Justin Trudeau’s series of unfortunate events

ANALYSIS: The prime minister’s trip to India was a shambles, the narrative goes — but what the media left out of their coverage tells its own story
By Kady O'Malley - Published on March 2, 2018
PM Justin Trudeau in India
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses outside the Golden Temple, in northern India. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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​Midway through what is now near-universally agreed to be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s most ill-fated attempt at a foreign charm offensive since his government took office two years ago, he and his travelling team of progressively more harried communications advisers genuinely believed that they could steer the train back onto the rails.

They might even have been right — if, that is, the series of what had been, up until that point, unfortunate but not yet catastrophic events that had accompanied the prime minister throughout his trek had tapered off.

Yes, the decision to have the entire Trudeau-Gregoire clan outfit themselves like extras in a particularly garish Bollywood production had led some (okay, a fair number of) Indian commentators to publicly eye-roll that he seemed to be trying just a wee bit too hard — “too Indian for Indians,” as one publication put it.

Meanwhile, back home in Canada, the collage of carefully casual snapshots of the family posed picturesquely in front of various iconic Indian landmarks had already sparked grumbling over just how many taxpayer dollars were underwriting what was starting to look an awful lot like an early spring-break vacation.

At the same time, however, Trudeau could legitimately claim to be squeezing a fair bit of public business in between sightseeing excursions with the wife and kids: he had back-to-back meetings with some of India’s biggest names in tech and business and also circulated in civil society, taking part in roundtable discussions on educating girls and on other issues front and centre on his standard foreign-touring template.

But then came the Atwal Affair, as it has since become known: the last-minute revelation by CBC News that Jaspal Atwal, an Indo-Canadian convicted of attempting to assassinate a visiting Indian prime minister in the early 1980s, had managed to land a spot on the guest list for a formal reception in Trudeau’s honour at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi.

Reaction, predictably, was fast and furious — not just from the Canadian press, but from the Indian media as well, although the Liberal government did its best to dismiss it as a relatively minor, if cringe-inducing, etiquette faux pas on the part of a rookie backbencher.

The increasingly desperate PMO even sent out a still unnamed public official (widely rumoured to be national security adviser Daniel Jean) to make the on-background case to the media that it was sinister saboteurs within India’s anti-separatist movement — possibly even within the government itself — who had snuck Atwal onto the guest list.

By that point, of course, the narrative had been set — not just for the days remaining on Trudeau’s Indian itinerary, but for the preceding portion of the trip as well.

Earlier events — from the non-appearance of any high-ranking Indian officials on the tarmac to greet the Canadian contingent on its arrival in India, to the coordinated outfits, to the lighter-than-usual meeting schedule,— initially framed as mildly embarrassing at worst, were retroactively rejigged into signs of simmering tensions between the two countries.

The PMO-approved conspiracy theory just added a new subplot.

Such is the power of the narrative to control media coverage — and, as a result, public perception of a particular event — and it’s one that has worked for Trudeau and the Liberals at least as often as it has turned against them.

It just doesn’t usually happen on such a spectacularly international scale.

It also serves as a valuable reminder to journalists — especially those providing on-the-spot, real-time coverage from a remote locale — that they have to be careful not to allow that same narrative to rewire our internal analysis to fit neatly into a pre-existing plotline.

Which, as CBC News’ Evan Dyer points out, may be exactly what led to the overwhelmingly negative coverage of the trip — as with, for instance, the repeated claim that Trudeau had been snubbed by the Indian government even as he wrapped up his tour with a face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

None of this should, of course, be taken as an attempt to minimize how very, very wrong the India trip seems to have gone for Trudeau — and, indeed, is still going, judging from the continuing controversy surrounding Atwal’s brief presence on that guest list.

But in our enthusiasm to present readers and viewers with a compelling storyline, we may be tempted to leave out mention of those earlier meetings in favour of putting together another montage of the Trudeau-Gregoire family outings.

Very rarely do our stories come with clear beginnings, middles, and happily-or-unhappily-ever-after endings. There is a distinct shortage of black hats and white hats — most of our subjects sport chapeaux in a rainbow of grey — and at any point, there’s a 50/50 chance that it may be the damsel in distress tying the moustache-twirling villain to the railroads track.

And while a connect-the-dots narrative may make for more piquant coverage, it may also do a disservice not just to those we cover, but to our audience — and ultimately, to the journalism racket itself.

Kady O’Malley writes for iPolitics.ca, and also appears regularly on television and radio.

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