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Canadian Political Reporting: The Press Muddles Through
Canadian Politics Through Press Reports, Fred Fletcher
Oxford University Press, 227 pages, $11.95

Reviewed By Ross Howard

 

The timing is right, the content is interesting, the analysis is good and it may be the innovative political science text book it is advertised to be. But journalists, particularly political junkies, should get beyond the title and declared purpose of Canadian Politics Through Press Reports and spend $11.95 for what it is: a useful critique of the Canadian press through its political reporting. It is also a handy collection of good clippings on the mainstay themes of Canadian politics.

Canadian Politics Through Press Reports (Oxford University Press) is described in its introduction as a resource for academics who traditionally require introductory-level political science students to read newspapers as a detailed source of news and analysis of current politics. The authors attempt to take that traditional process, and presumably the classrooms of electronically ill-informed students, two steps further. First, articles of the kinds students should be seeking are collected and organized here. Chapters focus on the basics of Canadian politics: institutions, the federal-provincial system and the players, to provide real-world examples of the text book abstracts. Second, however, the articles are repeatedly posted with warnings that they're probably flawed because they're the products of journalism.

It is for the warnings and disclaimers that this book is useful to journalists. The 800-to 2,000-word essays that precede each of the 13 chapters touch on the deficiencies of the Ottawa press gallery, of pack journalism, of official and unofficial secrecy in government, of the personality, colour and cliché writing that passes for analysis and a raft of other sins or constraints that the profession perpetuates and endures, most often in embarrassment or simple ennui. The book may be an introduction to politics for students; it's a gentle reminder of realities for professionals.

Author Fred Fletcher is particularly aware of both the range of ills in the trade and the extent of the silence on overcoming them. A York University professor of political science, he also directed a major portion of the Kent Commission's research in 1981 into newspapers and public affairs, and into election coverage and the press galleries. The Kent Commission was despised by publishers, was ultimately ignored by the Liberal government, and is presumably irrelevent to the new Tories in power. (Political scientist Donald Wallace, also at York, is
co-author.) Much of the analysis of shortcomings in political coverage in this book is extracted from the Kent findings. Perhaps Kent's work will be less wasted if it can reach a wider audience than politicians and publishers.

Basically, Canadian Politics Through Press Reports is a good assessment of how the press often fails and sometimes succeeds at producing enlightened coverage of Canadian politics. Not all the 50-odd reporters and columnists reprinted here (and those reprinted are dominated by many of the best of the business) will enjoy the suggestion they missed the mark in this or that article. But the criticisms are well-founded and well-intentioned. The authors suggest the press rarely delves into the details and power of regulatory agencies. They reprint a pair of regulators-as-personalities pieces by well-known reporters and contrast those with an outstanding analysis piece by a colleague. It makes for interesting reading. Well-informed academic assessment of the daily grind of grinding out a daily is a rarity in Canada.

To cite warnings raised in the opening chapter entitled The Press and Canadian Politics, a Consumer's Guide: "The Canadian mass media system is dominated by the 'national media' and (they) usually determine the topics others will cover, especially with respect to politics . . . Large areas of government activity are not covered adequately, especially the courts, regulatory agencies and the public policy process within the civil service . . . In their pursuit and filing of essentially the same stories carried by the wire services, reporters respond to a herd instinct; deviations from the accepted view are uncommon . . . The quality of coverage is affected as well by the rapid turnover of (Ottawa) gallery members . . . another problem is that few English reporters strive to become bilingual . . . in recent years more and more papers have closed their Ottawa bureaux and come to rely on wire service or chain news-service coverage . . . Canada's highly secretive political tradition makes it easy for politicians and bureaucrats to create news by making speeches, issuing statements, holding news conferences or leaking information . . . The fact that most political news comes from expected sources and is processed in a routine manner produces systematic biases in the coverage."

There's more. "Editors often appear to like nothing better than a cliche twisted slightly to give it interest. In fact, of course, mass communications is difficult without recourse to images with meanings to large numbers of people. The danger is that the symbols or metaphors needed for communication will come to have a life of their own: thus politics in British Columbia must always be portrayed as bizarre or Newfoundlanders as quaint (and on welfare). . . . Reports reinforcing existing images are generally subjected to much less scrutiny by editorial 'gatekeepers' than are those that challenge conventional wisdom . . . The influence of individual political leaders is exaggerated, civil servants and politicians alike are subjected to negative stereotyping . . . The national media based in Toronto and Montreal show a clear Central Canadian bias."

Many of these intended alerts may be beyond recognition for their student readers but they should strike familiar bells with professional journalists.

In the chapter on government bureaucracy, for example, with 14 reprinted articles, the authors argue the press devotes precious little real attention to how the bureaucracy functions, partially because of its uniquely secretive Canadian nature, and thus reporters resort to stressing personality. "As a group, these articles are remarkably superficial," the chapter essay
concludes, before finishing with a reference to several articles: Val Sears and Richard Gwyn get panned; Christopher Young, Inge Langer and George Bain are commended.

To a significant extent this book goes beyond the dry ruts of traditional political science and so-called objective analysis. It mounts an argument for reform of public perceptions and of the media process that imparts them. For example: "The bulk of press coverage . . . has dwelt on financial control and accountability and as a consequence there is a widespread perception that public enterprises are grossly inefficient and mismanaged." The articles which follow largely discount the claim.

These same articles are also the products of good writing, research and experience — useful background for any reporter assigned to tackle the Tory government and Crown corporations as a fast weekend feature. The timeliness of almost every article excerpted in the book — nothing predates 1980 and some are barely a year old — adds to the value of the book.

The book is also fun, particularly for its unintentional revelations of how far off base some widely-printed and -copied pundits can be: "A party so desperate that it has to bypass all of its elected members to bring in a totally inexperienced outsider would be held in contempt by all Canadians with a political IQ over 50. A Conservative government led by Brian Mulroney would be lucky to win 70 seats in a federal election." Michael Bliss, in the Financial Post, Feb. 5, 1983. Or: Western Canada Concept leader Gordon Kessler "is going to give western separatism its first official airing in a legislature that promises to be the most arresting in Alberta's history." Don Braid of the Edmonton Journal, Feb. 20, 1983.

Other articles are simply readable and relevant: Val Sears on Gordon Osbaldeston of the Privy Council (October 1982) is still pertinent; Jean-Louis Roy on Pierre Tru-deau and Quebec (December 1981) offers new insight into this year's massive Liberal defeat in Quebec; John Gray on Mr. Tru-deau's dominance of the party in English Canada in late 1982 is prescient of the party collapse in the latest election, and the questions Ben Tierney raised in January 1980 about the press stereotyping of Joe Clark heading into an election could be applied to John Turner in July 1984.

And finally, consider Geoffrey Stevens in The Globe and Mail a day after the 1980 election: "The election was a triumph of image over reality . . . . It would be bootless to blame the public for not seeing through the distorted images of the leaders. The media may not have invented the images but they nurtured and fed them. Television is the chief villain . . . Anything that limits or lessens the influence of television and opinion polls will enhance the role of the local candidate and increase his value in the political equation. It would be worth the effort."

Ross Howard reports on politics for The Globe and Mail

 

Published in Sources, Winter 1984



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