Amplification (Ooo, Scary!)


The photograph on the left is by kokogiak and is used according to its Creative Commons license.

Now, not to downplay the legitimate criticisms opposition supporters have of this government, but I’ve said before that a large part of Stephen Harper’s problems is optics. He does things that look bad, and when called on it, he looks sullen and angry, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar and told to go to his room.

In recent weeks, I believe Stephen Harper has had an additional problem of amplification, wherein he makes two decisions which aren’t so controversial in and of themselves, but when combined together by their timing, amplify each other into a major news story. For instance, his decision not to lower the flags wouldn’t have hurt him nearly so much if it hadn’t been accidentally combined with the banning of the media from seeing the coffins of four Canadian soldiers return to Canadian soil. After campaigning on openness and accountability, any decision he makes to limit media access to his ministers — however sound or otherwise benign this policy — takes on the edge of hypocrisy, and when he goes to court to block the release of prime ministerial agendas, the story becomes that this prime minister is making himself less open and accountable to the people.

The individual acts aren’t the problem, here, but the pattern they build when put together.

But Stephen Harper’s problems of amplification may extend to the rest of the party. Consider this news story, broken by CanWest reporter Elizabeth Thompson, about the Conservatives receiving advice from Republicans on burying the Liberals by scouring the previous administration for every last hint of corruption and displaying it publicly. In and of itself, this is not big news. For one thing, the Civitas Society is a think tank, and political think tanks have these agendas and say these sorts of things, and that doesn’t mean that a friendly government is automatically beholden to them. And as POGGE himself notes, this is more a matter of irony than anything wrong:

I certainly agree that evidence of corruption should be brought to light. And I think it should be done simply because corruption is wrong and in particular any solid evidence of illegal activity should be pursued and the perpetrators brought to justice.

But the irony is pretty thick here on at least two counts. First of all, the Conservatives are being advised to focus on their opponents’ corruption by an ally — his word — affiliated with a Republican party that looks more and more like a crime family every day. While I continue to regard Harper as an ideologue and his party as the worst possible choice to govern this country, I’ve never supposed them to be the outright criminal conspiracy that the GOP has become. Harper and the Conservatives might want to think about avoiding this particular association.

And secondly, do the Conservatives really want to take strategic advice from a Republican at a time when George Bush’s approval rating has just reached the lowest point of his presidency?

However, Antonia Zerbisias notes that Blogging Tory founder Stephen Taylor may have inadvertantly amplified the problem. Here’s her words:

Conservative party mouthpiece and supposed blogger Stephen Taylor rips into CanWest’s parliamentary correspondent Elizabeth Thompson for daring to cover … the news.

This was Stephen Taylor’s objection:

Citizen scribe and PPG executive Elizabeth Thompson scored an easy story while violating certain principles. You see, Civitas is a private gathering of conservatives to discuss politics and ideas without the inhibitive hind-thought of media scrutiny. Without this scrutiny, anyone is free to discuss the concepts that are controversial, the ideas that confound the ignorant, and the thoughts that are at the mere stage of incubation.

Thompson violated the conference attendees and the conference itself by drawing back the veil. The organizers of the conference had asked that members of the media keep discussions and presentations off-the-record to protect the free and uninhibited discussion of ideas. I’d suppose that I’d now be wary of going off-the-record in a future conversation with Elizabeth Thompson. Do other reporters still respect this principle?

Now, I have great respect for Stephen Taylor as a stand-up individual and for the work he has done. His Blogging Tories organization has really energized the Canadian blogosphere, left, right and centre. However, I think he puts his foot in his mouth when he essentially says (paraphrased):

Thompson wasn’t supposed to print that! We don’t want the public to know what conservatives really think! They’re too stupid to comprehend the ideas we have (so we’ll have to implement them by stealth).

This one statement turns my reaction to this story from “oh, whatever” to “oh, really?” It makes me wonder, what do the Conservatives have to hide?

I can understand the need for information to be kept confidential, especially if it is a party’s election strategy being discussed, but as Elizabeth Thompson responds in his comment section, if the conference was supposed to be a secret planning meeting and not a public gathering designed to promote the conservative cause, then the conference organizers really did a poor job in security:

I am not a member of Civitas and am therefore not bound by the organization’s internal membership rules not to report what I hear. I did not enter the room and remained in the public foyer of the hotel, a foyer that members of the public have to cross through to get to other hotel services. Civitas President Lorne Gunther, with whom I have appeared several times on Newsworld, passed me about five times as I stood outside the room and never asked me to leave. I turned down invitations from members of Civitas to come on in and grab a seat.

If you want to keep people from hearing a meeting where a prominent Republican pollster using a microphone and rather loud speaker system briefs a large group with strong connections to the prime minister of this country and the government, (something many people would judge of public interest), I would suggest next time you simply close the door.

The story would have died away if the reporter hadn’t been criticized for reporting the news. Now I’m seeing Conservatives caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Now I’m interested. Now I’m paying attention.

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