The thing about Rex Murphy that troubles me is the way he calls his show “Cross-Country Checkup” but whenever I find myself listening I hear a representative from The Conference Board of Canada or the Fraser Institute. These guys (they seem to be men mostly) are payed to pretend they’re experts on any topic of consideration and then bridge to their key messages. The key messages they bridge too, work towards predictable and simple goals: 1) lets make sure that big business pay less tax, 2) lets make sure that big business is less regulated. That’s about it: let’s protect the profit margins of big business. But the discipline and innovation that they bring to the key messages is totally amazing. They will drape these goals in any garment du jour, from “it’s better for everyone” to “this is the cost of freedom” to “the only way to protect society is through conservative values” to “those guys are idiots, don’t listen to them if you want to keep your house.”
Take climate change for example. The fact of climate change, by itself, is not perceived as a threat by Big Oil and their bottom line. But public opinion and the subsequent possibility of government taxation and regulation is a perceived threat by Big Oil and their profit margin. So organizations like the Conference Board of Canada, C.D. Howe and the Fraser Institute step forward to disrupt public opinion.
The first step is to get air time. To do this they call up their media buddies with the National Post or Cross-Country Checkup. Either by getting quoted directly or by influencing the analysis of the overworked, job-threatened and under-educated reporter, the underlying message and the framework for that message gets public exposure.
The second key ingredient is to pretend to be trustable. This happens through the use of expert titles and heavy reference to the number of researchers and academics employed by the think-tank. Crucially, they’re usually economists or communications people, but they never say this. The representative will generally pretend, and Rex Murphy will pretend along with him, that they are all experts in climate change science. Add to this the years of branding by the National Post and Cross-Country Checkup that they’re impartial and authoritative news sources serving our democracy and you get a potent recipe for believability. And this brings me back to why I think Rex Murphy is a jackass. He creates a call in show, branded for everyday Canadians, but brings in well paid representatives from right-wing think tanks to represent the wealthiest and biggest businesses in the country. He poses as a show for the people. But it’s not.
With this access to a trusting public ear the key message has propogated: climate change and it’s causes are uncertain. The underlying message has been confusion. The result is a public opinion that we shouldn’t jeopardize our mortgages and our jobs and our habits of consumption. This brings me to the December edition of FOCUS and a great article by Gene Miller. Rex Murphy has perhaps too eagerly defended Big Oil and too eagerly added his voice of dissent to the environmental movement. Rex calls the movement Big Green. Miller says:
“Big Green?” Those the ones associated with Big Feminism, Big Peace, Big Anti-Land Mines, Big Racial Equality and Big Anti-Child Slavery?
…you sound like the South before Lincoln, or the British before Gandhi. You sound like the flatearthers in Calgary. You sound like some gaseous table-pounder bellowing about how good-paying jobs in the oil-patch now are worth more than some speculative issues that maybe our great grandkids will have to deal with—woo-woo stuff like the bankrupting relocation of coastal infrastructure around the globe, global loss of freshwater, global loss of arable land, global desertification, the migration north of a couple of billion people, and the end of national boundaries and the nation-state. Deal or no deal, Rex?
Actually, we won’t be getting our energy from Alberta within 25 years anyway (my guess); and red deer will wander through the silent, empty office canyons of downtown Calgary. (Take oil out of the Calgary economic equation and the city folds like a suit from Kresge’s.) The world by then will be operating on a mixed-source energy regime that conspicuously excludes oil.
Miller is great. Partly what makes his article such a great example of a solid communications strategy is that he first focuses on the environmental and moral considerations of ignoring global warming. He then reconsiders his argument from an economic perspective for the sake of those that only understand these issues through the lens of economy. Stephen Harper and Rex Murphy seem to think that the economy has greater reality than our environment or climate. Miller, acknowledging their psychological impediments, attempts to parse his message in a way that they will understand.