How out-of-touch big-shots lost their political playground

COVER by Stephen LaRose

Some drop-the-mike moment. The Right Honourable Peter Eric James Prentice, PC, Queen’s Counsel, Alberta’s 16th premier, strode to the stage at a Calgary hotel the night of May 5 to announce he was resigning not only as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, Alberta’s rulers for 44 years, but as MLA for Calgary-Foothills — even though Elections Alberta had five polling stations to count in his riding.

Mr. Prentice’s short and hurried speech brought to an end a blunderful 28-day campaign by the Alberta Progressive Conservatives. He called the election a year early, violating his government’s own fixed election law. He strode to an Edmonton stage kicking off his campaign to the dulcet tones of Nickelback’s “Burn It Down”, (Google the lyrics). His smarmy, Mr. Know-It-All performance during the television debate converted New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley from near-underground status to an underdog favourite. Stories of corruption and profligate spending abounded.

Prentice and his gaggle of power-gobbling junkies displayed exactly jack-squat of the intelligence, charisma, or decision-making abilities that had earned the endorsement of three of the largest Canadian daily newspapers with an interest in this campaign: the Globe And Mail, the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald. Their editorials described a different Prentice and a different PC Party of Alberta — one without scandals, one that didn’t listen only to its corporate funders, one not filled with people displaying the arrogance and disdain endemic to one-party rule — and one that could be trusted with the complicated operations of governance. Unlike their newspapers, most Albertans thought the Alberta PCs couldn’t be trusted with a pair of scissors.

As the Alberta PCs China Syndromed, many business leaders and pundits fell down the radioactive hole with them. How could they have got it so wrong? Was the message of the 2015 Alberta election something they didn’t want to hear?

Post-Media Meltdown

Throw out what the barstool prophets and coffee row czars say about the “left-wing media”: it never was and never will be. Newspapers and radio and television stations are private industry, like 7-11s and gas stations: if they don’t make a profit for their owners or shareholders, they’ll be replaced by something that will. And in an age where such media are competing for eyeballs with the Internet — and failing — the first instinct of business is to entrench.

Postmedia, the parent operating company of the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun, Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun, has been bleeding red ink like a harpooned whale since the age of the Internet. Falling advertising revenue, coupled with a weak Canadian dollar, caused Postmedia to lose $58.2 million in the second quarter of its fiscal year (the results were announced April 8). This compares with losing $23.5 million in the second quarter of its last fiscal year. Given the state of Alberta’s finances, it appears misery loves company.

When companies such as Postmedia get into trouble, the first and easiest solution is to entrench its efforts to maintain the revenue streams it has — in this case, its advertising base. Newspapers direct their efforts to maintain this advertising base by sometimes throttling political and cultural discussions that may draw eyeballs, but will make advertisers uncomfortable. Business sections and sports sections may keep their coverages and staff, unlike the arts, culture, or news or city desks.

As well, newspaper publishers almost always come from the management and advertising side of the business, not the editorial side. More comfortable in the world of business than in the world of words, publishers are more often interested in maintaining their relationships in the business world, and hopefully maintaining their advertising revenue streams, than the actual news. They become part of the political and corporate ‘groupthink’ that’s stifled Canadian political debate within its pages.

Call it The Devine Right of Conservatism. In the era of the Divine Right of Kings, the serfs had to suffer the results of incompetent governance if the king was an idiot, corrupt or was suffering from brain syphilis, because the ruler got the job from God. And people weren’t to go against the will of God.

Replace the will Of God with the will Of Corporate Finance (since modern society worships money the way medieval society worshiped God) and you have 21st century mainstream politics. Money talks louder than people’s voices in business, in the short and medium term at least. This is why Canadians will see similar editorials appearing in Postmedia newspapers endorsing Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in next October’s federal election, even though the feds are the post-doctorate to Prentice’s bachelor’s degree in political corruption and incompetence.

Okay, okay. In fairness, the Edmonton Journal staff distanced themselves as much as they could from the Postmedia endorsement. In an interview with Jesse Brown in his Canadaland podcast, posted May 4 (the day before the election), Journal editor-in-chief Margo Goodhand said the order for the endorsement came from the paper’s owners in Toronto. Legislative columnist Paula Simons did a Twitter essay critiquing not only Postmedia’s endorsement but also the perception and realities of the campaign to date. And both papers, as did almost all Alberta media, did a good job in reporting on the facts and issues in the campaign.

But that shows the problem of modern mainstream journalism. The business community puts up with media only as a vehicle to advertise their wares: newspapers, in this case, don’t deliver news to people; they deliver eyeballs to advertisers. The higher up the management chain, and the further away from the populace’s real concerns, the easier it is for publishers, like the rest of the high-end business community, to ignore those on the lower levels of the economic scale. And if publishers aren’t interested in the news, but prefer to live in their own little worlds, they shouldn’t be shocked when people aren’t interested in the stories from that fake world they live in.

That may explain where many of the eyeballs went as newspaper circulation drops. It also explains why somebody once thought Jim Prentice was leadership material.