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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends a news conference after a G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 18, 2013. (POOL/REUTERS)
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends a news conference after a G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 18, 2013. (POOL/REUTERS)

Public editor: Why readers don’t like ‘the Harper government’ Add to ...

On Saturday I wrote about The Globe and Mail’s increasing use of the term “the Harper government.” A number of readers have written to me over the past months objecting to the term saying it “makes you a shill for one political party” or “we are not ruled by an all-powerful czar.”

I agree that the term has been overused and Sinclair Stewart, editor of News and Sports, said that as journalists “while ‘Harper government,’ ‘federal government’ and ‘Conservative government’ may seem interchangeable, they can have very different connotations, depending on their context. We need to be vigilant about that context.”

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I asked readers for their opinions and received more than 90 e-mails. The vast majority agreed that the phrase is used too much and many want it banned altogether.

Here’s a sampling of the opinion against and for the term “Harper government”:

  • “I think it is presumptive to refer to the Government of Canada as any person’s government. As a democracy, the government is accountable to the people; and is therefore the people’s government.”
  • “Governments belong to the voters of the jurisdiction, not the leader of a political party. It is especially galling in B.C. at the moment since the party leader is not even elected in her own riding! If they insist on calling a government by the name of the leader, it should only be used when defining a specific policy they espouse vs. what the opposition party would support.”
  • “I am kind of surprised that so many readers wrote in to complain about the phrase, as it appears to be clearly a brand that Harper has promoted….”
  • “I like to be sensitive to nuance, but the context and rationale for referring to ‘the Harper Government’ as just that is as powerful as it is a simple, self-evident truth. This government is run from the PMO in key respects more so then any other in our history.”
  • “I find media jargonizing, such as ‘the Harper government,’ to be more polemical than descriptive. Yet when the phrase is used, as it will be, by the Canadian historians of 2113, its polemical toxin will have largely neutralized with the passage of time, allowing its descriptive value to emerge. It’s the singer, not the song.”
  • “‘Ottawa’ in the mouths of journalists carries no obvious political bias. It’s shorthand for “the system,” the structure of government. But I prefer ‘the Federal government.’ Sounds damned boring, I know. But boring often means bias-free….”
  • “Yes, it is a campaign tool and a rather effective one. You are doing the campaigning for him (unintentionally of course)…”
  • “While Harper may have, as you wrote, been the first to use the term, during a campaign, its use by the media, particularly The Globe and Mail and the CBC, is something to which I strongly object. The Canadian government was elected by Canadians and represents all of us. To call it ‘the Harper Government,’ which is usually done when the journalist in question does not approve of what follows in their piece, has the effect of turning reporting into commentary.”
  • “I’m okay with ‘the Harper Government.’ I think it is important to know who to blame…”
  • “So I was very surprised when Harper decided to name the federal government after himself, because the practice is a two-edged sword. Sure, he gets credit when things go well but when they fall apart, as they inevitably will, then he gets all the blame because everything is the fault of ‘the Harper Government.’ I agree with your critics that the media has fallen into the trap of using the term without due consideration.”

And there were a few people who objected to my suggestion for other options. I noted that Ottawa is a good shorthand in a headline for the federal government. Here is what two readers had to say about that:

  • “Please don’t perpetuate the crime of slagging a physically beautiful, culturally rich, intellectually stimulating, civically engaged city and its residents by equating ‘Ottawa’ with ‘government…’”
  • “As a proud resident of our nation’s capital, I loathe headlines that use ‘Ottawa’ as shorthand for the federal government. The negative use of ‘Ottawa’ in headlines mars the name of our politically and culturally diverse city. If The Globe requires a short form, ‘Feds’ is a whole lot clearer (and shorter) than ‘Ottawa.’”

Thanks to everyone who wrote in on this subject. It has been very instructive to read your views. If you want to comment on this or any journalism issue, please do so in the comments or send me an e-mail at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

 

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