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Why TV is Stephen Harper’s best friend – and worst enemy

Well, excuse me for making remarks about developments in Ottawa. But they've been talking a lot about TV there. A lot.

The other day, one of those squabbles so characteristic of the Harper era erupted. The PMO blocked TV reporters' access to Our Glorious Leader's speech to his caucus, insisting only cameras be allowed in to record the Leader's words of wisdom and encouragement, for emanation later to a melancholy nation. Cameras only, no reporters.

Snark ensued. Some broadcasters declined to record the speech if their reporters were barred. One assumes this is based not on casuistry, but on a reasonable belief that they were being told what to report. This is also known as propaganda. Non-TV reporters weren't invited at all, but nobody cares about that.

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While the wretches of the Parliamentary Press Gallery were still wondering if the Italian phrase "uno duce, una voce" ("one leader, one voice") might be relevant, the Conservatives' director of political operations, one Fred DeLorey, was communicating with supporters and donors, telling them "some media" boycotted the speech. The phrase "media elite" was used. Like I said, snark.

In this instance, television is both the government's best friend and worst enemy. The written press and radio are irrelevant. The whole point of television, as far as OGL's team is concerned, is to get the message out, without pesky people asking questions and interpreting. On the other hand, if the uppity TV news outlets decide to cold-shoulder the event, the message is diminished by being ignored. Twitter is all very well , but it doesn't show the Leader in a manly manner, in-charge, taking care of business. And reassuring a melancholy nation.

Meanwhile, a big part of the government's plan for Canada is an end to that national scandal, the bundling of cable TV channels. After years of torch-lit processions through the streets of the towns and cities of this great country, led by people enraged that they're paying for MuchMusic when they only wanted TSN, the government will act.

This is perceived as a sure vote-getter. And little wonder – it is a serious irritant in Canada. Mind you, it is largely the fault of cable companies trying to squeeze as much as possible from consumers and taking a cavalier attitude to the placement of some popular channels. Bundling is common everywhere. It is the method used in the U.S. Now, me, I've always believed that, in general, channels should stand alone and not be forced down our throats. But I know a true unbundling is not going to happen. Some specialty channels would simply disappear if customers had complete à-la-carte freedom. This government is not going to oversee the evaporation of multiple channels. Nor is it going to be responsible for the disappearance of some U.S. channels, whose owners will simply walk away from a new Canadian system.

In this instance, too, TV is the government's friend and enemy. It is a useful tool to help the government's image as being consumer-friendly. But if someone's favourite TV channel disappears, that's the government's fault. Call them, not the cable company. And the cable companies know it.

Come the next election, TV will be the government's friend and worst enemy at a heightened level. And it's hard to imagine "You don't have to pay for MuchMusic any more!" as a vote-getting slogan. In any case, you might be paying a lot more to watch hockey on TSN. Television will shape the election as always. This government will try to carefully manage Our Glorious Leader's appearances and image. As it does.

But television can illuminate and reveal the unexpected, the unmanageable. Possibly those wretches in the Parliamentary Press Gallery will remember the contempt in which they are held. Possibly there won't need to be bias or resentment and the public will realize that "uno duce, una voce" is not a cooking show on TLN, the Telelatino channel, but a phrase worth pondering.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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