In the third Republican Presidential Candidate’s Debate on October 28th Marco Rubio managed to get the majority of post-debate press coverage with his quip that the mainstream media was, “the ultimate super PAC for the Democratic Party.” Regardless of the fact that this idea of a biased media unfairly attacking right-wing candidates has been thoroughly debunked, many conservatives such as Rubio continue to rail against the supposedly biased mainstream media. However, such a phenomenon is not restricted to American politics. The right in Canada employs a similar narrative of media bias to deflect attention from the substance of difficult questions and to rally their conservative base. This strategy of deflection and pandering has been demonstrated by Canadian Conservatives and their supporters throughout their time in office. For example, here we see failed Sun News Network Host Ezra Levant explaining just how mean the media are to conservatives.
Even high profile cabinet ministers, such as Jason Kenney often explicitly accused the Canadian media of bias.
The narrative of a liberal (both big and little l) media stymieing conservative interests however is not new to Canadian politics. Rather, for over eighty years various Conservative (Progressive or not) have articulated sentiments incredibly similar to those espoused by Levant and Kenney. Throughout his career John Diefenbaker regularly accused the Parliamentary Press Gallery of harbouring secret, or not so secret, sympathies for the Liberal Party. As Patrick Brennan demonstrates in his book Reporting the Nation’s Business, Diefenbaker’s accusations were not totally off the mark as the Liberal Party and the press corps did have a remarkably intimate relationship. Yet despite this supposed bias, Diefenbaker managed to end the Liberals 22 year rule in 1957 and subsequently win the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958. For while many journalists were politically liberal, there is no real evidence suggesting that these partisan sympathies coloured their coverage of the events of the day.
However, Conservative suspicions of the Canadian media extend back even further than Diefenbaker to the 1930s and R.B. Bennett’s government. Much like Diefenbaker and Harper, Bennett was born in Eastern Canada but came of age in the the Prairies. Elected as Conservative Party leader in 1927, Bennett won the 1930 election over the Mackenzie King-led Liberals. However, a combination of Bennett’s autocratic leadership style, along with the worldwide economic collapse led to Bennett’s administration being one of the most unpopular in Canadian history. However, for many Conservatives the reason for the party’s declining support among Canadians was not their repressive and unpopular policies, nor their failure to end the Depression, but rather the irresponsible national media and their friends in the Liberal Party.
The idea that media bias was responsible for the Conservative’s failings to garner popular support are best exemplified by a series of letters from 1934 between R.B. Bennett and Frank Dojacek, the president of Winnipeg publishers National Publishers Limited. and Ukrainian Booksellers Lmt. Dojacek, a successful publisher, proposed to Bennett that he start a series of newspapers in towns across the prairies to convince new immigrants and “ethnic” Canadians to support the Conservatives. In a letter from July 3rd, 1934 he declared that he would endeavour to tone down overt partisanship in his newspapers but emphasized that, “The truth must be driven home. Is there anyway of combating the misleading interpretation placed on all government acts by Liberal writers? It constitutes a danger.” Three weeks later Dojacek wrote again to Bennett, this time naming specific journalists and newspapers he thought were the source of the problem. On July 18th he wrote:
The matter of publicity is urgent. The garbled version of Government work sent out from Ottawa by Liberal writers such as [Grant] Dexter and Detchon is a detriment to us because of the wide distribution it gets through the [Winnipeg] Free Press and its chain of western newspapers.
For Dojacek, the reason many new Canadians would not support the Conservatives was not because of their actual policies, such as stringent language requirements for voting, but rather the distorted image they had of these policies from the Liberal dominated media. The answer for Conservative Party elites was not to moderate their often belligerent and Anglo-centric rhetoric, but rather to attempt to published their own newspapers and counter the press’ Liberal bias.
These sentiments were also echoed by the Blaine Lake Conservative Association President A.V. Svoboda in 1934. Writing to Dojacek in July of that year he outlined how he believed the Liberal Party, along with their allies in the press, were tricking new Canadians into supporting the Grits. He wrote, “It seems that the idea is abroad among the people that the Conservative Party is the Englishman’s party and that he is merely trying to slip something over them. This is particularly true in this Constituency.” Again we see the desire to blame the Conservative’s lack of success on Liberal trickery or dishonesty rather than a call for self-reflection.
Dojacek and Sovobda were not the only Prairie Conservatives who were concerned about how the media was portraying their party. H.R. Drummond-Hay, a prominent Tory supporter and partner in a Winnipeg law firm, also wrote to Prime Minister Bennett on August 18th, 1934, detailing how newspapers in the city were , “earnestly and urgently endeavouring to make a seed of dissension in Government ranks.” He further went on to elaborate how these newspapers were painting the Bennett government as autocratic and anti-democratic when the truth was quite the opposite.
The fact that the present Conservative Government, under the leadership of R.B. Bennett, has shown itself to be the most completely democratic of all the Governments in Canadian history, has proved a large and jagged thorn in the aforementioned journalistic flesh. This has given rise to a yelp of startled anguish which rings with a most childish and stupid sound.
In Drummond-Hay’s mind, how Bennett actually governed was irrelevant to the press. Rather, they were so intent on pushing their anti-Conservative agenda that they were willing to overlook facts and when confronted with the “truth” reacted like little children.
In the end the Conservative’s efforts to sway Prairie residents to their side failed spectacularly. The Bennett-led Tory Party managed to only win 3 seats in the Prairies and was relegated to opposition. In the home province of the three letter writers, Manitoba, the Conservatives won only one seat. While their electoral misfortune was probably due to the economic depression of the 1930s and the multiple and systemic violations of Canadian’s civil liberties throughout their time in office, blaming the Liberal media was an easy way to avoid introspection. Instead, Conservative partisans could infantilize immigrant voters and the press to preserve their vision of superiority, even if the election results did not confirm their elevated sense of self.
Fast forward to present day and many of these trends are still visible. Look at the continued rhetoric about how “low-information voters” were responsible for electing Justin Trudeau, to the idea that the Laurentian Media Elites suffered from Harper Derangement Syndrome, and its pretty evidence that not much has changed. 1930s or today? You decide.