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By Bob Barnett Four months ago the NDP were dead in the water. The Nanaimo Commonwealth Society investigation was hanging over the party, Mike Harcourt was hanging over the party and the Liberals were at the top of the polls. But since Glen Clark was elected leader at the end of February the NDP’s popularity has climbed like a rocket. Several billion dollars in announcements have helped, but many feel the dramatic rise in NDP fortunes are due to the media. The media have always played a role in British Columbia politics. Both Amor De Cosmos, B.C.’s first effective premier, and John Robson, premier from 1889 to 1892, were newspaper owners. Both used their papers to criticize the rule of Governor James Douglas and advocate elected representation, before getting into politics themselves. British Columbia politics, with the likes of Phil Gaglardi, W.A.C. Bennett, Dave Barrett and Bill Vander Zalm, have been called "colourful" by some; "bizarre" by others. But it is De Cosmos who set the standard early on. De Cosmos was a real estate speculator in California and briefly in B.C. after he arrived in 1858. He then started a Victoria newspaper, The British Colonist, to criticize Douglas. His criticism annoyed the governor so much Douglas tried to suppress The Colonist under a mostly-forgotten English law that required massive sureties for a newspaper to appear. The move backfired, as De Cosmos was so popular enough money was raised to take the paper daily. At this point, according to George Woodcock in British Columbia; A History of the Province, "The time, De Cosmos felt, had now come to move from journalism to political action, and in 1860 he tried to gain election to the (Vancouver Island) legislative assembly. Twice that year he was defeated by election frauds that were allowed to go unremediated; not until 1863 did he eventually enter the enlarged assembly of fifteen members and immediately become the leader of the opposition. His methods were flamboyant but arresting. He was often drunk when he spoke, and frequently he became involved in fights with opponents on whose heads he would freely use the heavy walking stick he carried. Once he and another legislator wearied their more numerous opponents into submission by speaking in turn for twenty-six hours on end; such methods gained and held admiration in a young and somewhat repressed community." Robson, who was premier in 1892 when he died of blood poisoning after catching his finger in the door of a London cab, started the first newspaper in the mainland colony, The British Columbian, in New Westminster in 1861. Like De Cosmos, he used his paper to criticize the appointed rulers, an act which once landed him in jail for contempt. He continued to write scathing editorials from his cell. The crossover between the media and political careers continues today. Former West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA David Mitchell is only one of the most recent to move from one realm to the other. He is providing commentaries on CBC, in the Vancouver Sun, the North Shore News and Business in Vancouver during the election. The media’s role seems to change slightly in every election, as techniques and technology advance. Understanding the media and how it works is crucial to political fortunes, especially during an election. It’s also important to voters. Sheila Fruman, former communications director for Mike Harcourt, is another one writing a weekly column for The Sun during the provincial election. In her first column, last week, she explained how journalistic values work in favour of one side or another. Fruman says that media coverage treats politics as a game in which the only things that matter are who’s winning and how the game is being played, not what it’s about. "Since the media focus so tightly on the game, there are only four stories to tell about the leaders: they’re leading, trailing, gaining ground or losing ground. "Research reveals that the media dump on losers and those who are losing support, criticize frontrunners and praise those who catch fire," Fruman wrote. The "who’s winning and how the game is being played" premise holds true when you look at the coverage to date of this year’s election. Television and newspapers have focused on the leaders (individual candidates, including cabinet ministers, have hardly been heard from), on polls and on attempts to generate media coverage, such as Liberal leader Gordon Campbell shovelling chocolate loonies back on to a truck. But who’s winning and how the game is being played doesn’t help voters understand the leaders’ platforms and promises. It’s better than the emphasis on "style" so common in 1980s elections, but nearing the end of the second week of this campaign, how many people can remember more than one or two specific policies espoused by any of the leaders? The other area the media are concentrating on this election is asking voters want they want. Unfortunately the candidates’ responses usually aren’t reported. All of this — the emphasis on the leaders, on polls and on publicity stunts — comes through the media. But voters have opportunities to see and speak to candidates themselves, if they make the effort. The May 17 all candidates forum at the Delta Whistler Resort is one such opportunity. Elections are supposed to be all about determining representatives of the voters. The best way to determine who you want to represent you is to meet the candidates — without a media filter.


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