Media affect voter’s opinions, but to what degree do political staffers affect the media?
Last Saturday, the front page of The Evening Telegram caused a stir in Newfoundland and Labrador political circles as Steve Bartlett quoted an anonymous source (My speculation: Tom Osborne?) who provided some insights into how the Progressive Party machine works – specifically on the 8th floor of the Confederation building (The article is not available online unless you subscribe to their smart edition; I do and I recommend it)
The source detailed political tactics such as the skewing of online media polls and the use of aliases to post comments on news stories by political staff (who are paid by the taxpayer). The article pointed to a great deal of coordination to try and control the message via the media, especially VOCM.
As fellow blogger Ed Hollett correctly surmised, there were two “equal and opposite” reactions. Some started framing it as a major scandal and freaked out, while others scoffed at the article as not a big deal. Myself? I am part of the latter. Not because there is not anything wrong with it, it is more so because the things detailed in the article is common place in most, if not all, developed democracies littered with communications people.
It is not exactly news considering everyone remotely close to political circles in NL has known about it for years. For instance, this article (“The Audience is listening: talk radio and public policy in Newfoundland and Labrador”) was required reading during my undergraduate degree in political science. It breaks down in great detail how much attention political staff pay to the VOCM Open Line programs and argues that the opinions expressed on these programs have a strong effect on government behaviour (but not government policy, per se).
This kind of information tends to shock people, but seriously, this is run of the mill type stuff. The concentration of power in the Premier’s office is no surprise and coordinated messaging has been an offshoot from that. The Telegram article implies that the 8th floor controls the MHAs like pawns. That’s probably true… and it’s commonplace. Doesn’t sound pretty in our romantic view of democracy, but it is the cold hard reality.
It is something that arguably began in the late 60’s with the evolution of the PMO under Pierre Trudeau (see “The changing role of the Prime Minister’s Office” by Marc Lalonde). The controversial nature of it ramped up during the Chrétien administration with seminal works emerging such as “The Friendly Dictatorship” by Jeffrey Simpson and “Governing from the Centre” by Donald Savoie (Savoie has written a ton on this type of stuff… he calls it “court government”).
If you read Jean Chrétien’s books, he makes no secret of how much he relied on those senior advisers. Take for example the Kyoto Protocol decision, which Chrétien and the PMO decided on before consulting with Cabinet ministers (let alone caucus). Eddie Goldenberg, who was a senior adviser for Chrétien, remarks in the prologue in his book how large of a role he and other senior staff played in Canada’s decision not to go into Iraq. Later on, he tells a story about the September 11th tragedy where then Transport Minister, David Collenette, made a quick decision to ground flights after the towers were struck. Goldenberg lauded Collenette for the fast action, but also mentioned how it was so unusual for a cabinet minister to make a decision like that without consulting him or other senior PMO advisers first.
Fast forward to today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the PMO’s role has grown even further. The Harper PMO’s speciality is media suppression and message control; in other words, the stuff mentioned in the Telegram article on extreme steroids. Graham Darling offers a short but worthwhile rundown of the Harper tactics here. He cites media articles such as “Harper vs. Media war heats up”; “Harper says he’s finished with Ottawa press corps”; “Harper holds garden party for ‘enemy’ journalists”; “I’ve got more control now” and more.
So, by now you may ask yourself, what is up with this obsession of controlling media and skewing polls? It is because media, and by extension polls, have a major impact on public opinion, which then has a significant impact on vote choice.
VOCM Backtalk host, Paddy Daly, has been saying that “people aren’t that stupid” and that this type of poll manipulation is an utter waste of time. On a micro level, he is probably right. One poll, or one call from Paul Lane, isn’t gonna do a heck of a lot. On a macro level, over the long-term with enough coordination, it absolutely can. While I agree with the sentiment that we, as tax payers, should not be paying for it, this stuff does work.
So, are we that stupid? Well actually, it’s not that we’re stupid… it’s just that we find the media extremely convincing. It’s where we get our news and shape our opinion. It’s not because the actions of those senior bureaucrats directly affect our cognitive thoughts. The media acts as a medium through which political messages reach the voter’s brain. Any infiltration of that message can have an impact (but it can also backfire… ask Keith Russell).
Memorial Political Science Prof, Kelly Blidook, will be presenting to the Canadian Political Science Association this summer a piece of work we are co-writing which argues how much of an impact media plays on vote choice in the context of the NDP rise during the 2011 election (with luck it’ll get published). Blidook has written about how media affect perceptions before, specifically in “Media, Public Opinion, and Health Care in Canada: How the Media Affect ‘The Way Things Are’” where he convincingly showed through quantitative analysis that media use affected the likelihood of negative perceptions on the state of health care in Canada.
There is a ton of research out there that clearly shows the media influence public opinion, but who do they sway exactly? This is one of the great insights from Blidook’s/others research. It is not surprising that low media users are unlikely to have their opinion swayed by mass media. What is interesting is that the very high media users are not likely to be swayed either. At first, that surprised me. But think about it… high media users in political circles are political enthusiasts, participants, or partisans. The grand majority of people who read this blog fall into one of those categories. These people can read between the lines in their media consumption, and as such are not swayed to a high degree.
So who is swayed? It’s not the high users; not the low users, but the medium users according to research. Medium users typically consume media when they can, but do not make a point of it. They probably watch Here and Now for instance, but not On Point. Most people fall into this group. You can call them the silent majority. They listen, consume, and form their opinions.
Given that media has a great effect on public opinion, to what extent are political parties able to manipulate the messaging in media?
This is a relatively new area of scholarship in Canada, but Memorial Political Science professor Alex Marland (who was quoted in the Telegram article) has teamed up with Jennifer Lees-Marshment (arguably the leading scholar everywhere in Political Marketing) to produce Political Marketing in Canada. In part, it argues that the federal Conservative Party under Harper has modernized the campaigning style in Canada where citizens are treated as consumers where the brand is “sold” to voters. This is not done through simply election campaigning, but every single day (mostly through the PMO, I’d argue). The roots of this perhaps began with what former CPC strategist Tom Flanagan referred to as “permanent campaigning” in both “Harper’s Team” and a chapter in Heather MacIvor’s “Election”.
So what does this have to do with the VOCM Question of the Day, Open Line talk shows, and online forums? These are all forms of media which politicians and staffers have relatively easy access to. Does this mean that if a VOCM poll says the public feels a certain way, everyone now is convinced to feel that way? No, of course not. However, over the long term, with government staffers continuously picking away at these access points to the media with pro-PC messages, there is potential for impact (less so, though, when the mainstream message is almost entirely negative for the PCs, as it has been of late).
Take a look at “Do Polls Influence the Vote?” by leading Canadian political scientists Andre Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil and Neil Nevitte, which has made an appearance in early postings of mine. It argues that polls can affect voter’s choices, either by voting for the popular party at the time (the contagion effect) or by deciding to vote strategically. In the paper I hope to get published, by using survey data from the 2011 Canadian Elections Survey, I argue that the media’s reporting of the leaders’ debate and its expansive reporting of the “Orange Wave” had a substantive positive effect on vote choice.
Now, the polls mentioned in these works are scientific polls completed by reputable folks, not an unscientific poll like the QOTD. But, as Alex Marland alludes to in the Telegram article, citizens in Newfoundland are not constantly reminded by media that unscientific polls should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt. Personally, I can remember a number of instances listening to VOCM news where the results of the QOTD poll were announced without any such warning. You can see why Marland sees the opportunity for the polling funny business to have an effect. This is in line with previous scholarship and it rationalizes the decision by Dunderdale’s staff, like so many others, to do these sorts of things.
Going further, a coordinated approach to the QOTD, the Open Line programs and online forums can conceivably have an impact in unison. When soundbites get reported in the media as they often do, such as Danny Williams’ blow up at Randy Simms, they likely have a more instantaneous and significant effect as they get reported across different media sources (Danny Williams was obsessed with talk radio, by the way).
While the Telegram article caused a stir, it wasn’t news. Not only was it not news, but it certainly wasn’t a scandal that should bring down the government as a few of the #nlpoli crowd on twitter mused.
Whether it is normatively right or wrong is an interesting question, but given how the robocalls scandal has largely blown over, I’m thinking this behaviour will continue. The major problem I have with it is the power it gives high profile political staffers in the Premier’s or Prime Minister’s office over elected officials. As common as it is, it doesn’t sit right with me.
There’s little the media can do to control it as they have to remain impartial, which I think the VOCM hosts do a good job of as they put up roadblocks for MHAs (or talking point readers)to get on the air regularly.
Will these tactics save the PCs? Probably not, as their levels of “earned media” have been almost totally negative since Bill 29. No level of coordination and message control can fix that. If the Newfoundland media continue to open the curtains on this type of activity, it may lose its effectiveness. Who knows.