Kill the Messengers is not just a collection of evidence bemoaning the current state of the Canadian media, it is a call to arms for informed citizens to become active participants in the democratic process.
Although I happen to have some fairly strong political opinions, I try to refrain from unnecessary partisanship when reviewing books, especially when those books express their own strong opinions and display necessary partisanship themselves. In cases where a book is self-consciously critical or even polemical, there is no need for a reviewer to act as an amplifier; instead, a calm and disinterested assessment is in order.
Kill the Messengers is a highly opinionated and harshly worded critique of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and what a fault-finding friend of mine once mirthfully called his “merry minions of mendacity.” It is also a lament for the print and broadcast media which have, too often, colluded in their own demise as trusted disseminators of objective information. In Canada, private-sector news outlets have pretty much toed the current government’s line, backed off criticism of government policy, practices and ethics and allowed for the country’s leaders to scorn democratic institutions more-or-less at will. Only in the recent past, as Canadians embark on a discomfiting year-long lead-up to a federal election in the Fall of 2015 (assuming Prime Minister Harper doesn’t violate his own “fixed-date election” laws), have the mainstream media stiffened their spines; yet, even there, the main causes of criticism have related to financial and electioneering scandals that may or may not lead to the criminal conviction of some Senators and senior political party officials. While titillating, these matters do not go to the root of public policy.
Even the public sector Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which has traditionally been the main media “watchdog” on public affairs, has allowed itself to be somewhat diverted from serious, often investigative broadcast journalism as it is forced to compete for audience share with private sector entertainment—a shift in emphasis that has undermined its ability to hold arrogant politicians and officious public authorities to account, while simultaneously creating a culture in which it has been mired in its own scandals.
It is in this context of disillusionment that Mark Bourrie’s book is to be understood. It is a case study that follows the general line of argument advanced by critics of propaganda from Walter Lippman classic tome, Public Opinion (1922) to Herman and Chomsky’s influential Manufacturing Consent (1988). Bourrie does not exactly engage in the kind of “muck-raking” reporting celebrated by US President Theodore Roosevelt who once breathlessly declared that “there should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life.” It is not the attack on individual miscreants or even small groups of conspirators against the common good that interests Bourrie so much as a pattern of culture in which entire areas of discourse and debate are shut down lest information inimical to the governing party’s interests be revealed.
Bourrie does not expose corruption that violates the norms and laws of parliamentary democracy in the manner of a tabloid scandal sheet; he patiently reveals how those norms have, themselves, been compromised by an approach to public information that distorts not only the “facts” but, perhaps more significantly, the purpose of political communications. A superficial example might be the Government of Canada’s million-dollar-a-month advertising campaign about a notional “Economic Action Plan” (Beeby, D. 2013, February 17; Currie, 2014, January 25; Toronto Star, 2013, September 25) that has no substantive existence, yet has been a relentless feature on commercial television for well over two years. Such shameless proselytizing shows how thoroughly the line between legitimate public service messaging and political propaganda has become blurred. This, however, is just one of the more obvious (and annoying) elements in an entire pattern of information control. More important by far is the suppression of information before it can be made public.
Mark Bourrie is splendidly positioned to describe the evolution of the propaganda model in theory and practice as it has evolved in Ottawa. He has observed political personalities, events and trends for well over twenty-five years as an author (a dozen books and counting), a scholar with a BA in History (Waterloo), a Diploma in Public Policy and Administration (Guelph), a Master’s degree in Journalism (Carleton) and a Doctorate in Canadian Media History (Ottawa), and a teacher who lectures in History at Carleton University and in Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa. He is also an award-winning journalist whose career has been spent mainly in ten-year stretches as a freelance news and feature writer at The Globe and Mail in the 1980s and the Toronto Star in the 1990s, and in a variety of venues including The National Post, Ottawa Magazine and Blacklock’s Reporter—an online magazine in which he is a partner. He is not an ideologically driven, unsubstantial, chronic complainer. He is well-credentialed and cannot easily be predismissed.
In Kill the Messengers, Bourrie presents us with a well-documented, well-written and embarrassingly accurate argument which exposes the political chicanery and the fundamentally anti-democratic sensibilities of the current Government of Canada. I cannot disagree with its content and I cannot disagree with its tone. That said, it is important to justify paying attention to what could otherwise be discounted as a partisan polemic intended to sway voters who will soon be called upon once again to render their collective judgement of Mr. Harper’s performance in office. It is even more important to do so here, since another book with a similar point of view has also been selected for review in this issue of The College Quarterly. I’d hate to think someone might imagine that I am trying to gang up on Mr. Harper (not that I’d be a tremendous threat to him if I did).
The justification for calling attention to Bourrie’s contribution is partly that it deals with a matter of what should be enormous public interest (the forthcoming national election) and partly because it addresses the larger theme of the role of the mass media in political life in general. The enormity of the 2015 election (at least for Canadians) merits a passing comment. For a number of globally significant reasons—not least critical questions of imminent ecological catastrophe, apparently permanent war in which Canada is rather witlessly engaging and any number of acute social, economic and democratically defining issues at home—the impending election looks to be one of potentially existential importance for this country.
The book is therefore both timely and also of enduring interest for it can be used as an excellent exhibit in any college course dealing with politics, governance, broadcasting and journalism. Coming as it does from a writer who is both a long-time member of the national press gallery and also a respected academic, it meets any sensible criterion of relevance to an enlightened electorate or an electorate in critical need of enlightenment.
The book paints Harper as ruthlessly attacking and even silencing journalists, scientists, judges, environmentalists, and intellectuals in a drive to remake Canada, rewrite our history, and keep the Conservatives in power. It is one of the most damning books ever written about a sitting prime minister.
- Paul Gessell, Ottawa Citizen
When Mr. Harper came first came to power in 2006, over three in every five Canadian voters (63.7%) appeared to disapprove of him and/or his ideas. Instead, they mostly cast their ballots for one of four major alternative parties. When he won his coveted “majority” in 2011, the electorate still split against him, but he was able to claim a “mandate” despite the fact that 60.4% of the people voted for someone else. Even now, he remains arguably the least popular chief magistrate in Canadian history; yet, the people who make up his “base” (the 30% of Canadians who blend religious and market fundamentalism with some even less pleasant attitudes toward “diversity”) are convinced that Mr. Harper is poised to win the election of 2015. They might be right.
When Mr. Harper assumed office, he boasted: “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it” (quoted in Richler, 2012, May 5). On that point alone, he is already very close to being right.
Bourrie explores a number of ways in which Mr. Harper’s revised version of Canada has come to describe and define Canadian culture, society and governance. Some of them have been the subject of brief flurries of indignation in the press and occasional panels of television opinionators and bloviators, but have typically been set aside as each news cycle passes and new outrages arise to capture our fleeting attention. Incidentally, a common comment from the professional pundits who are excessively sympathetic to Mr. Harper’s vision is that this or that deception or deceit won’t matter much to a public that is alleged to be too dim to understand the nuances of parliamentary procedure and the principles of democratic government; so, they intone, such matters don’t “have legs” and the voters will have forgotten them when the time comes to vote. It grieves me to say so, but confidence in the indifference and political ignorance of the people may be too close to right for any civic comfort.
In Bourrie’s view, the multi-faceted degradation of democracy runs from concern about the disconnectedness of citizens from the political process to the actual repression of information that ought properly to be in the public domain.
The disconnectedness is actively encouraged by broadcast and print media conglomerates which prefer to turn government press releases into stories than to put actual reporters into the field. Part of this is simple economics; it’s cheaper to recycle material than to find out what’s actually happening—a business decision for the corporate media and a political tactic employed by a government that rather desperately wants to limit the investigative arm of the CBC.
There is, however, far more to Bourrie’s book than that.
Store shelves are beginning to fill with books explaining why [Harper] is, at best, bad at his job, or, at worst, bad for the country … Kill the Messengers is among the most useful, even-handed, and convincing of these titles.
– Quill and Quire
The building legacy of the Harper administrations is already being crafted to include the fact that, after cunningly creating a right-wing merger that added many more Central and Eastern Canadian voters to his reliable register of Alberta supporters in what turned out to be a hostile takeover of the venerable Progressive Conservative Party, Mr. Harper campaigned on a platform that promised honesty, transparency, open and democratic governance. His record reveals the opposite. One of the many topics that cynical Ottawa insiders claim to be of no interest to Canadians is the abrupt termination of the long-form census, the single most important instrument for evidence-based domestic policy making in the country. Deprived of critical information about Canadian demographics, the way has been left open to government by ideology; the collection of factual data was simply abandoned and “belief” now dominates where reason once at least had a chance to prevail. Likewise, science has been sneeringly devalued. Federal research programs have been shut down and access to public service experts has been limited to the point where people with knowledge have been required to submit their research publications to be vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office prior to publication. The idea is that any empirical data or analysis that contradicted, for example, Harper’s initial denial of global warming and contempt for the Kyoto Accord (he called it a “socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” CBC, 2007) could either be excised before the reports were made public or, if the offending ideas were too frequent and consistent, simply be shredded.
Prime Minister Harper’s almost manic desire for control of information goes beyond his efforts to silence independent voices. Although his flirtation with his own YouTube show “24 Seven” has, as Bourrie has whimsically pointed out, won him fewer viewers than an ordinary kitten video, he has gone so far as to sic the federal taxation department on registered charities that are deemed critical of his policies. Vengeful, even against old allies and mentors (one hesitates to call them “friends”), Mr. Harper has undertaken smear campaigns against honourable public servants and others who have done no more than tell the truth in the public interest. Indeed, Ottawa lies strewn with the remains of careers bent and broken—thoughtful bureaucrats and respected scientists who have dared to discuss the wardrobe of the aspirant Emperor.
This is not to say that Mr. Harper’s ambitions and methods are unique. Previous political leaders have done their best to manipulate public opinion and, of course, the inventory of bodies that have been “thrown under the bus” by previous administrations is extensive. Bourrie’s great addition to the catalogue of criticism derives from his intimate knowledge both or Mr. Harper’s government and of the national media. The corporate concentration, downsizing and easy control of editorial content and reportage (never as distinct as journalistic ethicists may imagine) have combined to produce a (post)modern paradox; namely, in the midst of the “information society” where citizens are deluged daily with more factoids and fables than any sentient creature could conceivably absorb, it has apparently become easier, not harder, to control public opinion. Moreover, Bourrie names names. Now, it takes little skill to realize that major figures at Maclean’s (no longer a liberal instrument of national unity, but now more often a neoliberal apologist for class privilege) including Andrew Coyne are unlikely to be overly critical of the current government, or that even such a mainstay of the more-or-less officially Liberal newspaper, the Toronto Star, as Susan Delacourt is seldom moved to excessively disparage the personalized “Harper” government; it comes as a bit of a surprise, however, to see them included with Rosemary Barton and Kady O’Malley (both formerly with Maclean’s and both stalwarts of CBC’s daily public affairs program, “Power and Politics”) as being among the alleged enablers of the media culture that has been so valuable to the Prime Minister. It’s not that any of them explicitly or uniformly promote the Conservative “brand”; rather, in Bourrie’s opinion, they (and plenty of others) are to be criticized for using their ample social media outreach to trivialize politics by undermining substantive matters and indulging in electoral gossip.
Q: What do you see as the most egregious aspect of the Harper government’s control over information?
A: Any message control that limits the ability of individual MPs to function—the unprecedented amount of party control over MPs. The weakening of (House of Commons’) committees and the deliberate derailing of committee work. And the hammering away at the Parliamentary budget officer and efforts to delegitimize the Auditor General. When the Prime Minister’s Office is deciding which choices to make, there isn’t any democracy anymore.
– Mark Bourrie
Is Harper to be blamed for exploiting the opportunities afforded by a limp media? Or is he to be congratulated for his cleverness? The answer, I suppose, will reflect whether or not the respondent is an admirer of the Prime Minister. What cannot be said is that Mr. Harper has been successful in making Canadian politics nobler or more democratic, if that was ever his true intention. On those measures, Mark Bourrie and I assuredly agree that the Prime Minister has not.
Some mild critics of Kill the Messenger have grumbled that, while Bourrie has done an admirable job of dissecting Mr. Harper, the major media and the sometimes cozy and almost symbiotic relationship between the two, he offers no useful corrective, no plan nor even much of a hint about how to restore competent civic participation and thus to redeem our polity. While he discloses the dynamics of dysfunction within the Ottawa bubble, he offers no therapy other than some quintessential homilies about a better-informed and active public.
To me, however, it is enough that Mark Bourrie sees through the Prime Minister’s almost paranoid delusions. After almost a decade in office, he still acts as though he is an outsider fighting against the “Eastern establishment” and the all those subversive aboriginals, eco-terrorists, feminists, liberal intellectuals, “peaceniks” and “union bosses” who are eager to coddle terrorists and criminals, disable entrepreneurs and private enterprises and … so on. (Or, is he just “acting”?) In any case, Bourrie has performed very well as a diagnostician. Formulating and implementing an appropriate therapy is a burden he should have lifted from him.
Beeby, D. (2013, February 17, 2013). Canadians growing tired of Harper’s Economic Action Plan call government ads ‘propaganda’ in recent survey. National Post. Retrieved December 5, 2014 from http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-politics/canadians-growing-tired-of-harpers-economic-action-plan-call-government-ads-propaganda-in-recent-survey
CBC. (2007, January 30). Harper’s letter dismisses Kyoto as ‘socialist scheme.’ Retrieved December 4, 2014 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/harper-s-letter-dismisses-kyoto-as-socialist-scheme-1.693166
Currie, B. (2014, January 25). Government spends millions on ads for ‘Economic Action Plan’ that ended two years ago. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved December 5, 2014 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news
Herman, E. S. & N. Chomsky. (1988). Manufacturing consent. New York: Pantheon.
Lippman, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Richler, N. (2013, May 5). Noah Richler: A nation playing war.” The National Post. Retrieved December 5, 2014 from http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/noah-richler-a-nation-playing-war
Toronto Star. (2013, September 17). ‘Economic Action Plan’ ads are wasteful Conservative propaganda: Editorial. Retrieved December 5, 2014 from http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2013/09/17
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org