There may be no better metaphor for Doug Ford’s campaign and its relationship with the media than the Great Microphone Tug of War of 2018.
A couple of weeks ago, when the Ontario PC Leader visited a London hospital to talk up some of his health-care promises, CBC reporter Colin Butler asked what might happen to a local supervised-injection site under a prospective Ford government. As Mr. Ford pledged to “consult the experts,” before making any decisions, his handler, Jeff Silverstein, tried to wrest the microphone on its stand away from Mr. Butler to prevent a follow-up question.
But Mr. Butler is both younger and stronger than Mr. Silverstein, and he grabbed the mic with both hands; footage shows the two men tussling awkwardly for control until Mr. Ford, up at the front of the room, simply ends his statement and walks away to applause ginned up by campaign staffers.
Mr. Ford has long treated reporters like blackflies in cottage country, a pesky annoyance to be endured in brief bursts. But his current campaign, which deploys media-management tactics that have left some veteran reporters agog, seems designed to provoke the media into a hissy fit. While his opponents hammer him for his peekaboo platform and his poll numbers slip, the combative media strategy isn’t helping.
Out on the campaign trail, the NDP’s Andrea Horwath and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne are exhausting reporters with their willingness to take (if not always answer directly) all questions, multiple times a day. (On Tuesday, Ms. Horwath did four lengthy scrums.) Following convention, reporters simply shout the questions at Ms. Horwath or Ms. Wynne from a couple of metres away.
Mr. Ford, on the other hand, has a single, tightly managed media availability each day, which typically lasts five to 10 minutes. The reporters are way at the back, behind a row of TV cameras, in front of which is usually a row or two of invited guests. Sometimes there’s a velvet rope in front of the guests separating them from Mr. Ford.
The distance between the media gaggle and Mr. Ford is apparently so vast that his team has deemed a microphone necessary. After the incident in London, though, the mic is no longer on a stand: Mr. Silverstein wanders among the reporters with a portable mic, and holds it in front of the reporter of his choice just long enough for them to ask a single question. He takes it away before there’s a chance for a follow-up.
If this is a problem for reporters, it is also leaving Mr. Ford ill-served. “There have been a lot of situations where he’s said certain things in press conferences that have been unclear, and he’s had to have his media people send out e-mails to clarify things,” Mike Crawley, the CBC’s Ontario provincial-affairs reporter, told me this week.
And by preventing reporters from asking more than one question, Mr. Ford’s communications strategists are ensuring the tone stays acrimonious. “It means he doesn’t get the questions he might otherwise get on the things he might like to talk about,” observed Jessica Smith Cross, the editor of the Ontario government-focused news site QP Briefing, when we spoke the other day.
Last week, she says, she wanted to ask two questions: one on that day’s news about Mr. Ford allegedly paying for others’ PC Party memberships, and another about his proposed tax policy – which she believes he’d like to talk about.
Told she had to choose, she asked about the membership-buying controversy. “I guess my instinct is to ask the question that might be uncomfortable. It just seems that should be the choice you should make, if you have to choose.”
She acknowledged that, by making that choice, she may inadvertently have been helping Mr. Ford build a case of media bias. “He’s justified in saying there’s a different sort of treatment,” she said. Still: “You could argue that the way he’s structured his media availability has created it.”
A senior communications source in the Ford campaign told me that they were comfortable with the amount of access they had given the media. Mr. Ford has also sat for lengthy interviews, albeit with media outlets that tend to take it easy on him, including The Toronto Sun and Zoomer Radio.
Reporters are doing what they can to claw back some sense of control: Before an event last week, four of them discussed their questions in advance with one another to ensure they focused on the same subject, essentially asking one another’s follow-ups. Media resorted to the same tactic while covering the campaigns of Stephen Harper, who was similarly stingy with his media availability.
Mr. Ford is raising the temperature. Last week, his campaign sent out a fundraising e-mail that accused the media of lying. “The media, the pollsters, they don’t want us to win,” it began. “So they’re making up numbers to write stories about NDP momentum.” As a campaign tactic, Mr. Ford’s unfounded allegations of fake news are disturbing. If he becomes premier and continues in that vein, we’ll be in dangerous territory.