On March 2, 1999, BCTV’s news hour featured a live RCMP door knock at the East Vancouver residence of then NDP Premier Glen Clark. The cops were at the home of the province’s top politician to execute a search warrant issued in connection with an investigation into breach of trust involving a casino license approved for a man who had done renovations on Clark’s home. BCTV reporter John Daly just happened to get tipped off.
Clark would be forced to resign, although he was eventually acquitted. Personally, he bounced back, switching teams of sorts by going to work in the upper echelons of the business empire of B.C.’s top oligarch, Jimmy Pattison. But the NDP has arguably never recovered. After Clark resigned, the party was decimated in the 2001 election, reduced to two seats. They’ve lost three more elections since, the last one a come-from-behind win by Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals.
That 2013 loss was such a stunner that many now see Christy Clark as invincible. Despite her government’s growing roster of scandals, it feels like many in the opposition camp don’t really think they can win. Perhaps this pessimism is just the intellect’s self-defence against another electoral heartbreak.
Although the 1999 media-assisted dethroning of Clark stands out as particularly over-the-top, in each contest the weight of the mainstream corporate media in this province has played a role in tipping the scales against the NDP. No matter what outrages committed by the government, the vast majority of major print and broadcast media in B.C. could always reliably be counted on to chime in with endorsements of the establishment’s party of choice.
On the eve of Election Day back in 2005, for example, I remember the Vancouver Sun and Province had people handing out free issues of their papers at the main downtown transit hubs. This was back in the days when there was little competition to the city’s twin-headed Canwest corporate paper of record.
But times have changed. Canwest filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 and was bought up by Postmedia, which today itself looks like a media empire on its last legs. Free distribution papers like Metro Vancouver, while still owned by large corporate media interests, have noticeably improved their coverage of local and provincial politics, and tend to allow more progressive op-eds to be featured prominently.
Most importantly, the digital media revolution, including the rise of social media and the slow but steady proliferation of independent online news and politics sites, has diluted the power once wielded by the big corporate outlets. Even online video, growing in reach everyday, threatens the hold of big broadcasters like Global TV (which used to be BCTV, and as it happens John Daly just retired from Global two weeks ago.)
Having once worked on B.C. NDP campaigns, before turning to focus on journalism, I know that the party’s staffers lived in fear of the big players in the corporate media. That has reinforced the tendency for the party to tack to the political centre, especially when they’re fearful a particular position will be framed by the mainstream media as “anti-growth” or “anti-jobs.”
Just last week, we saw NDP leader John Horgan wobble on his party’s opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, telling reporters “I can be persuaded” to support the tar sands export project, if new facts emerge to change his (and his party’s) mind. The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, unofficial dean of the B.C. legislative press gallery, promptly wrote a column about Horgan “leaving his options open.” Global’s senior reporter, Keith Baldrey, was positively giddy about Horgan opening the door to the pipeline, tweeting: “the B.C. NDP (or at least its leader) no longer has a firm position on Kinder Morgan pipeline.”
For the NDP, this type of wobbling by the leader is deadly. It will demoralize and confuse their own supporters. Horgan would be wise to hold firm, especially since polling has consistently shown opposition to the pipeline remains strong.
Rather than giving the old media openings like this to muddy the waters, the NDP should stick to its guns where they have staked out progressive positions. And then they should creatively use digital media to amplify their message, and to involve their supporters and members directly in this effort. The Bernie Sanders campaign in the U.S. showed the power of social media to completely change the terms of political debate and bypass traditional media gatekeepers.
The NDP need not live in fear of Palmer and Baldrey any longer.
There’s a new media landscape taking shape in B.C. and worldwide, and a renewed hunger for principled and unashamedly left-wing politics. If John Horgan and the NDP can keep their nerve, corporate media bosses won’t get to determine the results of next year’s election.