28 September 2015

White is the new black #nlpoli


Stephen Harper said that his party had a program that would help change the dependence in Atlantic Canada on government spending, a dependence that had led to what he called a “culture of defeatism.”

That’s the actual phrase, by the way,  “culture of defeatism.”  Not a culture of defeat as some politicians have put it in the innumerable times since 2002 that they have used that phrase against Stephen Harper in a federal election campaign.

Notice that Harper’s stated intent was positive.  He believed that previous government policy was bad.  Harper said his party had ideas that would turn around the Atlantic provinces and produce a positive result.

Now think of how many times politicians across Atlantic Canada have used that phrase to claim that Harper was insulting and attacking Atlantic Canadians.

When you run out of fingers, use your toes.

When you’ve run our of fingers and toes, use the hairs on the bits of your body you can get to.
When you’ve run out of hair, give up because you can’t count that high anyways.

It’s just that many.

In Harper’s case, politicians took a positive statement,  said it was an insult, and used their interpretation of the comment as a weapon to attack their political opponent.

Now look at what happened in St. John’s..  A Liberal candidate issued a news release asking federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair to apologise for an insulting remark Mulcair had  made in public 20 years earlier.  Liberal Nick Whalen quoted the remark accurately.  Mulcair had intended the remark to be an insult.  a Liberal staffer found the remark in a search of the Hansard record of the Quebec National Assembly.  All political parties search for past comments by their political opponents as well as their own candidates as part of their normal research activities.

Public information, obtained legally, and used openly and accurately by a political candidate.

Whalen’s lily white news release wasn’t even a light shade of grey, let alone any kind of black business.

A lot of fiction around a kernel of fact

This weekend someone had transformed that into a evil deed, the results of a “black ops” squad hell bent on dirty tricks of the kind perpetrated by Richard Nixon. A great many people, mostly folks who really, really like Thomas Mulcair, have been circulating that latest bit of “analysis” – this time by CBC’s Anthony Germain – that presents Nick Whalen’s news release as the most heinous political act in recent memory.

Nothing could be further form the truth, as some politician once said.

Politics does have it seedy side.  Some people call them black ops after the word used to describe military and espionage operations that are done often in the war between countries.  It’s a colourful phrase, to be sure but what it describes is accurate since they are mostly illegal things.  Espionage black ops are things like assassination.  Political black ops are things like making fake phone calls, ostensibly on behalf of Elections Canada, in order to deceive voters and send them to the wrong polling station.

A “black op” is an extreme form of dirty trick.  There’s a phrase that came to prominence in the 1970s during the Watergate scandal. You can find a very good commentary on the subject in a 2008 New York Times column by William Safire.  He should know what’ he’s talking about.  Safire is a former speechwriter and long-time political columnist for the NYT.

Read that column and you will understand that what Nick Whalen did is nothing even close to the black ops,  dirty tricks, or the ratfucking Anthony Germain claims it is.  Whalen’s release is just straightforward politics.

Confusing outcome with intention

Some people are bothered by the events of the past week because their favourite candidate had a bad time.  The entire NDP message last weekend blew away in a puff of smoke to be replaced by the insult Mulcair threw 20 years ago and, which, by the way, he finally apologised for unequivocally in St. John’s last week.

People who really, really like Tom Mulcair have been busily tweeting and facebooking Germain’s commentary this weekend.  They like it because it confirms their own prejudices.  They either don’t realise or don’t care that it is largely fantasy built around a kernel of fact.

What those folks are doing – more than anything else – is confusing the outcome of the Whalen release with intent.  The outcome has been so horrendous for them that they can only imagine it was the result of some gigantic conspiracy by evil forces.  Germain confirms that for them with his fanciful tale of “black ops” that never existed.

The phenomenon is not unusual. Millions of people believe a massive conspiracy of gangsters or communists or gangsters and communists murdered John Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963.  They cannot imagine that such a awful thing could be the result of one deranged man with a mail-order military surplus rifle.

But it was.

52 years of savage hunting by thousands of people has failed to produce a single shred of evidence to contradict the basic story that Lee Oswald killed Kennedy and wounded Texas Governor John Connolly with a series of three shots fired from an Italian Mannlicher-Carcano rifle he bought from an ad in a local newspaper.

There was no shooter on the grassy knoll.

Why the NDP had a bad week from their St. John’s stop

Nor was there any phantom conspiracy in St. John’s last weekend. 

The Liberal news release should have caused Mulcair a few embarrassing minutes.  The comment was old and Mulcair apologised unreservedly and immediately.  The NDP talking points Mulcair used were a text-book example of how to deal with something like that comment and the Liberal release.  By any reasonable expectation, the story should have died with Mulcair’s apology.

What neither the Liberals nor the NDP could have possibly guessed is that the news media would use the insult and the apology as the lede of every story that came out of St. John’s.  It became the only thing that happened in St. John’s, despite the fact that Mulcair made himself available to his national media tail and the local media in a scrum after the rally.  Mulcair talked about lots of things.  The reporters focussed the insult and the apology.

The story was starting to run out of steam within 48 hours, though.  Then Colby Cosh at the National Post wrote a column about the insult,  That kept it alive for another couple of days.

Cosh’s column had another result.  It inspired the CBC’s Evan Dyer to produce an “analysis” piece for the Corporation’s  national election web coverage. Not content to deal with the comment as everyone else had,  Dyer justified Mulcair’s original comment.since he had spoken the truth, according to Dyer.  As proof,  Dyer cited a book that has already been widely discredited for using shoddy research to repeat conspiracy allegations that have already been disproven time and again.

And if that wasn’t enough,  Anthony Germain produced a commentary on Saturday that CBC promoted aggressively on the Internet.  In the new twist,  Germain purported to explain how the story spread.  The only problem is, Germain didn’t explain what happened.  Instead he relied on all sorts of colourful words, one of which the CBC editorial policy wouldn’t allow him to use.  And so it is that ratfucking became rat mucking.  Double down on the inadvertent humour.

The story ran for a week because the media ran it for a week.  They kept it alive.

The other major fuel source for the story came from Mulcair-lovers and Liberal –haters.  Provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy, for example,  called the province’s major open line show first thing on Monday morning to talk about more important issues rather than the Mulcair comment, as he put it.  Dippers and people who don’t like Liberals took to social media to moan and bitch and complain about the non-story.  And all through the week, whenever a story appeared about the non-story, they kept repeating it and retweeting it and fbing it yet again.

And again.

And again.

If you want people to stop talking about something, you need to stop talking about it.  That seems like a really obvious point but it escaped just about everyone who was so upset by the Mulcair comment story that they wanted to stop it.  All they did by talking about it, of course, was to keep it going.

There is a third factor that likely contributed to the way this story kept going, even allowing for the fuel it got from the media and NDP supporters. This hasn’t been an election campaign full of excitement and news. The NDP campaign stop, like the Liberal one later the same day,  didn’t have anything in it that would have stood out anyway. That news weakness, coupled with the media demand for content,  likely added an extra impetus to story involving a man widely touted – by the NDP especially – as the Prime Minister in waiting.

A bit of CBC spin

Germain added a CBC twist on his tale of secret plans. That’s worth mentioning.  The CBC had made a big deal of the fact that Justin Trudeau didn’t scrum with reporters after his rally in Mount  Pearl. The reason was simple:  Liberal campaign schedulers made the Mount Pearl visit a quick stop at the end of a day in Atlantic Canada.  Trudeau jumped to St. John’s from Halifax.  They got him out of St. John’s immediately after the rally so he could be fresh for the next day. 

When CBC talked about the lack of a scrum, they didn’t mention that Trudeau had been available for one-on-one interviews by telephone earlier in the day. Both VOCM and the Telegram took advantage of the opportunity.  Both Peter Cowan from CBC and Miike Connors from NTV requested interviews but both reporters say the Trudeau campaign didn't get back to them.*

Trudeau didn’t avoid a scrum in St. John’s as part of a dirty trick, as Germain claims.  Nor is there any independent reason to believe that the lack of a scrum fed the Mulcair controversy, as Germain claims.  The media had plenty of opportunity to ask Trudeau about the release.  After all he has a media tail following behind him just as Mulcair does.  The fact that Trudeau didn’t do a local scrum wouldn’t let him avoid the issue as the story was already national in scope by the time Trudeau arrived in St. John’s.

In fact,  James McLeod put the question to Trudeau in his interview.  You can hear the whole thing at McLeod's blog.  Trudeau accepted the apology and then pivoted to an attack on Mulcair for saying one thing in one part of the country and a different thing in another.

But apparently, in the world we now live in a perfectly normal, every day occurence in politics is some kind of dirty trick.

White is the new black.


*  Correction:  This post has been revised to delete incorrect information.  The original version stated that both NTV and CBC had not taken advantage of an opportunity to speak with Trudeau by telephone by their own choice.  Both Mike Connors and Peter Cowan said publicly on Monday that they had asked for an interview but received no reply from the Trudeau campaign.

As such, SRBP withdraws that comment without qualification.  I apologise unequivocally and unreservedly to both CBC and NTV generally and to Peter and Mike for that mistake on my part.

A second correction deletes the discussion of a hypothetical Trudeau response to a question about the Whalen release. James McLeod asked Trudeau about it and Trudeau had a response ready.  

That said,  the balance of the post stands.

Anthony Germain's post on the CBC website portrays the Whalen release as a dirty political trick.  Based on what I know of the incident from the people directly involved and based on 25 years of experience in public relations, that characterisation is simply wrong.  To characterise it as a political black op is based on a fundamental distortion of the events and  fundamental misunderstanding of this sort of political activity. If the distortion came from inside the campaign, then that doesn;t make it right, let alone better.

In politics, things are often a lot less Machiavellian on the inside than people on the outside believe.