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

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Stephen Harper himself coined ‘the Harper government.’ (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Stephen Harper himself coined ‘the Harper government.’ (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Public Editor: Is it Harper’s government or Canada’s? Add to ...

The phrase the “Harper government” started in this newspaper with a reference from Stephen Harper himself. In 2002, when he won the Conservative Party leadership, he started to talk about what a “Harper government” would do.

It was clearly meant as a partisan reference, a campaigning tool to focus on his role as leader. But what has happened since then is a proliferation of references to “the Harper government” in Globe and Mail columns and news stories – and that irritates some readers.

“I find it particularly irksome when I see you use this phrase often in reporting on matters of the federal government,” one reader writes. “Despite what Mr. Harper wants, it is not ‘The Harper Government,’ nor is it the Conservative Government – it is the Government of Canada. To state it as you so often do just makes you a shill for one political party. If you want to be intellectually consistent, then I expect you to refer to ‘The Harper Senate’ and to ‘Harper’s Senator Duffy.’ ”

Another reader writes: “Regarding the headline today ‘Harper Government Kills Controversial Internet Surveillance Bill,’ I don’t understand why The Globe is using ‘Harper Government’ – which to me is a political invention of the Conservative Party – rather than ‘Federal Government’ or ‘Conservative Government.’ We are not ruled by an all-powerful czar, after all (whether he fancies himself as one or not)!”

This week, still another reader asked why The Globe would use this headline, in reference to new federal legislation: “Harper government to throw up roadblocks for supervised injection sites.”

I don’t agree with the call for a ban on the term, but I think the readers have a point about overuse. I looked at Globe stories on the past three prime ministers. In 2001, there were two references to the “Chrétien government” versus 3,156 references to the “federal government.” In 2005, there were 336 references to the “Martin government” versus 3,402 references to the federal government. In 2012, there were 1,947 references to the “Harper government” and 4,131 references to the federal government.

This suggests that referring to the federal government as the “Harper government” has exploded since Jean Chrétien’s era.

Sinclair Stewart, Editor of News and Sports, explains, “I think that Mr. Harper’s institutionalization of the term – a branding exercise, essentially – helps to account for the disproportionate number of instances in which The Globe has personalized its reference to the federal government. But it’s important to realize, as journalists, that 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.”

There are other options too: Ottawa is a good shorthand in a headline for the federal government, while “the Conservative government” can stand for a more political cause.

What are your views on this? I would be happy to hear them at publiceditor@globeandmail.com.

Sylvia Stead is the Public Editor at The Globe and Mail.

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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