The biggest supporters money can buy
I like to think that if anyone tried it here, they’d be laughed right out of the Confederation Building.
Right now, it’s a feature of press conferences with Ontario Premier Doug Ford or his cabinet ministers: they bring along paid government staff to applaud answers to reporters’ questions.
It wasn’t just for the political show, either. When government handlers decide it’s time to pull the plug, they announce “one last question,” and after that, the hired chorus is used to rapturously drown out any more reporters’ questions.
“Oh, our great premier,” the television and radio audience is supposed to surmise, “he’s trailed everywhere by his adoring subjects!”
(It makes me think more of moirologists. That’s a term for professional mourners, people paid to wail and pull their hair at funerals and make it seem as though the dearly departed was more dear than is actually the case. It’s all the grief that money can buy.)
And sure, it happens here in the House of Assembly, at least to some degree. I can remember watching budget after budget, when government members “spontaneously” start clapping, standing and sometimes cheering multiple times during the budget speech.
I can also remember thinking how little self-respect you’d have to have to voluntarily act as someone’s prop. It is truly sick-making to watch grown adults play-act, and play-act so badly at that.
It’s not only the House of Assembly.
At big government announcements, there’s often a coterie of the blissed or the bought tucked in among the invited guests, there to add a crackle of applause to accentuate a particularly pithy premierial bon mot.
Luckily, though, it’s not a daily part of political practice here to game the public and shut down the media. And let’s hope that doesn’t change.
There’s one thing that’s clearly working in our favour: we’re a smaller province and the political players are better known. I asked one legislative reporter what would happen if Premier Dwight Ball started bringing his own cheering section to government announcements, and the reporter said he’d like to think that the press gallery would simply turn its television cameras and iPhones around and start recording and identifying just exactly who was in the cheering section.
Instead of a story about the latest announcement, there’d be a story about the people taking a government paycheque to mindlessly applaud - “Hey, look! Isn’t that Betty down the block? What do you suppose she makes for doing that?”
After all, the public should get to see what they’re paying for - and also, courtesy of the province’s sunshine list, to find out what the going rate is for non-spontaneous sycophancy. (Wait a sec - sycophancy is a great word, but I think the dictionary definition of it is even pithier: “obsequious behavior toward someone important in order to gain advantage.” Yeah, that’s it, all right.)
In Ontario, the press corps has started fighting back. They’ve started questioning politicians about whether using staff for promotional purposes is an acceptable use of taxpayers’ money, especially by a government that argued long and hard that its predecessor was a perennial money-waster.
They’ve stopped playing by other rules, too, like being forced to ask questions through a central microphone that government officials grab back when they decide there have been enough questions.
In a competitive business, though, there are always a few reporters who will break ranks with a little sycophancy of their own.
That’s a shame.
But worse? Paying people to publicly pretend to like you and cheer on your policies.
It’s like having to tie a pork chop around your neck to get the dogs to play with you.
It is truly sick-making to watch grown adults play-act, and play-act so badly at that.