Stephen Harper must have been cursing the news media last week as a 30-second protest on the floor of the Senate upstaged his government’s Speech from the Throne. Journalists gave massive coverage to Brigette DePape and her “Stop Harper” stop sign. The media-savvy DePape knew she’d get headline treatment. She had a news release all set to go after her protest. Dalhousie University prof Robert Huish, who teaches his students how to engage in activism, called DePape’s “an effective means of protest” when he appeared on a CBC Radio phone-in show in Halifax.
“I don’t see Brigette as part of the selfish ‘me’ generation,” Huish said in response to a caller. “I think she’s very strategic in what she’s done in terms of reminding us that democracy is not just about putting our feet up between elections. It’s about day-to-day engagement with those in power.”
That “day-to-day engagement” is usually left to journalists who earn their living paying close attention to the most powerful politicians in the ongoing news soap opera. Unlike the afternoon soaps aimed at women, the news soaps mostly star men in suits and stuffed shirts who try to prescript the drama with the help of hordes of PR flacks. Journalists resent the relentless spin, but are hard put to escape their dependence on it as they rewrite soporific, political news releases and cover tediously staged events.
Even the Sturm und Drang of the contrived parliamentary show wears thin after awhile. “I mean, how many times can you cover Question Period?” CTV’s Mike Duffy once asked plaintively when I bumped into him at the Ottawa airport. (Duffy has since died and gone to Senatorial heaven which is even duller, I fear, than the press gallery.)
Thankfully, Brigette DePape’s brief walk-on appearance gave reporters something to report. It had the ingredients of real drama — confrontation, climax and character. Journalists have always loved the unusual, the unprecedented and the unpredictable. After all, as the late Richard Ericson pointed out, news is a dramatic form with a running theme — order vs. disorder.
In rich countries like Canada, order nearly always wins. Yes, DePape upstaged Harper in the Senate, but he is still star of the soap. Poor Brigette will soon be but a fading memory, as Harper soldiers on (stuffed shirt and all) in the headlines.