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How CanWest Helped Elect Campbell and Company

Unlike the dubious 'strike vote' story, a report bad for Libs lay buried until after election day.

By Donald Gutstein 6 Jun 2005 |
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Four days after the provincial election, the Vancouver Sun analyzed the campaign strategies of the BC Liberals and New Democrats. This was interesting but because a key player was missing, the analysis is incomplete.

The key player is not Adriane Carr’s Green Party nor the phantom ‘Big Labour’ but CanWest Global itself.

Self-criticism is not a media strength, so here is one person’s analysis of CanWest’s election strategy.

The news organization’s goal, if indeed a diverse organization comprising many newsrooms can have one goal, seemed to be to ensure the Liberals were re-elected at all costs. CanWest has a stake in too many Liberal initiatives like the Olympics and mining and real estate developments that will bring additional advertising revenues to the company.

On the political front, when Conrad Black took over Southam in the mid-90s, he turned his papers into more overtly ideological organs, a direction which the conservative Asper family continued. Now strongly pro-business, it seems strange to remember that the Sun endorsed Mike Harcourt in 1991.

The ‘conditioning’ begins

CanWest kicked off its election work with a high-profile conditioning campaign early in the year. It is a mistake to analyze an election only during the official writ period, which commenced on April 19. In a conditioning campaign, the themes that will form the election platform are packaged for public consumption. If the conditioning campaign is successful, campaigners need only to remind voters of key messages during the official campaign.

CanWest’s campaign mirrored the Liberals. The main theme was that the economy was in great shape due to Liberal management and voters would be fools to give it up for the incompetent New Democrats.

A key document in CanWest’s conditioning campaign was a 20-page Outlook BC section in January. Content: 20 pages of unrelieved positive economic news. “There’s no question British Columbia’s economy is surging,” the front page proclaimed. Retail, real estate, forestry, energy, gambling, finance, high tech, airports, ports, education, construction mining, manufacturing Olympics – the news was all good.

Outlook BC’s Business Section roots were evident. As in the Sun’s business pages, only the business viewpoint was presented. The views of workers in those industries, of consumers, and of citizens concerned about environmental and social impacts were blanked out.

The not-so-hidden message was revealed in an ad by the Coalition of BC Businesses under the headline “The Best is Yet to Come.”

“With the economy on the right track, British Columbians have choices once again,” the ad said. “How we got here is no accident. The last four years have seen a government committed to helping create a positive economic climate for BC’s future.”

And then came the kicker. “Remarkably, some people want to change course and turn back the clock to the failed policies of the past. Let’s not make that mistake.”

OK. Got it.

The Sun’s conditioning campaign continued through the winter and spring with pictures of giant cranes being floated under Lion’s Gate Bridge to handle all that increased container traffic (get it? Economy booming) and tales about “staggering” real estate deals.

Surely we’d be crazy to give this all up.

A very specific ‘Outlook’

This phase of the Sun’s work ended during the election campaign with another Outlook BC section on tourism and development. The section was written by Sun business reporters and paid for by Gordon Campbell’s old development industry buddies through their advertising.

At the back was a full-page ad from Polygon Homes in which the company said it was “Proud to be Building British Columbia.” Polygon, which contributed $16,090 to the BC Liberals in 2004, went on to inform us that “British Columbia is back on track. Housing starts have set new records, business investment is rising, and people are moving back into the province” (as if BC has been a barren and vacant wasteland since Bill Vander Zalm was premier).

The Sun transitioned smoothly into the official campaign period with a front-page story on April 21 titled “Campbell says there’s one issue in election: Economy.”

And it ended its campaign on the Saturday before the election with an op-ed piece by editorial page writer Harvey Enchin titled “Liberals clearly outperform the NDP on the economy.”

During the first three weeks of the campaign, the Sun stayed on message. When Carole James talked of trust and accountability and Adriane Carr about sustainability and health during the leaders debate, the Sun headlined its story “A debate of economic visions.”

In the last week a crisis loomed for CanWest and the Liberals. A poll published six days before the election showed the gap between the Liberals and New Democrats narrowing to five percentage points. The poll was taken in the days after the leaders debate so clearly voters didn’t buy the Sun’s version of reality, that it was simply about the economy or BCTV’s view that James won the debate but it didn’t matter – Campbell would still win the election.

Strike vote hysterics

Additional ammunition was needed to beat back the godless socialists.

That’s when CanWest started its “leaked secret documents” campaign, which was so over the top that it will undoubtedly be remembered as a remarkable moment in news media history.

BCTV News Hour’s May 11 edition led off with “something that could have a big impact on the provincial election campaign,” Tony Parsons told his viewers. “We have secret documents from the BCTF suggesting that teachers could take a strike vote very soon after next Tuesday’s election. And how a possible strike might play out very much depends on which party forms the next provincial government.

“Because one of them has already designated education an essential service. And the other has said it is in favour on the teachers’ right to strike.”

Very clearly laid out, Tony, but the problem is that it’s not true. There are at least six errors or lies in the statement.

The documents were not secret but consisted simply of a letter from a local teachers union president to 300 members. The letter didn’t have stamped on the bottom “For Your Eyes Only” or “Read and Destroy.”

The letter wasn’t from the BCTF but from the Mission Teachers’ Union and therefore did not reflect the teachers federation position.

Teachers could not take a strike vote “very soon” after the election. The timing was clearly laid out in the letter.

Designating education an essential service wouldn’t prevent teachers from striking.

Saying the NDP is in favour of teachers’ right to strike doesn’t mean the teachers are more likely to strike under the NDP.

Most important, Parsons neglected to mention that the teachers have been without a contract for nearly a year. A strike vote is a normal action for a union because it enables a bargaining committee to put more pressure on an employer.

These weaknesses seemed irrelevant to a news organization on a mission. CanWest went crazy with the story.

It was the front-page story in the Vancouver Sun the following day. “Teachers to consider strike vote two days after election,” the headline read.

It was on BCTV News Hour again that evening with two separate items.

May 13 was a marathon of BCTF scare stories. In the morning, the Sun had stories on pages one and two. The Noon News featured an interview with Carole James. Anchor Randene Neill asked James six questions, all of which were about teachers and unions. James was not given an opportunity to say what issues she considered important.

Then both the Early News and the News Hour led with the “secret memo leaked to BCTV” for the third day running. This was odd because there were no new developments to warrant continuing coverage. Tony Parsons concluded his piece with these words: “The main casualty of this controversy could be the party perceived to have the closest ties to the BCTF.”

Exactly. Mission accomplished?

Safely buried for six weeks

Contrast that overkill with CanWest’s reporting on an issue that could have damaged the BC Liberals. This story, that operating rooms in BC hospitals sit empty for 15,000 hours every week even though wait lists for surgery are 34 per cent longer than in 2001, received no coverage until after the election. It ran on page A9 of The Province on May 20, after Campbell was safely re-elected.

The figures were provided in a study by the B.C. Nurses Union using Ministry of Health Services data. Why would the nurses wait until after the election to release these potentially damaging numbers?

The answer is they didn’t.

The information was made available on March 30, six weeks before election day. BCNU president Debra McPherson said there was no need to contract out surgeries to private clinics, as the Campbell government was doing, since the study proved that health authorities could provide the additional operating room capacity in public hospitals.

Did The Province sit on the story for six weeks until the election was over? Province editor in chief Wayne Moriarty confirms that the story “was filed considerably before it ran.” But he denies that it was held back because of the election. “We would never do anything like that,” he says.

The problem could be that the story was very long. Unlike other long stories that can be cut to fit the news hole, this was “a seamless story that had to run at length,” he says. For that reason voters didn’t have an opportunity to find out about this troubling situation. But, Moriarty adds, the story “absolutely should have run before the election.”

Still, the perception is that a bogus story received wall-to-wall coverage while a genuine story was too long. Suspicions remain that the story didn’t make it into the paper for what seems like partisan reasons.

When interests ‘converge’

Perhaps it’s an unsupportable “conspiracy theory” to claim that a diverse news organization like CanWest can have a single campaign strategy. It’s true that the various newsrooms are reticent to share stories even though they were originally ordered to in the name of the god of convergence when the Aspers took over.

And it’s difficult to imagine various editors in chief and news director sitting down to map out their collection election coverage policies.

But you don’t need a conspiracy theory to recognize the convergence in coverage among CanWest properties. And it’s also obvious that CanWest wanted a BC Liberal victory.

Donald Gutstein, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, writes regularly for the Tyee on media.  [Tyee]

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