Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the annual Press Gallery Dinner at the Museum of Nature in 2016, actually seems to like the media, Susan Delacourt writes.
Justin Trudeau weighed into the “fake news” fray this week with a provocative question: What price are citizens prepared to pay for high-quality journalism?
The prime minister has been asked pretty regularly over the past year or so whether his government is going to do anything to bail out the faltering media business in Canada — beyond just giving more money to the CBC.
This week, Trudeau put a bit of a twist on that question; something like: Ask not what the government is going to do for journalism, but what you, the citizens, are willing to pay to get it.
“Do we want our six o’clock news to turn into ‘fail’ videos and kittens tumbling down stairs?” Trudeau asked during a podcast with CBS Sports’ Jonah Keri. “If that’s what citizens actually want, well, there are consequences around the kind of governance we’re going to get.”
Essentially, there’s a market issue here, Trudeau said, and an open question on whether the government should wade in to sort it out.
“Having a free and independent media is essential to any viable democracy. You cannot have power run unchecked,” he said. “You get what you pay for — and when you’re used to getting everything for free, you may be losing some of the quality that’s protecting the integrity of our society at the same time.”
Canadians are still getting used to the idea of a prime minister who actually seems to like the media, after a decade of Stephen Harper’s alternating antipathy and indifference to the fourth estate. It’s difficult to imagine Harper musing aloud, for instance, whether citizens might want to consider paying for better journalism.
Some of Trudeau’s enthusiasm for the media is part of his continuing effort to show that he remains the opposite to Harper, in policy and in governing style. Where Harper avoided the National Press Theatre, Trudeau is a regular guest. Where Harper cabinet meetings were off limits to reporters, the current government announces when they’re being held and trots out ministers to speak afterward.
Harper boycotted the annual press gallery dinner. Trudeau is a goodsport participant and, as far as I know, plans to attend this year’s gathering on the first weekend in June.
But beyond these surface differences, media people in Ottawa often discuss whether things have really changed; whether Trudeau has followed through on his other, governing-style-related promise to decentralize power in the capital.
Remember that one? As Trudeau explained to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge during the 2015 election, Pierre Trudeau started the centralizing trend and his son would reverse it. “I actually quite like the symmetry of me being the one who ends that,” Trudeau said.
The Liberals have now been in power long enough that it’s possible to measure whether that promise has been delivered — at least when it comes to dealing with the media. So is this PMO less controlling than its predecessor, more media-friendly? Well, yes and no.
The measurement has been done by Alex Marland, a Memorial University professor and one of Canada’s leading academic experts on branding, marketing and government communications. His latest book, Brand Command, is one of the finalists for the Donner Prize, to be awarded in a few weeks. I talked to Marland this week for the Brief Remarks podcast I host, about his newest, Trudeau-government research, which he also summed up in a recent, fascinating piece in Policy Options.
Marland and his research assistant rounded up reams of communications material from the Trudeau government in 2016 to see how branding and marketing are done, Liberal-style. They found that Trudeau’s ministers and their departments did indeed have a freer hand over minor communications matters, but that PMO approval is still required for a long list of things, including: anything sensitive or involving a number of departments or governments, to-do items from the Throne Speech, ministerial mandate letters or international meetings; announcements over $10 million; legislation and House of Commons activities and budgetary measures.
That’s an all-encompassing list; actually, it’s difficult to imagine anything that doesn’t fall under PMO-approval criteria.
Moreover, Marland found, wouldbe communicators in the Trudeau government are required to pay lots of attention to numbers and data. “Key messages must include statistics, key dates, milestones and other numbers such as how many participants are involved in an event or program.”
So what can we learn from all this latest talk of Trudeau’s attitude toward the media?
It seems this prime minister really does believe in the power of the media — so much so that his government is paying Harper-like attention to detail and staying on top of “the message.”
Democracy can’t run unchecked, Trudeau says, but the government is intent on keeping a close check on how it’s being covered by the media, too.