Throughout my long tenure in the racket of journalism, I’ve always found the political photo-op made me squirm, its artifice so invariably and patently evident that an intravenous drip of anti-nausea medication would have had minimum impact on my self-righteous but fragile system.
The stilted setup, the phony grins, the forced handshakes, all self-servingly aimed at the unwashed (and often gullible) electorate, are the ingredients that comprise the recipe of the ubiquitous photo-op (“op” a shortened version of “opportunity”, for those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the short-hand vernacular of the communications world.)
I have seen with my old set of jaded eyes, however, instances when politicians have taken unfair advantage of people for their photo-ops.
But at least those involved have usually volunteered to perform the plastic smile routine like good little political soldiers. And, I must admit, the whole affair is often aided and abetted by a media horde made lazy by the ease with which it can grab the “visuals” for the story its members happen to be pursuing.
I have seen with my old set of jaded eyes, however, instances when politicians have taken unfair advantage of people for their photo-ops. The brief stop-over at a senior citizens residence during an election campaign a prime example — it’s a setting where the candidates would work oh-so-diligently to come across as sincere and caring as they made sure their own flacks and the media capture with still and video cameras every “Hi, how are you?” greeting with a geriatric voter. (The fact that, as I have witnessed, some of the seniors were blissfully unaware that an election was even taking place, or believed that the fight for Confederation was still being waged, meant nothing to those seeking publicity. It was all about the photo-op; get in and get out).
In those kinds of photo-ops, the innocently obliging souls were exploitable props.
Which brings me around to what has prompted this weekend sermon on exploitation and the photo-op in the first place, and that is — my preacher’s voice rising — the recent sales job by the Furey government during which they shamelessly courted youngsters to help deliver their political message.
On the surface, the announcement of a $25-a-day child care program was laudable, especially if you happen to be parents struggling to make ends meet, which happens to be most parents in these tough times, although it did prompt a voice of caution in some skeptical circles about a lack of details, and questions concerning the potential range of beneficiaries.
But what public relations genius in his or her right mind concluded there would be nothing inappropriate, nothing unsavoury, with having three government heavyweights — Premier Andrew Furey himself, for mercy’s sakes, along with cabinet ministers Siobhan Coady and Tom Osborne — making small talk with a group of toddlers (the cameras rolling, of course) at a local child care establishment as a way of trying to convince the province what an enlightened crowd of visionaries they happen to be?
“And what’s your name?” Furey could be heard asking one youngster, as Coady and Osborne looked on proudly, although their pandemic masks perhaps hid whatever awkwardness they might have felt.
I was but one viewer in television land, but I can tell you I immediately found myself in foot-shuffling mode.
And the little fella or little girl, whomever was at the receiving end of Furey’s token question for the cameras, couldn’t be blamed if he or she (perhaps a precocious tyke) actually thought, who’s the dude, the stranger with the mask, and why is he talking to me?
Perhaps the child has an insightful parent who can explain in some future year when someone grabs an old video to show the kid and the premier in “conversation” that it was a case of political manipulation, that it was an embarrassing example of show-and-tell, that it was politicians blatantly using children as a way of peddling a message.
Now, for sure, I imagine permission was sought from the parents of the children to have their offspring front and centre at the photo-op (if such an OK was not pursued, this is an even more grievous matter). But that’s hardly the point. The youngsters themselves had no say and were unabashedly thrust onto the stage as unknowing actors in a piece of political theatre.
Why didn’t Furey and company just head to a media briefing room at Confederation Building and hold the press conference there? The last six months have been frightening enough for toddlers without having politicians, reporters and cameras infiltrating their cloistered world.
I had similar thoughts about kids and the way they are manipulated for political purposes while watching a slice or two of the hearings in the United States Senate last week to rubber stamp Judge Amy Coney Barrett as the next Supreme Court Justice. There they were, Barrett’s brood of youngsters, sitting proudly behind the judge, smiling — as I’m sure her handlers had advised — for the American cameras.
The image, of course, is to sell Barrett as something from the ’50s, a character out of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best.” Mom, the flag and apple pie, except, of course, that this particular mom could unleash irreparable harm on abortion rights and gay rights in the U.S., and other critical issues.
Anyway, that’s their problem, the Americans, I mean.
Up here, our problems are not nearly as profound.
Still, for the love and honour of Peter Pan, leave the toddlers out of the photo-ops.
And out of politics.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at [email protected]