Ever since I arrived on Parliament Hill in 2005, I’ve heard complaints from New Democrats that they can’t get any respect from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I didn’t think much, at first, of their complaints. After all, they were the third fourth party and none of the press gallery colleagues I was getting to know seriously thought they’d ever be the government. Parliament Hill reporters paid attention to them in minority parliaments only when their votes mattered on a confidence motion.
Now, you might remember, Jack Layton precipitated the 2005-06 campaign because he didn’t like what Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was prepared to give him on health care in exchange for supporting his minority government. So really, that election, for New Democrats, was all about health care. I was a reporter for CTV National News during that campaign and spent a week on the road with Layton. During that week, he did an event in Regina with Shirley Douglas as he talked about the system of universal health care that the first New Democrat leader, Tommy Douglas (Shirley’s dad) helped bring to Canada. But despite the tub-thumping speech from Douglas, some good visuals from the NDP campaign, I couldn’t crack the 30-minute national news lineup with my 1:50 item from the NDP campaign about health care. The newscast had time for 2 minutes each off of the Martin and Stephen Harper campaigns that night but nothing from the NDP on healthcare — the very reason we were having this Christmas-time election. In fact, during the whole week with the NDP, I never made the national newscast. I wasn’t alone. Other CTV reporters would spend weeks on the NDP campaign and never get on the national newscast.
This isn’t to pick on CTV. The NDP get the short end of the media stick all the time. Still does, in many respects.
Now though, the NDP is the Official Opposition and they can’t understand why the Parliamentary Press Gallery still treats the Liberals like they’re a big deal. How come the Official Opposition in the 41st Parliament doesn’t get the same kind of respect that the Official Opposition got in the 40th Parliament or the 39th Parliament?
You’ll definitely get this point of view from Brad Lavigne in his book Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story of the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP.
I talked to Lavigne about that on my program Battleground on Sun News Network tonight. (Above)
Lavigne is not grumbling about the media coverage because he likes to see his own views on the TV news. There’s a point to getting attention from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Here’s Lavigne in the book, sizing things up after Layton become leader in 2003:
“.. the NDP was largely invisible, and that was costing us support. To counter that, Jack and the team seized media opportunities under the mantra of saying no to nobody. Karl Bélanger executed an aggressive scrum management strategy after Question Period that pissed off the other opposition parties. Jack would head out to face reporters before the Liberal and the Bloc Québécois leaders, jumping the queue before they were finished in Question Period. Sometimes, we stationed him behind a minister so that Jack could try to sneak in after to the awaiting media. We saw a direct correlation between our visibility and our vote. If we could remind a portion of the population that we were out there, our vote would go up.”
In 2003, all the media wanted to cover was the circus surrounding the Canadian Alliance. So, to get some attention, the NDP brain trust took to punking the media:
“We .. planted a story in the Ottawa Citizen about asking our focus groups whether Jack should shave off his moustache. The issue had actually come up in one of them, though from a participant, not us. But the pitch worked. A nice big picture of Jack, alongside a rendition of what he would look like without his moustache, accompanied the story. What counted was getting his face in the news and reminding people that the NDP was still around.”
Much of Lavigne’s book chronicles how he and other members of Layton’s team tried desperately to find space in a media environment that was unable to get off of its own obsessions. Lavigne, and other New Democrats, for example, shook their head watching Stephane Dion become Liberal leader in 2006 with “wall-to-wall media coverage of the Liberal convention, nearly unanimously positive … The eastern-based media has always been obsessed with the Liberals, and this becomes even more pronounced during a leadership race .”
You won’t be surprised that Lavigne, while he’s fighting tooth and nail to beat Conservatives at the ballot box, is often admiring at Conservative tactics to beat Liberals. Conservatives and New Democrats are united in this: They both hate what they perceive to be Liberal arrogance and entitlement. And they both believe the media ignores their parties in favour of the Liberals. Always have.
Ahead of the 2008 election — another election where half the battle was to get a reporter, any reporter, to cover what New Democrats were up to — Lavigne and the brain trust sat down to start getting ready for that election:
“We were fighting for our share of crowded political space, and we knew it was easier to get media traction on a process story than on policy. Even though, at the end of every election campaign, the press gallery laments how little policy there was to cover, forgetting that as a group they tend to obsess about process and usually ignore the policy parties do propose.”
By 2011, the NDP figured one way to compete for that space was to offer big discounts to media who signed up to travel with and cover Jack Layton for the entire tour. It can cost a news organization about $10,000 a week per journalist to be on a leader’s tour. A print outfit would need a reporter for five weeks on each of the Conservative and Liberal planes — that’s $100,000 right there. Putting a third reporter out there to cover the New Democrats makes the tab $150,000.
TV outfits pay even more because they have to add in camera operators, producers and satellite feed time. Even when broadcasters “pool” their coverage, you’re still looking at something like $250,000 or more per broadcaster just to get the video off of three different campaigns for five weeks. Plus the $150,000 for a reporter for each of three campaigns!
Looking to cut costs during tough times, news organizations figured they could justify ignoring the NDP because they figured they’ll never be the government. But in the NDP view, they’ll never be the government if they don’t get the media coverage the other guys do.
Forget the fact that, in every election since 2000, the total number of Canadians who voted has steadily increased. In 2000, 1.1 million Canadians voted NDP. In 2011, 4.5 million marked a ballot for a New Democrat. By contrast, the Liberals got 5.2 million votes in 2000 and, in 2011, that had dropped by nearly half to 2.8 million. For New Democrats, the the media’s “obsession” with the Liberals simply can’t be justified by the choices the readers, viewers and listeners the media was serving were making at the ballot box.
And so Lavigne and company knew, before the 2011 election even started, that they had to make a compelling case to get news organizations to essentially sink tens of thousands of dollars into covering their campaign. When Lavigne visited my bureau with the pitch, he laid out some numbers and some research to convince us to part with that money and put a reporter on Layton’s plane. We didn’t need much convincing as we had largely believed the NDP were a party on the rise and worth providing comprehensive coverage to our readers and viewers. We were pleased to take advantage of the discount the NDP were offering but Lavigne’s presentation made it an easy sell to our company’s managers.
In his book, Lavigne details the pushback he got when he took his presentation to the CBC:
At the end of our presentation, veteran CBC reporter Terry Milewski folded his arms, leaned back in his chair, looked straight at me and said, “Well, that’s all very well and good, Brad, but it sounds like a lot of bullshit. Every time an election rolls around, the parties come in with their numbers and try and convince us that something magical is going to happen.”
Milewski was challenging me to provide further evidence for the scenario I had just laid out. The CBC would eventually sign on to cover the whole tour, but not all media outlets thought it was worth their time or money, including Postmedia News and the Globe and Mail. In fact, fewer outlets agreed at the outset to cover the entire 2011 tour compared with the 2008 campaign. Because certain outlets wouldn’t be with us for each of the five weeks of the campaign, we would see the number of reporters on the NDP tour increase with our rising fortunes. At the beginning of week four, for example, we were down to twelve reporters on the tour with us, but the number would jump to twenty-one for the last week of the campaign.
Again: Sun News Network and Sun Media were with the NDP from start to finish. We figured our readers and viewers expected us to make that investment. And yes, Lavigne, in his book, does talk about our reporting of Layton’s 1996 visit to a Toronto massage parlour. Lavigne calls it a “the hatchet job” and approvingly quotes our competitors who dissed our scoop. Like anyone, Lavigne is entitled to his opinion but, if you have the book, read his account closely. Nowhere does he contest any of the facts we reported or say any of it was wrong. And those threats of lawsuits? Never happened. We think it’s important to pay attention to the NDP — and we paid a substantial sum to do so, that many of our competitors did not, in order to provide our readers and viewers with complete coverage of the NDP campaign. And if reporting uncontested facts about a candidate to be prime minister is “a hatchet job”, well, then, so be it.
My point is: Ive long thought the NDP deserve to be taken as seriously and comprehensively as the Conservatives and the Liberals. All three are playing for the same stakes. And that’s one reason I commend Lavigne’s book to anyone involved in or interested in federal politics. My endorsement of the work is back there on the book’s jacket. It was taken from this blurb I was happy to provide:
“Brad Lavigne is one of the smartest political operatives in Canada and he’s smart because he knows that the feel-good part of the tale he tells — the NDP’s surprising 2011 leapfrog into Official Opposition — took a decade of hard, smart political work. And that’s the real story here: The remarkable patience, perservance and commitment over a decade by Lavigne, Jack Layton and many other New Democrats. Change takes time! Lavigne’s book, packed with insider anecdotes, pro political tips, and Lavigne’s hallmark humour, is a compelling read for anyone interested in “movement” politics, no matter the political stripe.”