COMMENTARY: Don’t worry — opinion writers aren’t for hire
One thing you learn very quickly in political communications is that ordinary people are quick to discount the words of politicians.
Call it the built-up cynicism of a population used to watching politicians go down in balls of scandalous flame. Call it the failure of many politicians to keep their promises. When politicians speak, too many of us now assume shaded truths — if not outright lies — are what’s on offer.
And that goes double for a government caught up in scandal. If Justin Trudeau were to pen an opinion piece in the midst of this SNC-Lavalin mess calling for Canadians to respect our institutions and the rule of law, he would get a discounted reading, at best.
But what if someone else said it on Trudeau’s behalf?
What if you opened your paper, or clicked on your favourite news site, or — heaven forbid — relied on Facebook to shove an article into your feed, and saw a respected political scientist from a Canadian university calling for the same thing? Would that open your mind to the argument?
And that’s what political operatives of all stripes count on, whether it’s to get them out of a scandal or to build support for the government’s policy position on more benign files. Finding supportive voices outside of government to buttress your argument is a political tool as old as time.
This is undoubtedly what Katie Telford, Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, was referring to when she allegedly told Jessica Prince, Jody Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff, that she could procure some opinion pieces in support if Wilson-Raybould reversed course on SNC. The Prime Minister’s Office would “line up all kinds of people to write op-eds saying that what she is doing is proper,” Wilson-Raybould has Prince having Telford saying.
This bit of paraphrasing from Wilson-Raybould was the unexpected star of her four-hour testimony, sparking social media into burning outrage at the prospect of the Trudeau’s PMO directing opinion coverage in Canada’s papers.
The outrage was fueled, in part, by knowledge of the Trudeau government’s recent $595-million package of new tax credits and incentives for the news industry. Was this fund, announced last fall, what Telford was referencing? Was this the purpose of this media “rescue” fund to provide partisan cover for dodgy political decisions?
The answer is “no.” That isn’t what Telford was implying. Not that the hard-core partisans will believe it.
Indeed, the reaction of Conservative partisans to Wilson-Raybould’s comment is precisely why so many journalists were upset when the fund was announced last fall. In the age of social media and Donald Trump, fewer people trust the press to begin with; they don’t need another reason. Money from struggling news organizations is a mighty big reason.
So what was Telford trying to put across to Prince?
That Wilson-Raybould wouldn’t be alone. That she would have cover, and hopefully non-partisan cover, if she saw fit to reverse her stance and instruct the independent director of public prosecutions to pursue a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
WATCH BELOW: The SNC-Lavalin saga unfolds
And where would she find that cover? It would come from the army of subject-matter experts, friendly lobbyists, former politicians, former political insiders (hand up), and academics — among others — who submit their words for consideration to the nation’s opinion pages. Telford was saying she would shake the PMO’s tree of contacts to see if anyone would be willing to put pen to paper in support of such a reversal on SNC. They might have even sounded a few out in confidence before approaching Wilson-Raybould.
After all, SNC is a heavyweight in Quebec. Perhaps there was somebody from the Montreal Chamber of Commerce who would weigh in with support? Or someone with the Montreal Economic Institute think tank? Perhaps the Fondation Barreau du Quebec? An eminent legal scholar? A retired crown prosecutor? A respected political scientist? A labour union activist willing to speak to the jobs angle? SNC-Lavalin itself?
That said, given what we know about what was happening behind the scenes, it’s hard to believe an eminent jurist or legal scholar would have stuck their head above the parapet to defend over-ruling the independent director of public prosecutions. But the ask could certainly have been made.
The PMO would also have undoubtedly tried to spin the Ottawa columnists they most identify with, too, but that’s no guarantee the columnists would actually write about it, or write about it in the way the PMO wanted. Despite the perception, not everything in Ottawa is transactional, despite all of the transactions that do occasionally happen between political staff and the reporters and columnists who cover government.
And then there’s the firewall of the opinion editors.
There might indeed be too many people who are conflicted writing for papers (i.e. lobbyists who don’t disclose their clients), but it’s the editors — and the editors alone — who ultimately determine the mix on their pages. And most know what they’re dealing with when it comes to submissions and label them accordingly. Every time I appear, for example, my past is mentioned front and centre: readers know they’re getting a take from someone who worked at the highest levels of government for Stephen Harper. For the record, I’ve never written at the request of the Conservative party, and have often written critically of it.
When all is said and done, governments have the right to ask their stakeholders for support. Stakeholders will make the judgment as to whether they agree with the government’s position and write in support of it. Editors will then determine what goes in the paper or online.
As for that magic switch in the Prime Minister’s Office that dictates coverage? It doesn’t exist.
Andrew MacDougall is a director with London, U.K.-based consultancy Trafalgar Strategy. And as he says above, he was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.