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Confessions of a political Open Line caller

In my last post, I wrote about political operatives who stack' the lines to talk radio programs. In that post, I noted that the practice has been going on for about 10 years and that, by now, there should be no shortage of individuals retired from party politics who don't mind talking about this subject.

I was right.

I received an email from a colleague who once worked as a political staffer in the Roger Grimes government. The person has asked to remain anonymous, though I know the person well and can vouch for their identity and credibility. In fact, it is fairly evident from the detail in the following letter that this person has good insider knowledge. (As noted in a previous post, I don't mind using anonymous comments if there is good reason, especially in a whistle blower' situation like this.)

I emphasize that this practice is not illegal. It certainly qualifies as free speech. However, the assignment of salaried, full-time communications staff to such activities is questionable. Some might consider it an underhanded method of trying to influence public opinion, while others consider it smart politics.

Either way, it provides an enlightening look into how politics works in this province. I invite other retired (or active) operatives to share their stories as well. Here's the full text:

"Stacking The Lines" is a common practice with these open line shows. I used to work as a political staffer for a number of years during the late 90s, and on many occasions, if there was a poll being done, for example, an official from the Premier's Office would call all political staff to get on the phone lines and make sure they voted, also providing a point or two about why the government was doing a good job.

In fact, in the Grimes government, one person in the Premier's Office would be strictly responsible for that form of communication, getting the message out, as it were on issues on both Open Line and Night Line.

The hosts usually knew who the political people were, so you had to be on your toes and know the issue inside out before you called in. There was nothing worse than being put "on the spot." But the effective communicators were usually the ones who called in.

Many mornings, between 9 and 11 (there was no BackTalk then) political staff were on the phones, calling Open Line. Usually, Pat Murphy had to call us back, so we used our cell phone number as the call back number. On occasion, Nightline was a common place for political staffers to call, especially earlier in the evening, when calls were light. I did it from home, because there was no waiting to get on. I usually used my middle name when I called in, so it wouldn't be obvious who I was.

When CBC Radio started mentioning the names on-air, that proved a lot more difficult for political operatives to call in, because as they say, everyone knows your name. On occasion, we still did, but not as often.

When an issue was especially divisive (say Voisey's Bay Agreement) talking points were provided to all research staff from communications staffers or the Premier's Communications person, so they could formally articulate the government's position on an issue on the open line shows. Sometimes, these notes would also be sent to MHAs so they could call in as well. Normally, I would check with the other staff before I called in, so that we wouldn't be saying the exact same thing when we called. Talking points are similar to a minister's Briefing Note on an issue. As you may or may not know, all communications staff have a Briefing Book for their ministers during the House. It has answers to every possible question that could be asked by an opposition member to the government. If they don't have the answer there, the minister says that they would "take it under advisement" and would get the answer ASAP.

These talking points came to play when it came to letters to the editor. I would normally write letters to my local R/B paper concerning issues, but I would also email it to every other R/B paper. Many of these papers would print the letter, so the message got to more and more readers. Of course, I would sign my name to it, but I would phrase the letter in such a way so that it wasn't a too obvious political attack on the opposition, but it still got the government's point across effectively.

Anyway, the Premier usually listened to the show to see who had called in, and if you made some good points on the show, you usually earned some praise from someone in the Premier's Office, sometimes the Premier himself. If you didn't call, and they knew it, they'd be pressuring you to do so constantly.

I was glad when I had my call of the week in, because I wouldn't have to worry about it until the next week or when the next big issue came along.

That was the way it worked.


I received the following additional information from my informant, in response to a question:

It would normally be 6 or 7 of us...they would have a special group of people that would meet every so often, and it would include both political staff and outside supporters... for the polls, all political staffers were urged to call in.

Communications people were not involved itself, as they had enough on their plate, but they did assist in providing talking points for the "open-liners". These are actual political staffers, such as constituency assistants, researchers, etc.

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Recent comments

  • Ross
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I have to comment on this issue. I myself enjoy the phone-in shows, but during elections/by-elections I just have to change to music channels. Lo and behold I tuned in this morning thinking it was safe to come back , and there was some caller going on about the upcoming vote in the Grand Falls district. Click, back to the music............