By throttling questions she doesn’t like, Alberta premier is forgetting that the media plays a critical role in ensuring democracy works
It’s called “discursive closure”.
And it’s hard at work on Alberta’s hustings specifically and the provincial landscape more generally.
Discourses are the way we talk about things. Things like politics and elections and how the things we hear and discuss will influence our vote. Political discourses, in particular, define our views about democracy and civil society. They help us grasp why such a thing as a political spectrum exists at all and where our place on it might be.
Discourses are also the underpinnings of narratives: larger social constructs that shape and structure the social conditions under which we participate in the political process and come to our beliefs and values about democracy.
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These discourses weave and bob and undulate with political tensions between elections – and are even more pronounced during a campaign’s high and low points once a race to the polls is called.
When discourses get shut down, talk is deliberately truncated and channelled into directions unintended and unwanted by one party to the interaction.
Discourses, then, are also about power, power imbalances and struggles for control over talk.
Discursive closure is just a fancy way of identifying when someone (often in a position of power) takes specific action to choke off a discourse flow they find potentially disadvantageous to their point of view.
Premier Danielle Smith is currently reigning as Alberta’s Chief Discursive Closure Officer.
Smith’s actions of late are textbook discursive closure in real-time. She’s shutting down and closing off conversations in a desperate attempt to throttle views and perspectives she (and her inner circle) don’t deign to be in the interests of their Alberta. Emphasis added.
Her move to limit one question per journalist during press conferences is a bit puzzling, especially as during her time as a media person, she consistently asked a lot of questions to get the answers she was after – on behalf of her readers and listeners.
Her rationale is also a puzzler. Limiting journalists to one question, she argues, will produce even more questions because more questions by more journalists is a good thing.
It’s a specious argument. And it goes against the way Smith knows how “pressers” work.
A typical news conference is a classic example of discursive conflict. They’re Darwinian. The fittest question survives. And it’s the fittest serialized questions (emphasis added again) that work best for democracy.
Journalists want to know certain things. Politicians want to convey certain things. It’s the sorting out of those imperatives that readers, listeners, and viewers use to stay informed.
The real problem with Smith’s approach is that it does a disservice to the way information ought to flow in a democracy. That’s even more problematic during an election when unfettered information flow matters even more.
A reporter’s first question is typically a tone-setter. It sets context and establishes boundary conditions. It’s intended to probe the politician’s willingness to play somewhere in the question’s field’s boundaries.
Politicians often obfuscate and, yes, even prevaricate. Some are downright disingenuous about not even pretending to proffer something that resembles an answer.
Hence, the critical follow-up second question. It tightens the scope and more narrowly defines the focus. Politicians who avoid answering the second question risk looking the fool.
More often than not, the answer to the second question makes the story lede. It’s where the meat is most appealing, and it is the substance on which voters feast.
The second question, then, is a pillar in an open and transparent democracy.
Smith knows this well. As a media person, she knows well the second question’s criticality. And she knows if she can shut that down – close it off discursively – she maintains the power balance in her favour.
To say the one-question limit enhances transparency and disclosure is laughable. Press conferences must be seen in their totality. Reporters build and riff off each other. Someone always has a better question, and an answer provided to one outlet often makes its way into coverage by another.
To most Albertans, this exercise may seem like typical media whining. But here’s why it is important:
In Western societies, we’re “media-entitled” just like we are energy-entitled and fuel-entitled. Hit the light switch and presto. Roll into the gas station and fill ‘er up. Flip on the TV, and the news is there. When you are media-entitled, the critical role media plays in making democracy work is not top of mind. But media in its various forms is working on your behalf, and press conferences are essential linchpins of democratic function.
In a recent commentary, University of Alberta political science professor Jared Wesley succinctly and passionately argued that Albertans should understand democracy itself is the key issue in the May 29 election. Wesley cogently details how the United Conservative Party (UCP) has moved – and is moving – Alberta into modes of command-and-control thinking that undermine the very fundamentals of democracy. He cites myriad examples of process abuse and other egregious behaviours:
“It’s about consolidating power into the hands of the Premier’s office by taking over the mechanisms of oversight and control, removing the checks and balances altogether and pretending the rules do not apply to the UCP and its followers. This is a feature of the UCP, not a bug. Conservatives usually stand against those sorts of things.”
There is no example in Wesley’s comprehensive list that does not involve some form of discursive closure – a truncating of the talk so critical to avoiding abuses of power.
It is all the stuff the reporters and journalists try to get at during press conferences, so the one-question limit is, in effect, a final cut-off lever.
Albertans cannot remain oblivious to its implications.
Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.
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