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Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)
Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)

Lawrence Martin

A land of bias from sea to shining sea Add to ...

The CBC, particularly the television side, has been running scared from the Liberal tag for years. Smart politics by the Conservatives has put the network on the defensive, making it semi-paranoid about the appearance of bias.

The right-side campaign against the CBC is reflective of a wider trend. On the media front, the Conservatives have been doing here what Republicans have done in the United States. Making inroads. Check the rise of conservative influence in the U.S. media - Fox News and offshoots - over the past 10 or 15 years. Check the parallel rise of conservative media in Canada in that same time frame. (The National Post, the sprawling CanWest Global chain, Maclean's magazine, the AM radio liberal-whackers, etc.)

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Tim Powers, the adroit Tory commentator, observed the other day that politics is 90 per cent communications. Control the airwaves. Control your fate. Is it any surprise that the old liberal Canada did in fact have a liberal-biased media? The Canada of today does not have such a media. Is it any surprise that it has a more conservative coloration and is headed for the first time in its history by a Prime Minister of arch-conservative moorings?

The latest Conservative media campaign is against pollster Frank Graves for his recommending the Liberals try some wedge politics of their own, as in starting a "culture war" against the Harperites. The Tories are hot after the CBC to discipline Mr. Graves, have him drawn and quartered or whatever.

Again, it's smart politics. Hard to blame them for doing it, given the ease with which the network can be intimidated. But how much merit is in the case? Mr. Graves is like most pollsters I know. They offer advice to any politician they run into. At the bar, at the golf course, on the street corner. Pollsters talk to reporters, they tell them what they've been finding, what they think the parties should be doing. They go on radio, on television and do the same. Mr. Graves is on TV every week, offering his opinions and advice on the basis of the polling he has been doing. Some of the things I've heard him say could be considered good strategic advice for the Conservatives.

The Tories rightly make the point that he is the pollster for the public broadcaster. If he's sitting down in the Grits' inner sanctum every week giving them PowerPoint presentations on how to slay opponents, they're onto something. But the pollster says this is far from the case. The culture war recommendation, he says, was informal talk, not part of any structured arrangement.

The deafening silence from other pollsters on this controversy has been noteworthy. I don't think they want to see their whole world opened up. How many millions they're making from political contracts? How they are profiting from all the private polling the Conservatives and other parties do? Which pollsters get the swag from that polling and would it give them the appearance of bias if it was known? Why results from some pollsters appear to show a consistent pattern wherein their numbers are higher for a particular party than polling from other firms?

Very touchy subjects - and ones the media tend to shy away from because media hire these pollsters and have developed relations with them over time.

The subject of media bias is a complex one in Canada because of the political culture. Normally a journalist is considered neutral or objective if he or she is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, reflecting neither the left- nor right-wing point of view.

But in Canada, the big mushy middle is the home of the Liberal Party, which has sought to locate itself in the mainstream and has profited over time from doing so. Therein lies the conundrum. If you're a centrist, you can well be accused of having a Liberal bias.

In other words, it's inescapable. You're biased if you're on the left, right or middle. In other words, everyone is biased; you, me, CBC, CTV; you, me and Mr. Graves and Stompin' Tom Connors and the polar bears of Frobisher Bay.

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