It is what it is. That’s the best way to summarize the fuss about the Tories supposedly influencing online media polls. I heard someone suggest no one really cares, that poll-padding has gone on for years. Well, aside from the obvious issue, shouldn’t we have reason to be concerned that a handful, maybe dozens, of people paid with the public purse fiddle while Rome burns?
The timing of reporter Steve Bartlett’s story in The Weekend Telegram couldn’t have been better. He’s given us more details of what has been going on behind the scenes by elected and non-elected government people, while at the same time public servants are worried about losing their jobs and just days before the provincial government implemented an across-the-board hiring freeze.
In a previous work life, I helped craft the VOCM question of the day. It was tough to come up with a question each day. Indeed, that was usually someone else’s role. My responsibility was to approve the question and the wording.
Wanted to stir public response
There was never an attempt by anyone to influence the questions asked, or to have us phrase a question a certain way. It really was all about getting the public to interact with our website. We wanted questions that would stir a response.
We knew which ones would push buttons. The seal hunt, women’s issues, crime, and yes, in this province, politics. Sometimes it was a marvel to watch the numbers change at certain times of the day. We used to say, “Confederation Building is awake now.”
Some might suggest that in itself is reason to discount online polls but they are not meant to be a measure of opinion, just an opportunity for people to have their say. The real messages come in the comments, and editing them is backbreaking work, combing through the worst English and sailor language, trying to allow someone to make their point without landing you or them in jail.
Modern day open-line
Online polls such as those offered by CBC, VOCM, The Telegram and others are just the modern day open-line. There is nothing the government and opposition communications pros are doing now that wasn’t done years ago when our province was graced with a couple of competing talk shows.
Back then, it was actually easier to influence the listening public. Calls were not screened, and as someone who occasionally hosted talk shows, I can say we had no idea who was on the other end. These days things are different.
Producer holds power
Sometimes the most powerful force behind talk radio isn’t the Randy, Paddy or Pete. It’s the producer who takes the call and decides who gets on the air and when. There are politicians of all levels and first-time callers, party faithful and business people, labour leaders and community groups.
It’s tough to be fair and mistakes are made, but not for a lack of trying. Producers try to make sure all sides are heard, and it’s no easy task.
Even decades ago, we recognized the stacked calls when a premier, prime minister or cabinet minister was a talk-show guest. We’d do our best to keep the lines open to the average person, but it was a challenge.
One tough lesson to be taken from the co-ordinated influence by political parties to influence open-line programs and media polls is that they have already made up their mind.
It would be so much better for the powers that matter to read between the lines, assess what people say about an issue, and use it as a tool, (albeit not a deciding factor) to help guide their actions, instead of making the poll or program justify the positions they have already taken.
Putting the blame on opposing parties, saying “they do it, so we must do the same” is stupid. Orchestrated campaigns with MHAs as the bandmasters could be used for far better purposes than manipulating an unscientific survey of what people think.
The next thing we’ll see the Office of Public Engagement place a daily poll on the government home page and use it to back their position. Uh-oh, now I’ve given them an idea.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org