Stephen Harper rocks the National Arts Centre

Well, now, that was different. And really quite refreshing.

As if any additional evidence was needed that the momentum in Canadian politics is shifting from Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals to the Stephen Harper Conservatives, the prime minister put on a little show at the National Arts Centre Saturday night, with a little help from his friends: the NAC orchestra, guest artist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Ottawa-based Celtic band Herringbone. There was likely also a little arm-twisting involved, courtesy of Harper’s spouse, Laureen, who was honorary chairwoman of the NAC gala to benefit Canada’s next generation of young artists.

As Ignatieff and his party continue their search for a salable rationale to bring down the Tories and send Canadians back to the polls, Harper continues his remarkable climb back from the political guillotine last November. The prime minister’s rendition of the Beatles’ 1967 hit With a Little Help From My Friends was a communications master stroke, putting him in the national spotlight at the kind of function he derided only a year ago as the domain of elites who don’t understand the issues facing ordinary working people.

An off-key performance would have spelled political disaster. But Harper, dressed casually and exhibiting his trademark emotionless nonchalance, carried it off remarkably well, his backup musicians nicely covering the song’s highest notes.

It’s fascinating to watch the continuing Harper metamorphosis. When he arrived in Ottawa, he was a Western populist and idealogue determined to radically reduce the national debt, abolish the Senate, repel gay marriage, build a strong economy and preside over a Conservative majority. He has become a Canadian nationalist and pragmatist, restrained by successive minority governments, who has presided over the biggest recession in decades, introduced unprecedented levels of deficit spending, appointed more than a dozen senators to the chamber he used to loathe, and reconciled himself to the reality of gay unions. He has cast off grassroots populism in favour of iron-clad party discipline to control his caucus. Yet he is also managing to reform his own image — slowly, incrementally — from “scary” automaton to a more human, pliant, even at times avuncular, authority figure.

Ignatieff’s Liberals, meanwhile, having emerged from their summer caucus meeting in northern Ontario vowing to bring down the government at the earliest opportunity, are beset by internal discord and the prospect of a Conservative government that, along with an improving economy, is rising in the opinion polls.

This weekend, Ignatieff is in Quebec City to try to mend the rift in his Quebec wing. Harper, meanwhile, playfully tickles the ivories in Ottawa, revealing yet another side of himself to Canadians. He stays on key. For now, at least, it’s advantage: Harper.

Carolyn Stewart-Olsen leaves the PMO . . . for the Senate

The exit of communications staff from the Prime Minister’s Office continues, as word went out yesterday of the departure of most significant figure yet in the ongoing attrition.

Carolyn Stewart-Olsen has been at Stephen Harper’s side since the outset of his candidacy for leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002. Most recently, she held the most powerful communications post in the PMO: senior adviser and director of strategic communication. A good photo of her is here, alongside the National Post’s short item.

“Strategic” is, in fact, the word that probably best describes her. While I was editor of The London Free Press (2000-2006), I dealt with her numerous times as I covered Harper’s ascent to the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party and his quest to become Prime Minister. In the early days, at least, every request for access to Harper, whether by phone or in person, took a path straight through Stewart-Olsen. She monitored all interviews, her voice recorder running right alongside those of journalists. In editorial board meetings, she hovered protectively like a mother bear over her cub. And when a cost-benefit analysis showed no significant return in exchange for Harper’s time and effort, especially at mid-sized news outlets, the interview or meeting or phone conversation just didn’t happen. Other priorities intervened.

This is not to diminish Stewart-Olsen’s role or skill. In fact, she was very good at doing exactly what she was supposed to do: guard media access to Harper and ensure that every investment in time and energy got maximum returns and adhered to strategy. There was, however, a certain Cold War tone in her approach to news media. Skepticism and suspicion were the common currencies of the relationship. That fact of life is not unusual in situations where news media and their sources are positioned to serve different functions. What made dealing with Stewart-Olsen so different was that the calculation and utility were so raw and bald.

When the Prime Minister’s Office tried to take a more commanding approach two years ago to the way news media on Parliament Hill could ask questions (see the video excerpt, below), it wasn’t difficult to guess which forces inside the PMO were magnifying and strategically acting on Harper’s already ingrained distrust of news media and their function.

Today’s Globe and Mail editorial, however, probably has it right: Outside the narrow cordons of Ottawa’s press corps, the departures of communications staff from Harper’s office are of little public interest. And the turnover there is likely a function of the Prime Minister’s unwavering demand for flawless execution of a tightly scripted communications strategy, combined with the instability of minority government and a looming election. But the departure of the top communicator is worth noticing. Journalists may not always have been pleased by Stewart-Olsen’s style or tactics, but they must, even if grudgingly, acknowledge her clear determination and commitment.

Update (Aug. 27): It turns out Stewart-Olsen’s timing was, shall we say, perfect. She is among those that Harper will appoint to the Senate today. It’s an odd slice of patronage for someone who spent part of her career defending and explaining the Prime Minister’s earlier vow to abolish it.

Teneycke, Harper and managing news media

Kory Teneycke
Kory Teneycke

The resignation of Kory Teneycke as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications brings to at least five the number of people tasked with managing the information flow between the Prime Minister’s Office and the news media since early 2006. All have had remarkable short tenures.

Teneycke says he’s leaving the PMO in order to spend more time with family. He’ll step down as soon as a replacement is named — which should be soon, given the possibility of an election campaign as early as this fall.

Clearly, however, the job of handling communications and the media for Harper is not for the faint of heart. The Prime Minister has now had more communications directors than there were press secretaries in the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations combined (a total of 16 years).

Harper is well known among journalists, political observers and even his own caucus as one who tightly controls media, messaging and information flow. At a conference in London, Ont., shortly after the swearing in of the Conservatives’ first minority government in February 2006, CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge labelled the new prime minister a “control freak” who was determined to change the fundamental relationship between the PMO and the news media. Evidence of that manifested itself through new rules of engagement established by the PMO early that year that dealt with scrums and news conferences (see CBC producer Ira Basen’s piece for Pressthink on the controversy). Many experts see the Harper strategy, when combined with the party’s own inventory of websites, new-media tools and consultants, as an effort to “decertify” traditional news media as agents of communication between government and citizens. According to those who work closest to Ottawa’s inner orbits, the working relationships between the news media and the Prime Minister remain delicate and mercurial.

Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler
Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler

Whenever the matter of communications and government comes up, I can’t help but remember the impossible task of White House press secretary Ron Ziegler during the final years of the Richard Nixon administration. Ziegler had the unenviable job of managing media relations through the Watergate years and the many headlines that eventually led to the president’s resignation. Contemptuous of the Washington Post, which was constantly on the leading edge of the story, Nixon held the threat of dismissal over Ziegler’s head, should he allow any reporter or photographer from the Post onto the White House grounds.

The ultimate embarrassment for Ziegler, however, came during a visit to New Orleans on Aug. 20, 1973. As Nixon was about to enter a convention centre to make a speech, he grabbed Ziegler by the shoulders, turned him around and shoved him in the direction of nearby reporters, who were shouting questions about the unravelling Watergate affair and Nixon’s role in it. The incident was captured on film by CBS cameraperson Cal Marlin, and it aired on the national newscast that evening. Dan Rather set up the clip by saying, “What you are about to see is a rare glimpse in public of presidential irritation. . . . The president’s aides deny he is nervous or testy or anything.”

Ziegler was the communicator who invented the term “photo op,” tried to dismiss the Watergate scandal a “third-rate burglary” and had a penchant for declaring previous statements, proven to be misleading or untrue, as “inoperative.” He died in hospital near his home in Coronado, Calif., in 2003 at the age of 63.

The Telegraph-Journal apology

When it comes to newspaper correction notices, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. A respected Atlantic Canada broadsheet apologizes to the country’s Prime Minister for an error in a story concerning the PM’s attendance at the funeral of a former governor-general. Furthermore, the apology is necessitated not by errors of fact; rather, it concerns what was apparently either outright fabrication or the insertion of gossip or speculation — on the newspaper’s copy desk, of all places.

Today’s apology to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the front page of New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal is the kind of notice every editor-in-chief and publisher dreads.

Telegraph-Journal bannerMany Canadians will remember the controversy that erupted in the wake of the Prime Minister’s attendance at the funeral mass for former governor-general Romeo LeBlanc on July 3. Like others in attendance, Harper went forward during the mass to celebrate the eucharist, during which a priest traditionally places a wafer (or the “host”), considered the body of Christ, on the tongue of each celebrant.

In the Telegraph-Journal’s story, written by reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras in nearly Memramcook, N.B., the newspaper asserted that the Prime Minister had tucked the wafer into his pocket, sparking follow-up queries and stories by other news organizations and a low-level national debate about the propriety of partaking or abstaining from religious rituals when they are not one’s own.

In a blog post today, Montreal-based journalist Craig Silverman, Canada’s undisputed king of chroniclers when it comes to media corrections, notes that the names of the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief don’t appear in today’s editions, promising to keep an eye on developments in the executive suite. Silverman’s reputable website, Regret the Error, also notes that the paper took tough action earlier this year with a summer intern who misstated some facts in a story about the University of New Brunswick’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Premier Shawn Graham. Silverman, in fact, wrote a column for the Columbia Journalism Review on that issue.

Today’s Telegraph-Journal’s apology is directed to the Prime Minister, as well as to its two reporters. No mention of what consequences, if any, will be felt by the copy editor(s) responsible. The T-J’s editor-in-chief, by the way, is Shawna Richer, whose byline may be remembered by readers of The London Free Press and The Globe and Mail. Update: CBC News reported this evening that Richer has been fired and that Jamie Irving is no longer the newspaper’s publisher.

The irony won’t be lost on any journalist: Editors and others who deal with copy are at their desks expressly for the purpose of ensuring accuracy. And although editing mistakes happen as easily as they do at the reporting level, it’s unlike copy editors to deliberately insert erroneous facts.

And if “transparency is the new objectivity,” events at the Telegraph-Journal, despite today’s embarrassment and prostration, are still less than perfectly clear.