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book review

James S. McLean blends ho-hum theoretical insights and incisive first-hand observations.

From 2008 to 2011, I wrote a blog for The Globe and Mail's online politics section, Second Reading. In seeking out sources for the reportorial aspect of this undertaking, I gravitated mostly toward Liberals and New Democrats because: 1. They would speak to me and 2. Members of the other major federal party, sensing a pinko in their midst, would not. As time went by, this same predilection for the Canadian left that disqualified me from any contact with the Conservatives slowly tainted my efforts at maintaining cordial relations with the Grits.

In the end, I was left with only the NDP acknowledging my existence. So I went with the flow. I took as many potshots as I could at Stephen Harper and the fast-fading Michael Ignatieff and sucked up to as many dippers as would return my calls. I flogged the dead coalition horse and watched in the end as Harper bestrode the dominion with his mighty majority while the NDP and their soon-to-be-dearly departed leader sorted their rise to official opposition. Currently, I watch distractedly from south of the border and miss the gentler affectations of Canada's political contests.

So it was with considerable interest and some nostalgia that I engaged with James McLean's Inside the NDP War Room. McLean is an academic in the journalism department at Concordia University, and his brief follows that same vein. He reflects on his brief period as a workhorse inside the NDP war room during the 2006 election, places his observations in a theoretical framework, then has a go at reporting further proof of his theories as illustrated in more recent campaigns.

The result is a mixed blessing. The theoretical insights drawn in part from the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – that, for instance, journalism's (and any particular journalist's) "strong autonomy … is a function of [its] control over its own social, cultural and symbolic capital and its independent ability to resist incursions from the economic sphere" – have about them the faint whiff of the obvious (not to mention wishful thinking).

That said, McLean does a nice job reporting the somewhat antique happenings in the NDP war room during the 2006 campaign. His observations of former Jack Layton press secretary Brad Lavigne and former NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp struggling to fend off the distortions of their opponents across the aisle and in the press room are closely and carefully observed. His description of The Globe "conflating two unrelated matters into one large question about NDP credibility" by publishing a photograph of Jack Layton with the larcenous Svend Robinson bobbing his head into the shot is an incisive piece of found comedy.

McLean concludes that the "dark arts," whether practised by ideologically motivated politicians or journalists, are more and more subject to scrutiny by way of social media: the so-called twitterverse. "Given the growing willingness of individuals to mobilize new communication technologies to confront outrageous behaviour … and expose them to public scrutiny, the high road is fast becoming the only sensible and fruitful way forward."

I would only note in the face of McLean's heartening optimism that starting this coming January, Brad Lavigne, having left the NDP entirely, is starting a new job as a vice-president of public affairs for the global corporate public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, whose clients have included such noble social causes as the tobacco industry and, of late, fracking for natural gas.

Now there's one war room James McLean won't be getting inside any time soon.

Douglas Bell longs to vote for the Green Party in the next Canadian federal election.