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Media Bites: Harper Bashing Is the New Reporting

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One of the weirder symptoms of the extreme partisan polarization of the Harper years is the fact that the prime minister's critics seem to exert far more effort and energy blasting the man's theoretical policies and hidden agendas than his any of his actual, open ones.

You don't hear Harper critics griping much about the state of the Canadian economy, for example. There are no viral Facebook campaigns demanding the PM get unemployment below 7 per cent, nor hashtags about the huge spike in the national debt he's presided over. The Tory government's fiscal record is hardly stellar, yet it's also the realm his bashers are most likely to ignore (or even concede) as they direct their most virulent criticisms towards scarier Harper initiatives they presume should exist but don't actually. Ratcheting back same-sex rights. Crushing the CBC. Corrupting scientific research. Politicizing patriotism. Unravelling parliamentary democracy. And so on. You've all heard the songs.

It's tempting to dismiss pushers of this kind of paranoia as simply hyper-ideological lefty kooks, comparable to America's equally hysterical far-right Obama-haters. What makes the Canadian situation unique, however, is the degree to which a sympathetic press has happily played along with many of the fringier anti-Harper narratives, thoughtfully contemplating leftist fantasies as plausible theories of informed critics, rather than reactionary ramblings of the ideologically obtuse.

Often, this manifests through what might be called the "what critics allege/many interpret" school of journalism, where any allegation, repeated enough, assumes a sort of truth-by-persistence.

Take last Thursday's report from the Globe and Mail's Michael Babad, released shortly after the finance minister announced that Stephen Poloz -- and not the widely anticipated Tiff Macklem -- would be the new head of the Bank of Canada.

"His selection to the seven-year term will raise questions about whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seeking greater influence over monetary policy by installing a governor from outside the institution," said Babad, before proceeding to offer no corroborating evidence whatsoever for that thesis.

Babad's piece quotes several economists reacting to the Poloz appointment, but most simply muse that the new bank boss is a safe -- if mysterious -- pick unlikely to alter the status quo. Mike's speculation about whether Harper is "seeking greater influence" over a non-partisan body makes sense only if one has already internalized the theory that Harper is naturally inclined to stick his fat fingers where they don't belong; a judgemental assumption through which much Globe reporting is filtered.

Or take last week's other big surprise announcement -- Ottawa's decision to begin negotiating the pay of Crown Corporation employees with their unions directly, rather than letting the corporate bosses handle it.

This was basically a boring, bureaucratic efficiency move intended to ensure common standards of compensation will be applied to all federal government employees regardless of what agency they work for. But you'd never know it by reading the headlines.

"Feds threatening journalist independence of CBC under new power over wages, benefits, collective bargaining, say critics," summarized the Hill Times. Unionists say new powers "a 'ridiculous' infringement on the independence of the CBC," reported the Globe.

What these quoted critics are claiming -- that shifting employer authority over CBC collective agreements represents a slippery slope towards turning the network into a North Korean-style "state broadcaster" of government propaganda -- is completely insane. Yet because some people, somewhere are saying it, they (and their dopey social media campaigns) get covered with a straight face. If the union says North Korea and Minister Moore says no, well, then that just proves there's a "controversy."

Worse still was Friday's announcement that parliament's Tory-run heritage committee had agreed to embark upon a "thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history" for unclear purposes. You can probably guess how that was spun.

I've written before about the tired media cliché that the Harper government is attempting to "redefine" or "rebrand" Canadian nationalism in a more partisan direction by playing up supposed Tory tropes like the military, the monarchy, and, I dunno, the Olympics or whatever -- a thesis that looms large in the Canadian press despite the fact that this "agenda" has never been so much as implied, let alone acknowledged, planned, or promised by any Conservative politician at any time, in any context, ever.

And yet when Dipper MP Andrew Cash quips that Harper's "obsessed with reframing history and rebranding it in the image of the Conservative party" in Mike De Souza's much-circulated Postmedia piece on the story, the conspiracy theory lives on. Indeed, the only reason a boring non-event like this ("committee to research topic") even gets such breathless coverage (and 26,000 shares) in the first place is the same reason every random update to the citizenship manuals is treated as front page news -- they fit the narrative that Harper's up to something.

Honest reporting will always require surveying a wide swath of opinion, but with anti-Harper straw men and conspiracy theories playing such a large role in Canadian politics these days, the journalist's mandate as neutral arbitrator of fact and fiction has never been more needed. Those who peddle unsubstantiated caricatures of the Tory government as a gang of fundie-hugging, gay-bashing, science-hating, climate change-denying, royal-worshipping, wannabe banana-Republicans deserve to be put in their their place -- which is to say, the explicit fringe of our political debates and coverage.

Unfortunately, the Canadian press has instead chosen to be their leading enablers.

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