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Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper takes part in a question and answer session at the Canadian American Business Council in Ottawa on Nov. 19, 2012. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper takes part in a question and answer session at the Canadian American Business Council in Ottawa on Nov. 19, 2012.


Lawrence Martin

It’s all about visuals, and Harper takes advantage Add to ...

Our shift from a print culture to a video culture continues apace. Stephen Harper’s highly effective public-relations team has been up with the trend and taking advantage at every turn.

How many times, for example, have we seen a less-than-flattering photo of the Prime Minister in a newspaper? One in which he is downcast or aloof or sitting slouched, as he often is, in the House of Commons? Although Mr. Harper is a reticent man, not given to smiling, notice the great number of photos you see of him sporting a wide grin.

One of Jean Chrétien’s cronies was mentioning this to me the other day, saying prime ministers like Mr. Chrétien and Brian Mulroney never had it so good. Their many moods were on display. Mr. Harper’s shop must have you media guys trained, he said.

In the written word, not too much. There is no shortage of criticism there. But the camera offers no such critical glare. Journalism is supposed to reflect reality, but if Mr. Harper is ever angry, we’d never know it. His photo presentation is a propagandist’s dream – and it is not by accident.

Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, has researched the topic and written a paper titled “Political Photography, Journalism, and Framing in the Digital Age.” The Harper team figured out early and well, says Prof. Marland, that “in the digital age the evolution of political journalism from textual to visual is speeding up. … News organizations are becoming more susceptible to reproducing the packaged visuals of politicans that image handlers push.” As a result, photo ops and pseudo-events proliferate.

Several years ago, the Harper shop pulled off a first. Press releases from the Prime Minister’s Office were a staple of the business. The Harper handlers began the practice of issuing photo releases. They have flooded our media universe daily with studio-like portraits of the PM selling maple syrup or cheering at a hockey game or standing with the troops, looking strong.

The photos are free. Prof. Marland has found that small media markets use the handouts readily. Bigger papers don’t tend to use them, he says, but they still have an impact. “Through the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of digital visuals, they may be winning a subliminal priming battle,” he writes. Editors are looking at these photos, one Tory strategist told him, and “over time this can frame how they perceive the PM.”

For media outlets that are reluctant to use the portraits, the handlers try to ensure flattering photos by way of a staging strategy: the use of strictly controlled environments to limit photo possibilities. As backdrops, there are flags, blue skies, Tory party colours. Mr. Harper has a manager of visual communications. Nothing is left to chance. In our antiquated system, which puts so much power in the hands of one man, you need to have the one man looking his best. Having succeeded with photo releases, the PMO has now started the practice of issuing video releases.

Visuals are more important than words, but Mr. Harper’s team hasn’t done badly on limiting access there, either. The various measures, including Mr. Harper being the only prime minister in memory not to submit to open-ended press conferences, are well documented.

Journalists complain, but to no avail. Gone are the days when prime ministers appeared before open audiences and faced hecklers, when they submitted to questioning at lengthy media sessions or when they were photographed in non-controlled environments.

The propaganda apparatus was caught in full measure last week by Don Martin, host of CTV’s Power Play. Cabinet minister Maxime Bernier came for an interview equipped not only with his talking points but with a coaching assistant. Before the interview, the coach was seen feeding him the lines he was to say on the show – lines that had not much to do with reality.

Mr. Martin caught that bit on camera. He rolled the tape at the end of his program, showing the Potemkin village Ottawa has become.

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