We never set out to ask MLAs about their relationship with the media, but it was a topic that came up regularly when we asked them one question in particular.
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Ex-MLAs talk about the special relationship between the media and politicians in Nova Scotia
Mark Coffin: You’re listening to On the Record, Off Script. My name is Mark Coffin and I am your host. The Nova Scotia legislature is back this week, and so our we – back to our usual thing – unpacking the experience of Nova Scotia’s former MLAs, where each week we take a deep dive into one piece of Nova Scotia politics.
This week we’re bringing you two brand-new full length episodes dedicated to exploring the relationship between the media and MLAs. The first episode (the one you’re listening to right now) will be drawn from our interviews with former MLAs, and the second will be drawn from four interviews my co-host, Sandra Hannebohm, conducted with four of the people whose job it is to cover the Nova Scotia legislature when it is in session, and who otherwise cover Nova Scotia politics when the legislature is not sitting.
In this episode we start with the MLAs.
Danny Graham: ”Every question I got from the media practically felt like a skeptical one that, if I continued to read between the lines, would’ve made me neurotic, I’m sure.
[Playful music begins]
Ramona Jennex: Well I always hated after cabinet meetings because then it was like [an impending doom], which minister is going out to be fried in front of media? They want you, and they want you and they want you, and if you didn’t get caught, whew! (laughs) Who’s in trouble today, because it means I’m not! (laughs) The scrum – have you ever seen a scrum?
Mark Coffin: We never set out to ask MLAs about their relationship with the media, but it was a topic that came up repeatedly when we sat down with them for a two hour interview to reflect on their time in public life. For people who had been five, ten, even 20 years out of politics by the time we spoke with them, it was top of mind.
It was especially top of mind when we arrived at what was often our last question in the interview. That question, sounded something like this…
Louise Cockram: My last question, so if there was one that advice to improve Nova Scotia’s democracy what would it be?
Mark Coffin: Some people answered by turning to the legislature itself, or the Premier’s office, in a rare few cases to their own behavior (all of which we’ll explore in later episodes), and in some cases the public’s understanding of politics.
But more often than any of those responses, the focus was turned on the media.
There is a special relationship between the media and MLAs, especially the government and cabinet in Nova Scotia.
It’s not based on trust. It sounded like the MLAs were simply annoyed that that media were always there, while at the same time understanding that they play a crucial role in the democratic process. When anybody is asked what needs to change, it’s just human nature to point to the things that trouble us in other people, rather than to point at the things that need to change in ourselves.
If you’re diplomatic about it, as some MLAs were, you frame it as a problem with the relationship, and don’t point finger at not any one side of it.
Eleanor Norrie: I think the media has a role to play, and I think if we could change anything it’d be the relationship between the media and public, and the media and the elected officials.
Mark Coffin: But not everyone was diplomatic about it.
David Nantes: There are some good journalists, but there are some weak journalists that focus much more on sensationalism.
Mark Coffin: In this episode, we share some of the stories we heard from MLAs about the media
[Theme music begins]
Mark Coffin: We hear a perspective from the backbenches of a government caucus…
Pam Birdsall: There’s nothing you can say. That is probably one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever experienced, when standing on a doorstep, and someone was feeding me back some piece of information that was totally wrong, and yet it was something that was being done in the media.
Mark Coffin: One MLA’s account of what happened when he tried to lay off the controversy…
Danny Graham: A breakfast meeting was arranged for me to meet with a representative of the press gallery, and he was going to read me the facts of life.
Mark Coffin: And the story of an opposition party leader, who had to revisit a challenge he faced during his teenage years, in the final week of an election campaign.
Robert Chisholm: I got a call from a Daily News reporter at 9:30, they said ’well the story’s gonna run tomorrow morning’.
I thought ‘fuck, what am I gonna do’?
Wayne Adams: We emerged late in the day, and there was a band of reporters and cameras all over the place, and they all came to me. I’m thinking ‘the premier’s over there.’
Mark Coffin: We start with someone who has sat on both sides of the microphone – a story about a cabinet minister who used the media to influence a decision within the government of which he was a part.
[Theme music fades out]
Wayne Adams was a five-time municipal councilor, and one-term MLA for the riding of Preston. Before trying his hand at politics, he was a broadcast journalist, who had his hand in human rights reporting, sports reporting and he also sold cars.
Wayne’s story is one of somebody who didn’t seem to be bothered by the presence of the media, and used his comfort with it to his advantage. His story begins during his campaign to get elected as MLA.
The dominant issue in his campaign was about a municipal landfill that had been proposed for East Lake, which was part of the riding he had run in, and the area he served as county councillor. Wayne was on the ‘no dump near Preston’ side of the campaign.
Wayne Adams: David Hendsbee and myself basically headed up an anti-dump campaign. And it was very successful, we had over 200 people who joined the campaign, the committee. Posters, road signs, letters to government, petitions to government, that they had to find another place, not the hidden lakes. But they just kept proceeding with it, eh? So I used my position as county councillor before I stepped down, and it became a headline every other day.
Mark Coffin: Wayne said the choice of dump site near Preston – a black community – was a form of racism – environmental racism. The community feared they would no longer be able to fish in the lakes and rivers near the lakes.
Wayne Adams: I became a candidate and that was my battle cry, “if elected, there will be no landfill.” And everybody warned me, “it’s not that easy.” And I said “it probably isn’t.” A bunch of provincial bureaucrats, they told me the same thing – “He may be a minister, he may be a member, whatever but it won’t be easy, a lot of legal stuff to go through.”
Mark Coffin: Remember, Wayne was a county councilor before he ran to be an MLA with the Liberals.
And this all was happening before the halifax regional municipality was a thing.
It ended up turning into an issue of the City of Halifax (who wanted the landfill) versus the County of Halifax (which included Preston, which didn’t want the landfill).
I can’t say I understand exactly the mechanics of how the City could put a landfill in the county without their consent, but it became clear that the city was going to get their way.
Wayne understood that provincial governments could be more powerful than municipal ones. But during the campaign, his party leadership wasn’t calm knowing that Wayne was promising voters there wouldn’t be a landfill if he was elected.
Wayne Adams: I think the premier had a heart attack over it when he heard me in the campaign saying there’d be no landfill.
He said “Wayne, you can’t say that. You have to say you’re going to fight from a higher level so there won’t be liability.” That’s a good line, I’ll use that.
After the election, Wayne was appointed to cabinet. He would go on to become Minister of the Environment, but initially he was named the minister of Supply and Services. Following the first caucus meeting, Wayne had his first run in with the press as a cabinet minister.
Wayne Adams: We emerged late in the day and there was a band of reporters and cameras all over the place and they all came to me, and I’m thinking “the premier’s over there.” The question was “will there be a landfill at East Lake?” I’m thinking, we never even talk about that! So the answer was “no.” I’d been elected.
Mark Coffin: Then what happened?
Wayne Adams: All my colleagues ran for their cars! It was funny, it really was funny, it was like scattered. “Did you hear what he said?”
Mark Coffin: Did the premier eventually question you on it?
Wayne Adams: No, I don’t think it was, it was too early and too sudden. I was the vocal point, I was the hot point.
Then the guy who .became my media relations officer in the government, in the portfolio. He met me and says “I got the press clippings the next morning” he says “you’re all over the news. I says “what did they say?” he said, “you said no, there will be no landfill.” “How are we going to resolve that?” He says, “from my point of view, so it be said, so it be done. You’re writing a letter to the city right now. So whatever happens we’ll deal with it.”
[Playful music begins]
Mark Coffin: That was Wayne Adams story. He was comfortable with the press.
What was more common when we heard MLAs talk about the media were the following two complaints:
First, that the media don’t always get the facts right. It was common for MLAs who were apart of the government to share this perspective.
Second, that the media seemed destined to find a conflict, to seek out, if not outright provoke divisiveness. And that doing so was hurting our politics, and public life.
First, we’ll explore the facts. Or I should say, the stories we heard about the facts.
We spoke with former Premier Rodney MacDonald, five years after his progressive conservative government was defeated in the 2009 election. Six years later, he remains an avid consumer, and critic of the News-Media in Nova Scotia. He’s got some empathy for the government of the day, when he knows their position is being misrepresented.
Rodney MacDonald: I’ve often read the paper and heard broadcasts and thought “that’s not what the minister meant to say, he meant this and it’s clear, why make a big issue of it?” He or she was doing something that was taken out of context, government policy. They actually didn’t understand the process – which is fine, that’s history. But they just have to be mindful that everything they say is taken as truth, and if not, then that’s unfortunate. The only real people that are hurt by it are the public.
Mark Coffin: From the perspective of the MLAs who’ve served in government, or the governing party’s caucus in Nova Scotia, it can be especially difficult to ensure the right message gets out to Nova Scotians.
Pam Birdsall: I know that press is difficult, it’s a demanding thing being in the media, for media people. I got to know a lot of them very well. They’re all stretched, they’re all overworked.
Mark Coffin: That’s Pam Birdsall. She was the MLA for Lunenburg, and a member of the NDP caucus during their term in government from 2009 to 2013.
Pam Birdsall: I do have to say, having been a member of government, sitting around a caucus table, discussing an issue, knowing how the issue had developed, where we were going to go with it – and then hearing the five o’clock news and their take on it, which was so far removed from what I know to be true – my level of cynicism reading and listening to media has gone up a little bit.
Mark Coffin: She was a backbencher, and by all accounts we’ve heard, was not your typical backbencher, and had the ear of the Premier and the right people when she needed it.
I asked her what advice she would have for a future NDP government, should her party find her way back there.
Pam Birdsall: The biggest thing was people didn’t know what we did. I think there was a huge problem in communication. When I would meet with people, sometimes they would come into my constituency office and they would say ‘this, this, and this,’ and I would say, ‘ yes, but we’re already doing that.’ They’d say, ‘what do you mean?!’ I’d say,’well we’ve already done that, and we’re working on this.’ They’d say, ‘oh, how would I know that?’ I’d say, ‘yeah really, how would you know that?’
I don’t fault people for it, it’s very difficult it’s difficult to get at it. So I guess, don’t believe everything you read, or don’t believe everything you hear. Spin is the way it goes, and if an idea is spun enough, it becomes a vortex and everyone believes it, and there’s nothing you can say. That is probably one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever experienced, when standing on a doorstep, and someone was feeding me back some piece of information that was totally wrong, and yet it was something that was being spun in the media.
Mark Coffin: Do you remember what it was?
Pam Birdsall: Oh, there were many issues! There were a lot of different things. I would try to say, ‘no, this is what actually happened.’ And once in a while people would say ‘oh okay.’ But mostly they’d say, ‘you’re like all the rest of them, you all lie, I don’t vote, and that’s the end of that.’ I can’t say that was a huge part of my experience, but it was very frustrating when it did happen, because the word didn’t get out there.
Mark Coffin: Pam didn’t name the specific issues that she experienced this kind of response about on the doorstep. She did acknowledge that the media and the elected officials weren’t the only ones that could prevent important information and perspectives from getting to the public.
Pam Birdsall: Communications Nova Scotia is quite a body. There were times when there were so many restrictions on things. If a minister was coming to my constituency to talk about something, Communications Nova Scotia would say, if a minister’s saying something, even if the MLA has something pertinent to say, and there’s a quote, my quote would not go there. Government would be represented through the minister and that would be it. Really? Really? How is that helping anybody? One would think that if you had two voices talking about the same issue, your local representative, your member of the government, fills it out a bit more. It helps in communication. Wouldn’t that be an applaudable kind of thing?
Mark Coffin: Communications Nova Scotia plays a big role. We don’t have time or space to get into it now, but it’s a topic that’ll get considerable attention in episode 13, also being released today.
From Pam’s perspective, dysfunction in government communications was a part of the reality of being an elected official. Just one of many dysfunctions.
Pam Birdsall: Government is government, it’s like anything else. There are dysfunctions among family members, or dysfunctions in political parties, in departments, and you have to do the best you can and leave it at that. People would say, ‘oh Pam you must have a really thick skin,’ and I would laugh and say, no, I have a teflon energy field. I just don’t let it stick to me, and if they’re throwing it I don’t let it stick.
Mark Coffin: I got the sense that Pam was talking about the kind of conversations and tensions that politicians can find themselves in more broadly including, but not just limited to, her experience with the media.
Pam Birdsall: And that has been the way I thought of myself my whole life. The energy field just got a little more slippery (laughs). My philosophy has always been the only thing you have control over in your life are your own thoughts and your own reactions, that’s the only thing. You can’t lose your mind about someone else acting in a way that just makes you crazy. You can lose your mind doing that, but it doesn’t help your own physical or mental health.
A lot of people, especially if you’re a politician, they go on a fishing trip and they want to lure you in, and get a reaction…
Mark Coffin: That feeling of being lured in, though, for the purposes of evoking a reaction. That was something that framed the subject of our next story’s relationship with the media, too.
Danny Graham: Every question I got from the media practically felt like a skeptical one that, if I continued to sort of read between the lines, would’ve made me neurotic, I’m sure.
Mark Coffin: That’s Danny Graham, former Halifax Citadel MLA, and the leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party from 2002 – 2004. A time when the Liberals were the third party in the legislature, with fewer seats than both the government and the official opposition.
In the interest of full-disclosure, Danny is a friend of mine, and I sit on the Board of Directors for Engage Nova Scotia, the organization he now runs.
Danny Graham: I had a lot of difficulty with the nature of the institutional expectations associated with politics. It started with the presumption that you pretend always to be right in what you have to say in politics. You take on his bravado about always being right, and the other side always being wrong.
I realized that I’m beginning to behave in a way that was inconsistent with the lessons that I’ve learned from my mentors, and the things that I wanted to teach my children. I think some of my colleagues in our caucus would have seen me to behave a little bit less typically, especially when I was not in the fire and brimstone, throwing tomatoes at the other side mindset.
Mark Coffin: In our interview with him, Danny told us a story about a come-to-Jesus moment he had with one of the members of the legislative press gallery.
Danny Graham: There was an experience that, I had when I was a political leader. The government of the day was appointing two new political ministers, and they were from parts of the province that didn’t have anybody around the cabinet table. Remember what I said earlier about the importance of cabinet decisions in forming policy. My caucus colleagues were saying, ‘the only reason the Premier is appointing these two new members is to ensure that their seats in Dartmouth and North Sydney – the north side of Cape Breton – are safe.’
I suspect that would’ve been a secondary or tertiary motivation. For Nova Scotians, the primary news was that these areas of the province are finally getting representation around the cabinet table.
Mark Coffin: Despite Danny’s caucus colleagues urging him to be critical, he chose another tact when speaking with the media.
Danny Graham: I said, ‘this is a good thing that the Premier has chosen to do and the people of those parts of the province should have representation around the cabinet table.’
So when I went back to my cabinet, I was surprised that they forgave my altruistic sin.
Mark Coffin: But what Danny wasn’t prepared for was the call he says his communications advisors received from a member of the press gallery. They wanted to sit down with Danny – not for an interview, just for a chat.
Danny Graham: A breakfast meeting was arranged for me to meet with a representative of the press gallery, and he was going to read me the facts of life, about the need for me to be more critical. And implied that–well he said that it had already been discussed about whether I get more coverage if I’m not more critical.
So, there is a role that the media can play that is more productive than the one that they’ve been playing for some period of time. That was a single incident, but I frankly think that it is a window into the culture that forms the context from which they express their voice.
It’s a very different relationship. I have a new relationship with the media, with audiences, and it’s a very different contract when you’re just a regular citizen in those kinds of conversations.
Mark Coffin: Danny was careful not to put all of the responsibility on the media.
It’s a triangle, you know, government, citizens, and the media. In particular, political figures, citizens, and the media. I have fewer complaints about what–fewer complaints about the quality of reporting on individual stories. So, I don’t complain about inaccuracies, it’s rarely happened to me despite other people complaining about it happening all the time.
What I feel gets missed, is context. There is a role for everyone to play around creating a fundamentally different context in this area.
[Somber music begins]
Mark Coffin: The last story we share in this week’s episode is about an opposition party leader who told us what is was like to have a story dug up from his teenage years, days before the election – an election that many thought might’ve ended up in him becoming the premier.
Robert Chisholm: In ’99, you may recall, ten days or a week before the election the story came out about me and a drunk driving charge from when I was 19. That was quite an event.
[Music fades out]
Mark Coffin: Robert Chisholm, then leader of the NDP, was being interviewed by a reporter from the Canadian Press, in a sort of get-to-know-you kind of interview.
Robert Chisholm: [She asked] these things like ‘what’s your favourite colour’, ‘what’s your favourite book’, that kind of stuff. I remember doing it in the back of our van, going somewhere from Truro to Pictou. I was doing this interview on the phone and [she’s asking] ‘what’s your favourite food’ and all this kind of stuff.
The question was ‘have you ever broken a law’? So I quickly went to ‘yeah, when I was 16 years old, a week after getting my drivers license, I got caught for speeding.’
Mark Coffin: But what Robert didn’t say was that he’d also been charged with ‘driving under the influence when he was 19. The reporter didn’t ask any further questions, so he didn’t tell.
Robert Chisholm: That’s the thing. [She asked] ‘did you ever break a law’ and I said “yeah, I got caught speeding and I learned my lesson, never sped since’ sort of thing. That was it. I was kind of waiting for the follow up because I’m not gonna lie, it’s something that I’m not proud of. I never talked about it because it was like ‘that’s then, this is now’.
Mark Coffin: So how did it eventually come out?
Robert Chisholm: So when the story broke, I got a call from a Daily News reporter at 9:30, I said ‘yeah, that’s true. That’s me’. [They said] ’well the story’s gonna run tomorrow morning.’
Robert Chisholm: I thought ‘what the fuck am I gonna do?’ Anyway, so the way the story was spun was that I lied. That I’d been asked before, and I’d lied about it.
Mark Coffin: Again, all of this happened less than two weeks away from the provincial election of 1999, an election that would reduce the number of seats held by the NDP caucus that he lead from 19, to 11. A big blow.
Robert Chisholm: So think about that for a second, that in ’96 I became leader, two people in 3 years, we were the official opposition. We’re part of the equation all of a sudden. It was just go, go, go, go until the ’99 election and then boom. Conservatives were in the majority and we were the official opposition, which was good. We were probably no sooner than two terms before we had a good shot at government again.
Mark Coffin: The NDP were defeated, and Robert wanted to understand why.
Robert Chisholm: Following that campaign, we did a review. Probably my biggest mistake, but that’s just the way I work.
I traveled with the review committee that went around the province. And talked to New Democrats and heard all of the disappointment, and all of the expectations, and all the anger – I shouldn’t have worn a tie all the time, I was too tightly wound up, how could I have not told people that I had this drunk driving charge?
Robert Chisholm: A lot of what Robert had heard was about his public appearance, how he portrayed himself, and how the media portrayed him. He reflected on how all of this compared to the man who ultimately won that election – Progressive Conservative Leader John Hamm.
Robert Chisholm: It was hard for me to compete against the ‘country doctor’. That’s how John was seen. The honest, humble old country doctor. That’s how John was presented so it was hard for me to challenge him.
Mark Coffin: After Robert stepped down as leader of the NDP, he was replaced by Helen MacDonald. Helen Macdonald didn’t last long as party leader.
In 2002, when the position of leader became vacant again, Darrell Dexter declared his bid to lead the party. Very soon after he did so, it was then pointed out that he too was convicted of drunk driving, when he was 19.
Both men had a history of the same offence, at the same age. Neither of the two were proactive about disclosing this part of their past. Both men owned up to it once they were called on it.
The only difference in the two stories was that Darrell’s revelation came just before he became the party’s leader, Robert’s revelation came near the end of his time at the helm of the party.
It’s unclear whether the revelation was the deciding blow that tanked Robert Chisholm’s campaign to become Premier.
What is clear is that in 2009, Darrell Dexter won a majority government and became the premier. During the campaign that brought him there, nobody was talking about his DUI.
[Theme music begins]
Thanks for listening to one of this week’s episodes of Off Script. Remember that there are two episodes this week.
The second episode, where we here about what it’s like to cover the Nova Scotia legislature from some of the journalists who have been doing it, is also available now, and you should check it out.
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