Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Attack of last resort - Shoot the messenger

I've never made it any secret that I like Minister Trevor Taylor: I like what he does, I like how he speaks and thinks and I like that fact that he calls it like it is. I thought he was the best Minister of Fisheries we saw in quite some time; it's too bad that his cabinet colleagues cut him off at the knees over Raw Material Sharing (RMS).

But now he's been put into the untenable spot of acting as the Minister of DTP*. He's doing the best he can but he's running out of room to play.

The best example of his running out of rope is from this CBC story (Revenge motivated fibre optic move: Opposition) which noted:
Taylor also criticized journalists for how the fibre optic story has been reported. He maintains journalists have blown the ties between the premier and the companies involved out of proportion.
If that was the only manifestation of government's displeasure with the media then I wouldn't bother mentioning it but it's not.

First some background: besides the official government spokespersons there are also the unofficial spokespersons. If politics is a war then the warriors include not just the regular army (ministers, PR flack, officials) but also their supporters - the irregular partisans who will go out under cover of being just another interested voter and defend the government to the hilt with arguments and other weapons an official spokesperson could not dare to use.

In this case, those irregular partisans appear as well-briefed plants on the talk radio shows of VOCM.

All the parties have these kinds of talk radio plants to a greater or lessor extent. It started under Premier Tobin, escalated under Grimes and has hit it's apex under Premier Williams.

The Bond Papers has already well explored and explained this phenomena so I won't get into any more detail than than but suffice it to say that this government not only listens to talk radio, it works to shape that public debate through numerous unofficial proxies.

In practice, it's the government plants that are better briefed, better organized and more motivated to go out and protect their patrons. Lately they have been very active and aggressive in their attacks on the critics of government.

That's not new.

But now their enemies now encompass the media itself and certain named media personalities, including Randy Simms (Open Line) and Linda Swain (Night Line) and that is new. You don't have to listen very long to either show to hear attacks on the hosts themselves.

They stand accused, by the partisan irregulars, in the court of public opinion of the political crimes of promoting bad news against government, giving comfort to enemies of the government and showing personal bias against the Premier.

And then when they finish trying to take Simms and Swain down a few pegs, with little luck I should point out, they move over to look for, and often find, a sympathetic ear at Back Talk with Bill ("Premier, tell us again why are you so awesome") Rowe where they can complain about the unfairness and bias of his fellow on-air personalities.

Before it was enough just to attack the viewpoints of other callers. Then it escalated to attacking the character of the other callers. Now it's open season on the hosts too.

In the end, these professional radio show hosts are being attacked for not getting into line behind government policies and for declining to act as unpaid government cheerleaders of the public airwaves. And to what end? I doubt that either Swain nor Simms will change their on-air demeanors to suit the designs of their detractors.

And that's the problem with the "attack the media" government strategy. Government and media live in a symbiotic relationship and they need each other. These kinds of attacks personalises a relationship that should be kept cool, detached and professional.

Every losing political candidate or government will go through a phase of rationalizing their defeat by blaming the media. In fact, the media is merely doing their jobs and when a government sees things in the media they don't like or find damaging to their credibility, government has only themselves to blame.

But the immediate issue is this: when a government has to descend to the level of hunting down and shooting the bearers of bad news, then we see a frustrated government that is well and truly running out of ideas for explanation and defence.

*DTP = Defending the Premier

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