A few things you need to know about covering election campaigns. They are exhilarating exercises in democracy, a wonderful way to see the province and inherently unhealthy. Most of your days are spent sitting on a bus; eating sugary carbohydrates with the only exercise coming from a few short strolls into meeting halls to listen to a candidate deliver the same speech he gave three times yesterday.
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In that way, my short tour on the campaign of Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty this week was not so different from past experiences with David Peterson, Bob Rae, Preston Manning and Stockwell Day. But I have never seen so many experienced media handlers as on this tour—an even larger contingent than on federal campaigns. Along with the premier’s principal press secretary, we have a former communications advisor for the education minister and the current CA for the colleges and universities minister. Not to mention a handful of others whose smiling faces deliver coffees and donuts in the morning, direct us to the buffet at filing stops and in these early days of an apparently front running campaign generally bend over backwards to assist us in getting things done.
At the International Plowing Match in Crosby, the Liberal team all enjoyed a snigger at the expense of their NDP colleagues. It was a rare event that drew all three party leaders, an annual tradition where they compete in a celebrity plowing match. NDP Leader Howard Hampton was declared the winner of the competition (an upset given that the organizers usually declare it a three way tie) but the New Democrats lost the daily battle to fill journalists stomachs. While the Liberals had a box lunch on the bus, followed by ribs, fries and mashed potatoes, the NDP handed each reporter a $10 bill and advised them to find their own eats at the fair. I observed that the NDP supports a $10 minimum wage and a $10 maximum per diem for reporters on the campaign.
Delivering our stories is now much more sophisticated, and simpler, than my first campaign. Now I log onto the internet on the bus, pick up emails, observe our lineup and the wires and write and deliver my script. Somehow much more clinical, efficient and boring than my debut in election coverage on David Peterson’s 1987 march to a majority. In those pre-computer, pre-cell phone prehistoric days I would write my script in semi-legible longhand, record my narration on a camera tape, put my notes into a tape cassette box and hand it all off to a party worker who would drive it to Toronto. In other words, it was a wing and a prayer. You had to hope the worker didn’t get lost or stuck in traffic, and that the editor in Toronto could somehow make sense of it all to pull it together into a comprehensible story.
During the doomed Bob Rae campaign in 1995, one of his aides memorably ran through several muddy backyards on my behalf, searching for a useable telephone line so I could file with my primitive computer. She slipped in the muck, ripping a nylon and scraping a knee, but managed to find what I needed. All for a story about a guy who had confronted Rae earlier in the day to slag his environmental record. She was later heard to say (not to me): “here I am playing Holly Hunter (as in Broadcast News) running to get Mallen’s story out and it’s a hatchet job on my boss.” To her credit, she was a pro and maintained a friendly demeanour at all times.
Here is where political campaigns divert from real life. These people are working their hearts out to get their man elected. Yet they are also diligently serving the men and women of the media, whose stories always threaten to trip up and potentially sink the candidate
But back to the McGuinty bus. His media team is full of former TV reporters, one of whom is regularly calling me and other Global reporters on the tour to gently inquire into the subjects of our stories and suggest an alternative, more Liberal-friendly interpretation. Another former reporter, now part of the Liberal spin machine, has been sending me emails advising of a potential “gotcha” question for NDP Leader Howard Hampton.
It is all part of the game in the campaigning of the 21st Century and all parties are doing it. Our blackberries hum all day with party news releases parsing and critiquing every word uttered by the other guy. But the Liberals seem to have the largest and most aggressive media management strategy. It is a rare John Tory event that is not prefaced by an email to our blackberries from the Liberal War Room, suggesting a line of questioning.