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The Tories massage the medium, kneading and feeding it

A still of a Conservative Party commercial featuring Stephen Harper.

You've got to hand it to the Conservatives. They owned the first 48 hours of this election campaign.

Apparently, roving gangs of reckless coalitionists were about to run amok. In nervous communities across this great land, Neighbourhood Watch committees met to plan defensive action. Shut-ins made sure they were, in fact, shut in.

Visions of Canada morphing into a chaotic Yemen or Libya (footage from those countries helpfully followed the election coverage on the TV news), because of havoc wreaked by those roving gangs, surely haunted the dreams of "ordinary", "everyday" Canadians, especially "middle-class families."

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How did this phenomenon start? Television. Mere hours after the government fell, Iggy was on TV and looked rattled by reporters barking questions about a possible coalition. Watching it, I noted that the questions came straight from a Conservative Party press release. (I'm on the mailing list.) Nice work, press-release wizards. Seeing him rattled on TV, the Tories went on and on (and on) about it.

Why did the phenomenon fade? Television. Eventually somebody showed footage of Hair in the Fridge Harper sitting at a table with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe in 2004. (For the duration of the election campaign, the term "Our Glorious Leader" will be put aside. He's Hair in the Fridge, because as constant readers will know, it looks like he puts his hair in the fridge every night.) It was the TV image that nailed the matter.

Mind you, as I write this, Hair in the Fridge in on TV going on about "coalition" again. It ain't working. How do I know? Television. The guy on CBC NN sighed after the news clip and when he mentioned to the young reporter that "coalition" was back, she laughed briefly. This ain't working. You can tell from the eye-rolling and giggles on TV

The Conservative campaign has been a traditional, TV-focused expedition. Daily, there's a scene staged for TV. All the parties stage events for TV, but none do it with the relentless rigour of the Tories. So far, the focus is on the leader meeting the ubiquitous "middle-class families," sitting at the kitchen table and posing with the kids. The idea is that he's the kinda guy you'd have over to the house, trust him with the kids.

Oddly enough, it looks like a repeat of the last election campaign for the Tories. Hair in the Fridge and his cohorts took a page from the Mike Harris campaign that swept Ontario in 1995, a singularly successful campaign built around the relentless provision of TV photo ops that, at the time, also produced an awful lot of sneering from the other parties. But, as the Ontario Liberals and NDP found to their cost, Harris and his handlers displayed a stunning grasp of the simple-minded recipes for TV news reporting. The currency of TV news is simplicity: simple, memorable images. It's how the leader's image is moulded. Hence, that Harper guy, without a necktie, hanging with the family.

The template of 2006 is being used again, which suggests that it is seen as a tangible success in terms of media manipulation, or there are no new ideas. Certainly the tactic of countless TV photo ops with families provides a cocoon for the leader. The pursuing media pack, tagging along to someone's home on while on the campaign trail, is less likely to ask aggressive questions. Beauty of a tactic. The other parties uses TV for a series of one-shot impact moments. The Tories massage the medium, kneading and feeding it constantly.

By the way, we're going to keep track of notable TV madness on the campaign here. First prize, so far, goes to Robert Fife of CTV News. On Monday, he told Lloyd Robertson that eventually Hair in the Fridge is going to truly attack the other leaders: "He's going to go after them like a pit bull on a cat." Ouch. Poor little kitties and all.

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Pit bulls, cats. Roving gangs of reckless coalitionists. The country quakes.

Dept. of Errors and Correction. In a column last week about Sarah Palin and her adventures on TV, a couple of axioms about TV were erroneously attributed to Marshall McLuhan when they were articulated by Moses Znaimer.


Nova: Japan's Killer Quake (PBS, 8 p.m.) is, obviously, hastily made, but Nova is a serious program and promises "a clear-headed investigation of what triggered the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis." It also asks, "Can science and technology ever prevent devastation in the face of overwhelmingly powerful forces of nature?"

Law & Order: SVU (NBC, 10 p.m.) features Jeremy Irons returning as "Captain Jackson," a crime-solving shrink. When a young girl is found dead with a doll that is believed to have been left as a totem, the cops consult the brilliant Jackson. Or so we're told. Soon, Jeremy Irons will turn up at the heart of The Borgias and shock you with his gift for emanating lust, greed and ruthlessness. He plays the Pope.

Check local listings.

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