3 Insights: The Senate, the Media, and the Court of Public Opinion

For some Canadians, the auditor general’s recent report confirmed a view of the Senate as a corrupt and secretive institution. Amid a flood of spending scandals (to say nothing of Don Meredith), the audit – which concluded that 30 senators had inappropriately spent a total of 1 million taxpayer dollars – has raised very public questions about whether our chamber of sober second thought is a necessary component of our democracy or a burden on the tax payer.

The headlines are sensational; but then, headlines often are. Equating public opinion with media coverage can be a mistake. Those who work in fields that require a complex understanding of public perception know that, in situations like this, it’s important to dig a bit deeper, to ask probing questions. To what extent are the opinions of well-known (and not-so-well-known) journalists representative of the Canadian public? Are syndicated news items – the articles and columns republished in various places – capable of shaping the opinions of readers in different regions of the country?

This post will look at recent coverage of the auditor general’s report and ask what it can tell us about the public’s changing attitudes towards the Senate (and the government more generally).

 

The Analytics and the story they tell

First, a quick overview. According to Gnowit’s web-intelligence platform, here’s how the Senate has fared overall in online media and reputable political blogs over the course of the last two weeks.

During this time period, 333 articles discussing the Senate have been published in 245 sources. Obviously, that’s a lot of articles in a lot of different sources. It should be noted that some of these sources republished articles from elsewhere, sometimes making a few telling changes.

53% of these items have been negative in tone. 40% have been neutral, and only 7% have been positive. Some of the positive articles discussed a recent Senate report on the digital currency known as bitcoin.

SENATORS.......

Core topics associated with these articles include (but are not limited to): “abolition”, “corruption”, “entitlement”, “disgrace”, “constitutional amendment”, “Sharman”, “HBO”, and “Drake”.

Clicking on the term “Sharman” brought me to an in-depth article containing references to Campbell Sharman, a political science professor at UBC. This, along with terms like “constitutional amendment”, suggest that there’s an element of education about the political process within the media’s sensationalism. Lastly, “HBO” and “Drake” lead to a bunch of articles about a segment on “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver, which you should probably watch (partly because it shows just how big the senate story is getting, and partly because it’s amusing).

 

 

Canadians are more cynical than ever about the political process

It probably comes as a surprise to no one that Canadians are more cynical about government and the political process than ever before. A recent poll commissioned by the federal government suggests high levels of distrust. The comment sections of most articles written on the auditor general’s report more than bear this out.

Readers of publications across the political spectrum are making hyper-critical remarks; several are calling for investigations into MPs and other political players. Chris Vander Doelen of the Windsor Star echos this sentiment in a June 12 article, suggesting a look at the financial records of assistant deputy ministers and other senior bureaucrats. In addition, Gnowit turned up several telling newspaper polls. Nearly three-quarters of Sudbury Star readers say the Senate should be scrapped, and a whopping 84% of readers of the St John’s Telegram believe there’s no way for the senate to repair its reputation.

Interestingly, even an article about a recent Senate report on virtual currency bitcoin, which was found to be positive in tone, garnered negative comments about recent scandals. One commenter referred to Senators as “trough feeders”, and others joked about the appropriateness of the Senate’s approval of a system that makes transactions more difficult to trace.

 

 

Western Canada has been exposed to the highest levels of vitriol

Negative reactions to the auditor general’s report appeared in publications across the country, but, on the whole, coverage from Manitoba to B.C. tended to judge the Senate more harshly (or were less likely to balance their judgment with background on the institution’s purpose and acknowledgments that most senators came out of the audit clean). Just take a look at this scathing article in the Penticton Western News (the title, “Ottawa’s grimiest run amok”, sets the tone).

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. The Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments have recently gone on record as supporting the Senate’s abolition. B.C.’s government has stated that abolition should be discussed. Alberta has responded in a diplomatic fashion (though one could argue that this cautiousness is, at the moment, characteristic of the newly-elected NDP; as the only province that runs senate nominee elections, one would expect Alberta to favour some sort of major change).

Some articles were distributed widely from coast to coast. Nationally-syndicated content is more prevalent than ever, and it’s reasonable to assume that this dispersion has caused some degree of regional shifts in opinion. But it would seem that editorial choices still reflect these points of view to some degree. A critical article by Tim Harper – a writer for Toronto’s Torstar Media Group – was circulated through various newspapers. This included some papers that service smaller cities, like the Medicine Hat News and Red Deer Advocate, which titled the article “Senate not sorry for Caligula-style spending” and “The Senate horror show”, respectively. In contrast, the Hamilton Spectator gave the same article the title, “Senate abuses exposed but contrition is still hard to find” (while this isn’t a positive title, it doesn’t use the same contempt-filled language as the others).

 

 

For some journalists, the Senate’s positives still outweigh its negatives

There are, of course, dissenting voices. In a June 17 article in The Canadian Jewish News, Sheryl Saperia defends the Senate, suggesting spending rules “have been vague” and require “better oversight”. Saperia also claims that the Senate is “more collegial and less partisan” than the House of Commons.

Saperia’s article – “In defense of the Senate” – was the most positive found in the system, though others (almost all from Ontario) did point to the many Senators who have not engaged in improper spending, and discuss the principles upon which the Senate was originally formed.

Similarly, a June 21 article in the Globe and Mail reminds us that the Red Chamber is an essential part of our democracy. The author implores us, “[l]et’s stop pretending [it’s] an antiquated monster in need of radical change”.

 

 

What It All Means

While there have been Senate defenders (and cautious criticisms from at least some eastern Canadian journalists), media responses to the auditor general’s report have, for the most part been negative. There appears to be a reciprocal relationship between the media and the public, resulting in a sensationalism from one camp and cynicism from the other.

All of this may be a moot point. As many have pointed out, the constitutional amendment (or unanimous provincial agreement) required to abolish the Senate is unlikely to occur. But for those who work in government relations, public policy, and politics, recent conversations about abolition and perceived government corruption could have far-reaching implications.

As Justin Trudeau has been quick to remind us, official surveys and polls don’t tell the whole story. Ambiguous wording is a common problem, as is the limiting nature of prewritten responses. Media stories capture the attitudes – and, perhaps more importantly, the emotions – of the people they discuss. The opinions on which editorials are based almost always represent the opinions of many.

Taken as a whole, recent media coverage of the Senate scandals can be seen as a microcosm of public perception. Will that perception improve anytime soon? Only time – and the actions of Senators – will tell.

 

 

Feature Image Courtesy: Mack Male

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