NEWS

Tabloid Phone Hacking Scandal: Why It's Not Likely Canada Will Have Its Own

07/31/2011 10:04 EDT | Updated 09/30/2011 05:12 EDT
AP

OTTAWA - Stephen Harper's open disdain for the news media has helped his party raise money and rally the Conservative troops.

As the lurid phone-hacking scandal unfolds in Britain, the prime minister's handlers have another reason to be thankful for Harper's hostile attitude toward journalists: it immunizes him against any suggestion that a similar scandal could happen in Canada.

"I would love to see that headline -- Harper influenced by media," scoffs one Harper insider. "It would go counter to the narrative that some media have been pushing for a decade."

British Prime Minister David Cameron can only wish he'd emulated Harper's example. The scandal has exposed an unhealthy -- and possibly corrupt -- relationship between his government and press baron Rupert Murdoch, whose now-defunct News of the World bribed police and hacked into phone messages of members of the royal family, celebrities, politicians and even a murdered girl in its quest for titillating infotainment.

And the scandal has revealed a political class so cowed by the influence wielded by Murdoch that it turned a blind eye to the illegal activity even as it continued to curry the media mogul's favour.

Cameron has been compelled to disclose he's met 26 times in 15 months with top executives of Murdoch's News International. He's invited several of them to his country residence, a privilege rarely bestowed even on senior cabinet ministers.

He's attended the wedding of one and hired another as his communications director, both of whom have since been arrested in connection with the scandal.

By contrast, lobbying records show Stephen Harper has met three times in five years with executives of two different Canadian media outlets -- twice with Quebecor's Pierre Karl Peladeau and once with Bell Media's Ivan Fecan.

Harper also met once in New York with Murdoch, who owns no media properties in Canada, for what Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas calls "a perfunctory lunch meeting to frame Canadian perspectives on issues of the day to promote Canada's interests."

But if a phone-hacking scandal is unlikely in Canada, it's not because politicians and journalists here are inherently more ethical. It's more a reflection of the fact that Canadian politicians simply don't need the news media in the same way they do in Britain.

"Canadian newspapers are such a niche market -- so few people actually read most of them -- that they just don't have the impact in Canada that News of the World did in the U.K.," Harper's former chief of staff Ian Brodie, told The Canadian Press in an email.

"The only paper with a big circulation is the Toronto Star and ... it's only really influential in Liberal circles."

Even if there were bigger media empires in Canada, Patrick Muttart, a former deputy chief of staff to Harper, argues they wouldn't have the same influence as those in Britain, where both political and media power is concentrated in a single city, London.

That has created an "intense, quasi-incestuous" clique of political and media elites who belong to the same clubs and whose families intermingle socially.

In Canada, Muttart says, media and political power is more dispersed, with "natural divides" between English and French, national and regional media and between federal and provincial politics.

"The size, the regionality of the country, the linguistic duality, the federalism of Canada, it just doesn't create the conditions where you get these boiling pots of political and media elites all together."

More importantly, says Muttart, Canadian politicians don't need press coverage -- what's known as earned media -- to disseminate their messages. They can take their messages to voters directly through radio and television advertisements -- "the single most persuasive and important form of political communication," which is legally denied to politicians in Britain.

"(Ads) help balance the relationship a little bit because it gives parties and candidates the ability to go over the heads of journalists and communicate directly to voters with the repetition required to make an impact. ... As a result, they don't have to court the press in the same way that British parties and candidates have to do with their media," he says.

"This is like the biggest gun in the arsenal of political advertising ... and they just don't have it (in Britain) so every British election becomes a daily battle for the earned media cycle."

Without the ability to bombard voters with television ads, winning Murdoch's editorial endorsement -- and subsequent positive coverage -- was crucial to Tony Blair's success in bringing Labour to power in Britain. It was equally crucial to the success of Cameron's Conservatives.

By contrast, Harper managed to win his long-sought majority on May 2 despite a steady stream of negative press coverage of his tightly scripted leader's tour and a series of controversies that knocked him almost daily off message.

Carleton University journalism professor Paul Adams isn't quite as sanguine as Muttart that a media baron could never emerge here to wield undue influence on the political class.

While past attempts by Conrad Black and CanWest Global to create powerful, agenda-setting media empires have failed, he notes there is no legal restriction on the concentration of media ownership in this country to prevent someone else from succeeding.

Still, in terms of journalistic ethics, Adams maintains there is a different culture in Canada that makes a phone-hacking scandal unlikely here.

There is no tradition -- and no market for -- the kind of scurrilous, cut-throat tabloid journalism practised by the News of the World. The gossipy Frank magazine tried to emulate the British example of delving into public figures' private lives but couldn't make a financial go of it, he points out.

Nor is there a tradition here of routinely paying sources, a common practice in Britain which likely obscured the fact that bribing the police was "crossing a line" into illegality.

But Canadian journalists shouldn't be smug, Adams warns.

The fact that politicians don't particularly need the news media has produced a "sometimes supine" press that curries favour with politicians -- sort of the reverse of the situation in Britain.

For instance, Adams says some media outlets have compromised their journalistic principles in order to get an interview with the prime minister, allowing his handlers to dictate who gets to conduct the interview and to vet the questions that will be asked.

After a brief protest, most parliamentary reporters now dutifully submit their names to Harper's handlers if they want to ask the prime minister a question in a scrum or news conference, allowing the PMO to choose the questioners.

Adams says American reporters who come to Ottawa "sometimes rankle at what we see as routine restrictions on our ability to report and that gives you pause."

"I think our habits of deference can sometimes mean that our journalism seems to lack edge."