Prime Ministers have a habit, sometimes justifiable, sometimes not, of going to war with the media.
Pierre Trudeau often treated scribes with scorn, levelling sarcastic put-downs. To him they were jackals. Brian Mulroney’s press relations eventually descended into trench warfare, most notably when reporters focused on the number of Gucci loafers in his closet instead of his “tremendous record” of accomplishment.
Jean Chrétien brawled with press baron Conrad Black and assorted keyboard wretches like myself over allegations of abuse of power. Stephen Harper bitterly railed at what he regarded as a Liberal-dominated press and went to extremes to deny journalists access.
But Justin Trudeau is different. He gets attacked by the media as much as any leader I have ever covered. He complains about the media less than any leader I have covered. In response to a recent tweet making this point, 13,000 “likes” came in, the indication being that his high road approach has considerable support.
His approach stands in sharp contrast to that of Pierre Poilievre. The Conservative Leader is playing the victim card, going hard on the theme that the media are Liberal lackeys and vowing to scrap the English language CBC.
There’s widespread support for this stance as well. The liberal lean of the Fourth Estate is an article of faith among conservatives. They’ve felt this way for eons. And indeed, there was a time, in the Pierre Trudeau era and before, that it was very much the case.
But Mr. Poilievre might do well to acquaint himself with some media history. Much has changed since that period. He’s in a time warp.
The changes began with the arrival of the decidedly right-wing Toronto Sun and the expansion of Sun papers into several cities. Then came the takeover of the countrywide fleet of the liberalish Southam papers by arch-Tory Conrad Black. A godsend for the conservative cause, he turned them rightward and also created a national conservative flagship paper, the National Post.
The two big chains, which are now under the sole proprietorship of Postmedia, employ primarily right-leaning pundits who outnumber those on the left at The Toronto Star and elsewhere.
Through these times, right-wing A.M. radio talk jocks multiplied. Meanwhile in TV land, the right was gaining ground as well. The once dominant CBC, a raw nerve for conservatives, has lost significant audience share to CTV and Global, neither of which have a leftward bent like the relentlessly woke national broadcaster.
In Mr. Trudeau’s Ottawa, a staunchly Liberal town, residents have just two local papers to choose from, the conservative Sun and the conservative Ottawa Citizen. It’s not the only big city to feature a right-wing print monopoly.
All said, the Poilievre party is not doing so badly. It’s doing even better when you consider that Canada’s population, as evidenced by the combined vote of the Liberals and NDP in election after election, is predominantly progressive. If the media were a true reflection of the character of the people, they would have a progressive lean. It’s hardly the case.
Consequently, a question arises. Is it Mr. Poilievre who should be taking issue with the media or Mr. Trudeau? The Prime Minister, however, chooses to forgo the fight. Instead in 2019, he came up with $600-million in aid to prop up struggling news outlets. He probably realizes that for him to take on the media would backfire, increasing the intensity of attacks. And so he grins and bears it.
All’s not to say he is any champion of openness and freedom of information. On the contrary, he follows the distressing trend line of other PMs in hoarding power in the PMO and restricting media access. How many full-fledged news conferences has he done in the last year?
Mr. Poilievre, who was right in recently rebuking a Global News reporter for his hectoring manner at a briefing, but wrong in calling him a Liberal, is bent on being more restrictive despite his “freedom” talk. He is no Donald Trump, but he is no doubt aware of how the former president profited by labelling media criticism “fake news” and fomenting resentment among his populist legions in so doing.
The Conservative Leader is also aware that no matter what the trajectory of our media history, no matter the gains with two chains and all the rest, his followers remain absolutely convinced of the contrary. Any suggestion the media establishment isn’t in the pocket of Liberal interests renders them apoplectic. It’s been that way forever. Their new leader will have the myth persist.