The movement, the machines and the media
Two topics were almost certain to prompt conversation in the corridors of this weekend's Manning Centre conference in Ottawa: robocalls and the media. And the questions were the same: good or bad? Do they do more harm than help for the conservative movement?
Much has been written about how robocalls figured into the weekend proceedings, including a previous post in this space and Preston Manning's pointed remarks about ethics. Now, though, before the weekend fades from Ottawa politics' notoriously short memory, a few notes about how the media figured into the conservative conversations.
* First, I was surprised by the relatively sparse media presence overall. For political junkies, this was a signature event in the capital -- all events were open, cabinet ministers and other, senior Conservatives were relaxed, walking around and chatting freely. It was an ideal opportunity to meet people who are either inaccessible or normally far back in the shadows. And bonus, it was fun and interesting. So I was a bit baffled to see so few journalists there and some media outlets (I won't name them) completely absent. Only CPAC and SunMedia were doing any kind of live broadcasting.
* Unrelated (I hope) to that previous post, yes, it was true that slamming the "media elite" was a popular sport in panel discussions. It was a guaranteed applause line for some of the audiences, filled with people who built the conservative movement with an us-against-them mentality. I won't speak for the other reporters there, but I didn't take any of it personally or too seriously. Out in the corridor at one point, I was chatting pleasantly with Nick Kouvalis about a variety of non-robocall subjects -- RIM's marketing direction, mutual acquaintances from Windsor, etc. -- and my colleague Tonda MacCharles wandered by. Smiling, she noted she'd been present at the recent session where Nick had unloaded a lot of vitriol against the media. He smiled too and shrugged: "Hey, that's my brand."
* Some media people did get plaudits from the crowd. One of the vendors at the event was giving out buttons featuring SunMedia personalities as "pillars" of the movement. On the opening day, a slide flashed up on the big screen featuring the SunMedia logo and the TV channel was praised "for all it was doing" to advance the conservative cause. The audience burst into approving applause. I noticed some people were scandalized by this on Twitter and I will say that I'd cringe if the Toronto Star was presented similarly at a Liberal convention. But it's also worth noting that "preserving/saving the CBC" was a similar applause line at the recent Liberal convention in Ottawa.
* On that same point, SunMedia commentators were frequent panelists at the convention, but so too was Andrew Coyne of Postmedia. Coyne arrived on Saturday morning with a sharply worded lecture to these conservatives, about how they'd deserted their old principles. You can see part of his remarks here. Was he booed or ushered from the room? No he was not. Coyne got laughs, applause and a healthy conversation with his fellow panelists and the audience. Mark up a point for intelligent political conversation in Canadian conservatism.
* Late on Saturday night, there were reports of an "incident," involving the ejection of Postmedia columnist Stephen Maher from the Manning Centre's official social event. Early reports, via folks on the scene, said Maher's ouster was a result of his reporting on the robocall controversy. I am told, however, that the person who did the ejecting did not know who Maher was, and Maher himself is now saying that it was all a misunderstanding. The hyperbole on both sides of this scuffle, I'd say, is probably a bit of fallout from the us-against-them syndrome mentioned above -- not a lot of trust in good motives on either side. I'd like to say that will end sometime soon, but that's just dreaming. Hey, it's a brand.
* On Friday, I made a little joking reference on Twitter that was only partly a joke. I noticed that most of the women journalists at the event were working, reporting on things, while the male journalists were there to be on panels. There were exceptions on both sides, of course, but this was by and large the pattern. I'm sure it wasn't deliberately planned, but let's just note anthropologically that this was a very male event in Ottawa, and you didn't have to do a head count to prove the point. The audiences and the panels were overwhelmingly made up of men -- a few of us put the ratio at about 80:20 -- and the only place where women outnumbered men was in the media-filing room.
* A final point: I have a long-standing objection to reporters who whine about their care and feeding at political events, and worse, the ones who make connections between logistics and fitness to govern. ("We didn't get fed on time! How do these people expect to run a government?) But if I was that kind of reporter, I'd say that the Manning Centre is entirely fit for office. The people who were there to handle the media and the volunteers were unfailingly kind, courteous and helpful with everything from speech texts to interview requests. If any of them are reading this blog, my sincere thanks.