The Big Mistake
Well, only weeks after scuttling a key plank of his own Accountability Act because the committee wouldn't appoint his Conservative party fund-raiser, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to have decided to stop talking to the national media in another fit of pique.
Imagine, they had the gall to walk out of a press conference when he refused to answer questions. The Parliamentary Press Gallery refusing to be stenographers, the bastards.
So, Stephen Harper's new tact is to take his show on the road:
"We'll just get the message out on the road. There's lots of media in the country who do want to ask me questions and hear what the government is doing." - Stephen Harper to A-Channel, London, May 24, 2006
Apparently, he thinks the local and regional media will ask the softball questions and be more responsive to the Conservative message.
So why do I think this is a Big Mistake (TM) on the part of the Prime Minister and the government?
Firstly, I wholeheartedly agree with Chris Dornan, the Dean of Carleton University's School of Journalism and my former professor there:
"Basically, what he's saying is the regional media can be trusted to be compliant. They will find that insulting. Just as the national press corps will find insulting the suggestion that they're all paid-up Liberal hacks. He's going out of his way to make enemies — and that's not a good sign." - Chris Dornan, Carleton School of Journalism, May 24, 2006
To provide a little background, Chris Dornan has been the head of Carleton's School of Journalism for 19 years. He has been an expert observer of the media even longer and has trained a large number of both the local and national media himself. He knows very well how individual reports think and how they do their jobs. I trust his insight into this more that that of the Prime Minister or any of his aids.
I also draw on my own short career in "the local media" - I was a writer and reporter at the Charlatan at Carleton, at CKCU and at The Haliburton County Echo and Minden Recorder during my days at J-school in the mid '80s. A bored, underpaid reporter, hungry for better pastures, yearning to be the next Bob Woodward, I.F. Stone or even Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, will not pass up the chance to ask the Prime Minister or one of his Ministers provocative questions. Back at the Echo that summer, I would never missed that chance, even if I liked the government. One good, piercing question, especially if it is on camera, can make a career.
Besides, its not like the "local media" has been all that kind to the Prime Minister or his government's polices lately either.
But I can already hear my Conservative friends screaming about the "Liberal bias" or the "anti-Conservative" media. Even the Prime Minister seems to believe this:
"I have trouble believing that a Liberal prime minister would have this problem. But the press gallery at the leadership level has taken an anti-Conservative view." - Stephen Harper, May 24, 2006
Seems a tad paranoid, especially considering that Declan at Crawl Across the Ocean debunked the "Liberal Media" myth two days after the election on January 25th, 2006. And it was not based on wishful fantasy, but hard facts from a couple of studies by McGill University. Feel free to read up. It pretty much relegates the "Liberal" or "anti-Conservative" media meme to the dustbin and backs it up with facts and stats.
Want further proof? Only the CBC, that bastion of left-wing media, will continue to cover the Prime Minister. Ironic, eh? Not to mention the thoroughly positive reception the recent Bugdet got from almost all media quarters.
Third, if, as some of my Conservative friends have said, that the press walking out on the PM when he refused to answer questions, after they refused to be put on a list of reporters created by the PMO who are allowed to ask questions, was a "childish" move on the part of press, exactly how is this any less childish?
Mark from Section 15 points out another good reason why this is a Big Mistake (TM) - it creates a void of information that the opposition parties will more than happy to fill. A few weeks of that and the wonderful 43% the Conservatives are dancing about lately, will fade away and merely be a blip (provided it is not just that anyway).
I think perhaps that Stephen Harper has forgotten the job of the press. They are not simply there to listen and type and spread the message, they are there to ask questions that normal Canadians would, if they could be in Ottawa every day. Sometimes those questions are tough, sometimes very tough. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are embarassing, sometimes they can even be "gotcha" questions. But one would think that if you want to rule this country, in either a minority or majority, you would be open and willing to answer the questions asked of you. One would think you would be prepared to defend your position. One would think you would take it if you publicly got embarassed.
Stephen Harper forgets it was the press that helped him get elected. He forgets (or maybe remembers) how the press coverage turned against Paul Martin.
How could it have been different? Why not answer the questions posed? And embarassing or "gotcha" question? Answer with humour - Harper can actually pretty funny when he tries. Talk to the press corp and come to a consensus about how questions will be asked.
Right now, with this new development in the Ottawa media war, the attempts to control and then circumvent the media are going to re-awaken the "hidden agenda" meme. People will ask: 'What is the government so concerned about? What are they trying to hide? Why is he so angry?'
I cannot see how this will be good for the Prime Minister or the government in the long run.
A little taste of the kind of open, transperent government, accountable to the people that elected them that we can expect with the new "bypass the national media, go directly to the people" policy from Harper and the Conservatives:
"On Wednesday night in Calgary, Justice Minister Vic Toews insisted all questions be screened in advance during a town hall discussion on the government's get-tough-on-crime bill." - Macleans, May 25, 2006.[emphasis mine]
In other words, the government and its Ministers will avoid embarrassing questions by only allowing questions they like. In other words, they are doing exactly what the PPG was worried they would do to them.
Yet somehow, CPC supporters will still say this is the fault of the media, even though, it turns out, they media and the PPG are right.
(Hat tip to Robert at MyBlahg)