The news we’re fed

It was 20 years ago today...

To most people, those words bring to mind a Beatles' song, released 42 years ago this week. That's a measure of the Beatles' musical genius, and another example of how pop culture can live on long after the generation that created it has faded away.

Fewer people will take the time to think back to what events actually happened on June 4, 1989, although those who still read newspapers or watch television news will have been tipped off. For those who've missed it, today is the 20 th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising and the Chinese government's crackdown.

Few young Chinese known anything about what happened at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, according to Chinese author Yu Hua. After the summer of 1989, the incident vanished from the Chinese news media, Yu wrote in last Sunday's New York Times .

That's not so surprising, given that China is still run by a centralized, authoritarian government, albeit one that now emphasizes making money. But we in the west would be mistaken to think that the Chinese government and governments in other "emerging" countries are the only ones controlling the messages people receive through the media.

A couple of weeks ago, Denise Rudnicki spoke at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Vancouver. Rudnicki spent 20 years as a reporter on Parliament Hill, but said it was only when she went to work as director of communications for the federal minister of justice that she really began to understand how government works.

Rudnicki's main point: it's not just the message that federal governments try to control, it's the agenda. It goes far beyond "spin."

We may not be surprised that Chinese government bureaucracy has virtually extinguished the events of June 4, 1989 from history, but we shouldn't be shocked by the selective information that also comes out of Ottawa and Washington. Nobody knows, for instance, how much money is spent on communications by the Canadian government. Every ministry has a communications department, but that's only part of the effort. There may be strategic communications committees, and support staff, within ministerial departments. There are all kinds of contracts for private firms to do polling, organize focus groups and analyze media coverage.

From the very earliest stages, every issue goes to cabinet with a communications plan. The plan includes a communications objective, polling data to support the objective, background on opposition to the issue, the media position on the issue, who the stakeholders in the issue are, regional considerations, and a strategy for getting the bill through Parliament.

Long before an issue is brought to the floor of the House of Commons, focus groups are used to determine how the issue can be "sold." Supporters are identified and lined up, often as "independent" third parties. They may or may not appear alongside cabinet ministers, but they have been prompted, advised and coached by government communications personnel. That coaching may include answers to specific questions, topics for discussion, suggested letters to the editor or help in facilitating press conferences.

And rarely does anyone ever ask a third party what their connection is to government. Remember the open letter to then Opposition Leader Stephen Harper, signed by 134 legal scholars in 2005? In full-page newspaper ads the legal scholars affirmed that same sex marriage was a right guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The "independent" campaign was prompted by a phone call from the Prime Minister's Office.

By the time a minister holds a press conference to announce something, he or she has been briefed on reactions and poll results, and thoroughly coached on questions, answers and talking points. The cumulative effort by government to prepare for the announcement far surpasses anything the media can do. And so we end up with homogenized "news."

Two of the catalysts for the extensive efforts governments now take to control the agenda, according to Rudnicki, are the 24-hour news cycle and "the permanent campaign." That is, while issues and policies are part of governing, the overarching goal is to get re-elected. What that means is that - surprise - there is little long-term planning in government.

But Rudnicki doesn't fault governments for their efforts to control the agenda. To do any less, she suggests, would be irresponsible.

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