expert briefings be “on background,” using judicial orders to uncover media sources, and trying to blackball critical reporters.
Social media cannot be controlled, and has no editors to whom people like Kory Teneycke can complain about lack of balance.
And anyway, when you’ve foreclosed information and blocked the news media to the point where all there is at the end of the day is a canned statement, how can anyone credibly count minutes of coverage and demand equal time?
The answer is you can’t. Particularly when you’ve invented a system effectively designed to prevent news.
For example, when the guy erupted about drowning Syrians the other day, Stephen Harper could have told him off, the way Republican Senator John McCain did when the invited participants at one of his campaign events in 2008 started in with the “Obama is a scary Arab” trope beloved by the party base.
Harper, similarly, could have used his podium to say that’s not the way real Conservatives think, and point out that there’s a big difference between Canadian kids who drown in their pools, usually because they’re left alone by some adult, and Syrian kids who drown while fleeing unspeakable evil, often because their parents trusted swinish human smugglers.
But to do that would require a certain old-fashioned agility and willingness to engage, not a system that has trounced the spontaneity out of everything and everyone, even the people who created it.