Let’s stipulate right off the top that Premier Doug Ford has surprised millions of Ontarians by rising to the occasion and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in ways many thought unimaginable.
Compared to other jurisdictions in North America, Ontario’s recent success rate of fewer than 100 new cases a day is deeply impressive.
However, let’s in the same breath acknowledge that, as much as Ford has defied expectations, he’s also gotten incredibly lucky when it comes to his relations with the media. It’s not trite to say that media coverage of any government is one of the single most important ways that the public judges whether a party deserves re-election. During Ford’s first year, the coverage was often critical because (as his former campaign war-room strategist Melissa Lantsman put it) the premier was a bull who brought his own china shop with him wherever he went. He and his team governed like amateurs, seemingly looking for disruption and political enemies at every turn, just for the fun of it.
But after the virus hit, Ford seemed to transform himself before our eyes, establishing statesmanlike relationships with the two JTs of his life (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto mayor John Tory), both of whom had previously come in for his blistering criticisms.
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But there’s something else that’s contributed to Ford’s COVID-era aura. Do you watch the premier’s daily media briefings? They started off sluggishly back in March. The premier looked nervous reading from the Teleprompter. He hadn’t yet found his voice. And his message wasn’t always clear.
But those sessions have now become Exhibit A in successful media management and political theatre.
The briefings always start with the premier reading the message of the day off the Teleprompter. He’s gotten much better at that. Then the appropriate cabinet minister follows up to reinforce the message with more detail. Ford then returns to the microphone and generally gives a shout-out to a group he’s met with, bestowing his ultimate compliment on them. “What a group of champions they are!” he’ll say.
Last week, Ford praised personal-support workers he’d just met and called them “grossly underpaid.” Then, in his folksy and, I’m sure, genuine way, he acknowledged he was “opening a can of worms here,” because he knows his finance minister is not trying to find ways to spend more money.
“I want to give all those PSWs a big hug,” the premier said, before reading all their names from the Teleprompter.
This is where the current media choreography has been a huge asset to Ford and his ministers. Under normal circumstances, at a typical news conference or “scrum,” (where journalists encircle the interviewee in a sort of rugby-like scrum), reporters would immediately begin aggressively asking follow-up questions.
“They don’t want your hugs — they want a raise,” one might say.
“When are you going to do that?” another might add.
“Why haven’t you done it yet?” a third might chime in.
“You’ve been in office two years. What are you waiting for?”
“You’re in charge of the government. If you want PSWs to be paid more, you can make it happen. Why haven’t you?”
Reporters scrumming a politician can be a fascinating sight to behold. The best politicians can actually sort of hold court. They’re so good, they can bat reporters’ questions away, mix in some witty banter, and emerge unscathed. Others look like deer in the headlights or parrot mindless talking points, digging themselves into a deeper hole.
During Ford’s first year in office, he often got himself into the most trouble when he got defensive and combative — ultimately, he did himself no good by badgering and insulting reporters.
But, since March, Ford hasn’t had to do a single even mildly aggressive scrum with reporters, and his image has benefitted mightily from that. Reporters must now ask questions by telephone (they’re not permitted into the room at Queen’s Park where the daily briefings take place). They’re allowed one question and one follow-up, but, because they’re on the phone, they can’t interrupt a politician who’s filibustering or avoiding the question.
This is something that reporters never sanction during scrums. If a minister blathers on without saying anything, they get interrupted and refocused. That never happens now. Cabinet ministers routinely try to kill the clock. Education Minister Stephen Lecce is among the worst at it (or the best, depending on your point of view). After being asked a direct question, off to the races he goes: he often doesn’t even come close to answering it. The reporter then has to waste their follow-up question by asking the same first question again.
Several Ontario flags grace the backdrop of the scene. It all looks very official, conveying a gravitas that no doubt serves the image of the politicians. But I’m not sure how many direct answers to direct questions we’re actually getting.
At last Friday’s briefing, the Toronto Star’s Rob Ferguson asked this first question: Given what nice things the premier had to say about PSWs, how much did he think they were worth? Ford said he didn’t know, but he thought they were underpaid and he pledged to do better. Ferguson followed up with a question about the spike in cases in southwestern Ontario. Ford responded, then jovially told Ferguson he’d plucked five peaches off a tree during a recent whistle-stop tour. He’d intended them to go to Ferguson, but they’d gone missing — maybe someone else in the media had gotten them. But the premier wanted Ferguson to know he was thinking of him.
The premier’s kibitzing with reporters from the Toronto Star (with whom the Ford family had been in a pre-pandemic war for the better part of a decade) demonstrates how much the “new and improved” Ford has sheathed his sword when it comes to media relations. And the main reason he’s been able to do that is that he hasn’t had to put up with anything remotely resembling orchestrated, provocative, intense questioning in months. That’s no criticism of the journalists. But it is to say that the current choreography overwhelmingly favours Ford and his ministers, and you can be sure they know it.
No wonder the premier’s been in such a good mood lately.