The Nova Scotian Elections: A Media Above Society

Commentary by TONY SEED

THE monopoly media in Nova Scotia played a leading role in trivializing the recent provincial election and marginalizing the real concerns and problems of the people, says Bruce Wark, media critic and professor of journalism at King’s College School of Journalism in Halifax.

“Politics, as presented by the media, becomes not just personality, but performance, spectacle and sport,” he writes, citing journalists’ “obsessive focus” on party leaders “as a handy device.” Far from being citizens with a social conscience, the media sees Nova Scotians as mere spectators at a prize fight, a duel or a horse race. “There were ‘jabs and jibes but no knockout punch’ in the Nova Scotia leaders’ debate, according to a Daily News editorial. The Herald portrayed the debate as a sword fight where ‘the sparks flew’ but ‘no one spilled any real blood.’“ The effect is to depoliticize, marginalize and reduce the electorate to bystanders.

The role of the media in lowering the level of political coverage extended to creating a “fixation” with the individual, even to subjective appraisals of their taste in clothing and their personal lifestyles. The Herald ran a front-page story citing two clothing “experts” who advised the leaders of the PCs and NDP “to stop wearing plaid.”

The election coverage of the media “weakens democracy because it fosters the growth of ‘image’ politics, in which politicians – aided by spin doctors and PR advisers – strive to project an exciting persona”, Prof. Wark said.

Writing in The Coast, a Halifax weekly, he said that the media itself has become an integral part of the PR game, citing examples of Herald and Daily News columnists who set themselves up as arbiters “judging how the main political actors are ‘playing’ the issues.” (As in other provinces, some of the main political journalists themselves become PR executives and consultants.)

Prof. Wark also cited the extraordinary role of so-called public opinion polls, many of them financed and structured by the monopoly media itself or by the corporate research agencies. They became another organized pressure on the conscience of the polity.

“Politics is about exercising power, and the real ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ are the people affected by the preferences of the ruling political party,” he pointed out.

The journalists are also trained in techniques to embroider and buttress the political parties, to modify the information landscape and elevate the assertions of politicians to the level of official truth. This is heavily orchestrated by Corporate Canada whose agenda the media and the main political journalists fully understand.

They are influenced, said Prof. Wark, “by the business and professional classes who have more access to the media than people with less money or education. Journalists habitually interview professional ‘experts’ who define problems and suggest solutions.” Distorted or misleading information is then repeated over and over, until it is accepted as truth. As a result, both the parties and the media together presented income taxes – “which benefit the well-off” – as “a hot media topic, while poverty, homelessness, welfare cuts, inadequate minimum wages and substandard housing are not.”

Far from representing the facts and without favouritism, the media reflected a polar opposite of reality. As with its coverage on the Iraq war, its package is fully sanitized to “win hearts and minds” to a preconceived agenda.

* * *

The Media has No Business Judging the Lives of Political Leaders

We should ask ourselves what business does the media have in interfering in and judging the lives of political leaders in the first place? Prof. Bruce Wark, in my opinion, is correct that the lifestyles and personalities of individuals are hardly political matters. We should also ask that, if the effect of the media is to degrade political life and political culture, can that effect be separated from their aim? Of course, there are always unintended consequences of one’s actions, but when they happen over and over, from one election through the next, can we say that the behaviour of the media is unconsciousness and spontaneous or merely a wrong choice of editorial topics by the newsroom?

Recall that the entire provincial and national print and broadcast media first attempted to cover up and then finally made the venal sexual practices of the former Liberal premier, then federal cabinet member Gerald Regan (alleged to have attacked some 36 women over a period of four decades) standard and sensational fare in the mid 1990s. Do we not see a double standard of the media towards political leaders? Regan was first exposed by Mike Marshall, a private citizen, who courageously distributed a flyer to 6,000 of Regan’s constituents in 1984. But, interestingly enough, as documented by Stephen Kimber is his book Not Guilty: The Trial of Gerald Regan, no one in the media called him about his claims, no one reported his claims, and not one policeman investigated his claims. Nor did Regan sue Marshall for defamation of character. Of course, this is an example of something that should have been exposed and condemned rather than being blacked out. Ten years of official silence in party politics and the media passed. Imagine the suffering of the young women, the casualties of such cynical indifference.

Fast forward to the 1999 election. Again we had the spectacle of the same Daily News’ columnists cited by Prof. Wark self-righteously campaigning against the peccadilloes of then provincial NDP leader Robert Chisholm, for allegedly “lying” on a questionnaire about an impaired driving charge in his youth – a charge the Daily News repackaged against Darrell Dexter, his replacement, earlier in 2003 – with both incidents associated with bad judgment or indiscretions in their youth.

But we should then ask ourselves if the replacement of Regan as leader of the province by the “folksy” John Buchanan of the PCs changed either the agenda of their parties or altered a neo-liberal agenda from being imposed on the society? When that agenda proved disastrous, the “man of the Mira” was then tarred and feathered for the massive debts incurred by the province to finance it; willy nilly, the “right wing” Buchanan was outcast, the man of the pariahs. But neither Regan nor Buchanan were held to account for the consequences of luring the giant U.S. multinationals in oil and gas and their escalating takeovers of the natural resources and what little industry left in the province, about which Nova Scotians have rightly issued hundreds and hundreds of flyers. Not a single questionnaires, not a single “investigative” series of reports, and no substantial discussion was launched by this same media. Corporate anti-labour laws, known as the Michelin Bill, guaranteeing the French multinational a union-free workplace, passed by Regan and upheld by Buchanan, were likewise glossed over by the media in the name of celebrating the creation of jobs, in defiance of the rights of the workers. Eyes and ears, even the conscience of the community? Recall the blackouts of the Donald Marshall Jr. case, the Westray mine disaster (whose officials were cleared of charges relating to the deaths of 26 miners) or the current persecution of the hook-and-line fishermen of South West Nova Scotia by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as part of its program to corporatize and privatize the oceans with the system of ITQs (Individual Transferable Quotas). The individual jockeys may have changed, but the horses plunged on.

For their part, the NDP in 1999 blamed anonymous “Tories” for spilling the beans by leaking personal details about Robert Chisholm to the Daily News, when it was the Daily News who set up this diversion in the first place through their cute questionnaire probing the private lives of the “leaders,” with seemingly idle and innocent questions about whether or not they had gone skinny-dipping in their youth or had ever been convicted of a criminal offence. Yet, simultaneously, the Cape Breton Post also “outed” a well-regarded NDP woman candidate in Sydney. Instead of participating in and collaborating with such unprincipled discussion and investigations, it behooves all democratic political personalities to take a stand against such uncultured behaviour by the media and in political life – however trite or casual it may at first seem.

What can be said about the hullabaloo made by this media about “leaders” and their interference in and judging the personal lives of political leaders – even to the extent of rating their taste in clothes and food – is that their entire preoccupation with the politics of personalities is a calculated diversion from the politics not just of power – however narrowly defined – but of the well-being and rights of Nova Scotians.

The amorality and conscience of this media is sociopathic and its outlook is pragmatic: whatever works is the truth. It merrily sails along, confirmed in its own self righteousness, as it is on the outlook for the “wrong-doers.” Since it opposes the “wrong-doers” then “we” (as they say in the media) must be “good” and “doing good.” The individual leader who is “good” one day just as easily becomes “evil” the next. This or that individual politician is occasionally outed as a lying bastard: the end justifies the means. In this way, the pragmatic outlook reduces all affairs of concern to the people to a personal level in which the evil nature of whatever or whomever is to be blamed for the failure to achieve success and prosperity. The underlying notion is that the people and their collectives are incapable of playing any independent role in society, of empowering themselves. This outlook becomes embraced even by the “left wing” “opponent.” Instead of examining their own neo-liberal political program or the role of gutter journalism for their electoral shortcomings during the past election, the NDP and several trade union officials openly blamed the electorate for their poor showing and started public speculation about their leader’s personal future.

The notion of a government and a media above civil society, as illustrated by Prof. Wark, has profoundly negative and undemocratic implications for Nova Scotia and Canada.

What is of concern is not Mr. Dexter’s driving record two decades ago or that he can’t stand egg plant but the stand and record of his party. The same can be said for Dr. Hamm and eel, and Mr. Graham and blood pudding. Our society ought to be preoccupied with the fulfillment of rights of citizens, of every human being who lives within the boundaries of our province. Any political party’s sole responsibility is to lead the government to ensure that the rights of all human beings are fulfilled. This is also the social responsibility of the media. The notion of a government and a media above civil society, as illustrated by Prof. Wark, has profoundly negative and undemocratic implications for Nova Scotia and Canada.

Source: Shunpiking Online, August 18, 2003

http://www.shunpiking.com/ol0102/sponline0102

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Filed under Media, Journalism & Disinformation, Nova Scotia Government

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