Mainstream media coverage of the 2006 federal election campaign was marked by a perhaps-surprising improvement in the fairness of the reporting of the major political parties. But still, there persisted an animosity toward, and an ostracization of, socially conservative candidates, particularly those from the Conservative party.
Observers wondered, when the campaign began, whether the media would engage in the kind of blackmarking of social conservatives seen, for example, when Stockwell Day headed the old Alliance party or when the comments of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke Conservative candidate Cheryl Gallant regarding abortion and the situation in Iraq were given wide broadcast during the 2004 election. Despite the best efforts of the Liberal party’s war room, however, the media more or less separated Conservative leader Stephen Harper from the views of his socially conservative candidates, much as they have always done with Liberal leaders and social conservatives in that party.
Many raised their eyebrows at the generally positive, or at least neutral, portrayals of Harper, who was more than once described as looking “prime ministerial.” That likely played a large part in helping him and the Conservatives overcome, at least partially, the electoral wall conservative parties have suffered in Ontario for a number of elections.
Social conservatives, on the other hand, didn’t fare nearly as well. They were often depicted as being liabilities, or at least irritants, with which the Conservative party had to live. This type of demonization came into play more often at the local level, when smaller media outlets reported on campaign developments within their lesser spheres of influence.
The Ottawa Citizen, for one, jumped on the anti-Cheryl Gallant bandwagon by endorsing Liberal candidate Don Lindsay in the Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke riding. “The incumbent’s forthright comments on abortion and gay rights in 2004 embarrassed the Conservative party and caused Prime Minister Paul Martin to cite her position as proof of a secret agenda in the opposition,” the paper wrote in a Jan. 19 article. Despite being panned, Gallant wound up winning by an even larger margin than in 2004.
In Hamilton, the Spectator newspaper on at least two occasions published articles putting the history of the Conservative candidate in Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, David Sweet, under the microscope. From 1998 to 2004, Sweet served as president of Promise Keepers Canada, the Canadian arm of the U.S.-based evangelical Christian organization. He stepped down in January 2004, in order to run – successfully – in the latest federal election.
Of course, social conservatives came under the gun at the national level as well. LifeSite News editor John-Henry Westen opined that, in fact, “Never before have pro-life, pro-family and pro-faith Canadians been as frequently and broadly painted as extreme, scary and harbouring secret agendas.” The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, in a post-election statement, expressed concerns that “some of the principles of evangelicals are committed to were portrayed as ‘extreme’ during the campaign.”
Evangelicals as ‘extremists’
Instances of this kind of portrayal were legion. The Canadian Press on Jan. 18 distributed an article describing Gallant’s 2004 comments (which were actually made at that year’s national March of Life in Ottawa and not during the election campaign) as “a gaffe” and claimed that her party was keeping “a tighter rein” on social conservatives this time. The article also quoted political scientist David Laycock of Simon Fraser University as saying that Harper “can’t push social conservative issues too hard on too broad a range of questions.”
Three days later, Canadian Press went so far as to assert that Paul Martin’s poll figures were rising because of his extreme pro-abortion and pro-gay “marriage” rhetoric. The article ran in the Hamilton Spectator under the headline, “Firm Liberal stand on abortion, gay ‘marriage,’ wins PM points.”
The leftist Toronto Star – which formally endorsed the Liberal party – in a Jan. 20 article ominously asked, “Is religious right poised to set Harper’s agenda?” It suggested that statements of Conservative candidates such as Rondo Thomas, David Sweet and Harold Albrecht “scare some people, especially those concerned a conservative religious agenda could strip away what they regard as hard-fought freedoms.”
The article quoted Andrew Grenville, of the Ipsos Reid polling firm, as saying that, “What is occurring is that people are so affronted by the way things worked out in the U.S. that they fear it’s going to occur here.”
The Ottawa Citizen on Jan. 21 printed a column by Shelley Page, in which she lamented that “not enough attention is focused on the numerous other ways an ‘anti-choice’-dominated government can stall or erode a woman’s ‘right to choose’ … My ideal would be a prime minister who truly does stand up for a woman’s ‘right to choose,’ instead of only at election time.”
The National Post, in its Financial Post section, published a Jan. 27 article by Lawrence Solomon, who posited that Harper had a chance to win many urban ridings – if he could “shed his image as a sexual throwback.” He added: “Harper could not do better than to march in a gay pride parade … The organizers would welcome him with open arms, as would the country.”
Giving Morgentaler a platform
And what would the federal election campaign have been without the media obsequiously filing into Henry Morgentaler’s Toronto abortuary to listen to the latest rantings of Canada’s abortion king? His press conferences, regularly alleging a threat to “the right to choose” should a conservative government be elected, received widespread coverage with, as usual, not even token attempts to balance his outlandish claims with comments from the pro-life point of view.
What made a Jan. 20 press conference especially interesting was that Heather Mallick was, along with Morgentaler, one of the featured speakers. Mallick recently – to the joy of social conservatives – resigned from the Globe and Mail newspaper, where she often vilified social conservatives and especially, pro-lifers. In 2003, she wrote a massive article spilling onto two pages that gushed about how Morgentaler should be named to the Order of Canada. The close connection between the Canadian journalistic profession and the abortion industry has, perhaps, never been more plainly evident.
The times, however, may be a-changin’. Although the mainstream media were up to their usual shenanigans, the increasing influence of the internet – especially blogs – seems to have dulled, if not outright nullified, the attempts to demonize social conservatives. There were also bright spots within big media itself.
How the Globe duped Toronto
“How the Globe duped Toronto,” blared the headline in the Jan. 21 National Post, as Terence Corcoran excoriated both the Globe and the Star as “the Pravda and Isvestia of Canadian journalism.” He fingered those two media outlets as big factors in the painting of Toronto as “red.”
“The entrenched media in Toronto are giant fronts for the old and decrepit Liberal-NDP establishment, wellsprings of agit-prop for more and bigger government,” Corcoran wrote in what must have been music to the ears of social conservatives. “On this election alone, you could write a book about Toronto journalism and the relentless anti-Conservative twist embedded in most stories and opinion.”
The website peaktalk.com on Jan. 14 carried an article entitled, “The great media backlash.” It pointed to an “extraordinary about-face” by the mainstream media that placed it “no longer on the Liberals’ side.” The alleged turning point came when Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to join the Liberals. “There was a particular press scrum where all the journalists burst out laughing at the Liberals’ explanations. And all of a sudden, things began to change,” it said.
Another interesting alteration in direction was exhibited by Warren Kinsella, a special assistant to former prime minister Jean Chretien and a chief of staff in several federal ministries. In the Jan. 21 National Post, he referred to the Globe and Mail as “the elites’ organ of record” and suggested a number of media bosses have a hidden agenda. He also pointed out that a senior executive of the Globe’s parent company, Bell Globemedia, has chaired a Liberal party fundraising dinner. Kinsella asserted: “Media people have biases.”
LifeSite News on Jan. 19 said Canadian internet bloggers are coming of age, as demonstrated by their effective mocking of Liberal attack ads during the campaign. The effectiveness of blogs was confirmed when the Liberal party issued a press release complaining of the influence of the aggregate website bloggingtories.com. That only triggered more mockery and ridicule of the Liberals.