Scheduling ‘skullduggery’ on the campaign trail

By Shannon Waters October 2, 2020

There may be many hours in a day, but during the second week of the election campaign the NDP and Liberal leaders zeroed in on just one: 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Throughout the past week, both John Horgan and Andrew Wilkinson have held their main media availability during that window and always within 15 minutes of each other. Horgan is usually first — four out of five times between September 28 and October 1 — even though the NDP’s media advisories arrive in reporters’ inboxes a few hours after the Liberal advisory is released.
It’s not a strategy, according to the NDP’s communications team, but political theorist and commentator David Moscrop has his doubts.

“When it starts happening four, five, six, seven, 10 times in a row — it’s safe to conclude that it’s not just a tactic but a strategy,” he told BC Today, adding he expects “a certain amount of skullduggery in any election.”
The current scheduling conflict reminds Stewart Prest, a lecturer with Simon Fraser University’s political science department, of the night of the 2019 federal election when the Conservative, NDP and Liberal leaders gave overlapping speeches.

“This is a distinct difference from the previous tradition, where there was a sort of willingness, perhaps even a desire, to not overlap,” he said.

A ‘tug of war’ for headlines
The duelling leaders’ avails present a challenge for newsrooms, which could work in the NDP’s favour during this election, according to Moscrop.

“If you’re in a situation where one party is quite a bit ahead of the other and one leader is quite a bit more popular than the other, it’s probably an effective strategy,” he said. “It’s just more of what we always see in campaigns, which is sort of the strategic deployment of scarce resources to try to dominate messaging.”

Prest agreed, saying parties may be working from “a desire to position [their] news release” in such a way that the opposing campaign “never really gets any clear running — even an hour’s worth of reporting time.”

In the “tug of war” over headlines — and amid sparsely staffed newsrooms — one side is likely to be the loser. Moscrop said it “is almost certainly the BC Liberals” who will experience “diminished” coverage if Wilkinson’s avails are consistently intercepted by the NDP leader’s.

“There’s a huge upside to the NDP and a huge downside to the BC Liberals,” he said, adding that newsrooms will likely deploy their scarce resources “where it’s going to do the most bang for their buck, which is presumably the frontrunner.”
Asked about the timing, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party said the campaign team is “focused on getting [its] message and policies out to voters.”

The regular Liberal-NDP doubleheader could present an opportunity for the Greens, according to Prest. Leader Sonia Furstenau held her news conferences during the noon hour this week, hours after Horgan and Wilkinson, which he said could offer the Green leader the chance to “change the conversation for the day.”

The duelling news conferences are not popular with reporters and “unfortunate” for voters, per Prest.

“If this election has taught us anything, it’s that parties are going to do what they think will provide them with the greatest strategic advantage, even if it does tend to make … the process of democratic accountability more difficult,” he told BC Today.

Moscrop agreed but said campaign strategy is unlikely to be a burning issue for B.C. voters.
“It’s in the public interest to know if parties aren’t facilitating public access to information through the media, which they aren’t when they’re doing this sort of thing,” he said. “But the public’s not going to care — it’s not going to move a single vote.”
Today the leaders are holding their news conferences at the same time — although Horgan announced his time slot first.