Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Big Mistake

Update below.

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.

Update:

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)

15 Comments:

At 11:51 PM, Blogger HearHere said...

Sheesh...what sanctimonious crap. I've heard and seen more conservative ministers and MP's on regional radio and tv talk shows answering the tough questions and giving regional media interviews - real answers, real information without a bunch of arm flapping bafflegab from the Harper government than in all my years putting up with evasion and non answers and spin from the Liberals, who, by the way DID have something to hide it turns out.

 
At 5:14 AM, Blogger Matt said...

"Apparently, he thinks the local and regional media will ask the softball questions and be more responsive to the Conservative message."

Those are your words, those those of the PMO. Let's be clear; their words were "the local and regional media don't mind respecting the list policy".

Dalton McGuinty has the same list Harper's trying to put into effect, yet neither the MSM nor you seem to be in a huff about that. What entitles the PPG to get away with the tail wagging the dog?

 
At 8:11 AM, Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist said...

This is the best blog post I've read about this topic. Kudos.

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Hearhere,

So, if as you say, they are already asking the tough questions in the regional media, why can't the Prime Minister and his Ministers answer the SAME "tough questions" and provide the information via the PPG? Harper started this by having security bar the media from asking Ministers questions when they exited Cabinet meetings. He continued when he barred the media from covering the repatriation cerimonies of our soldiers coming home from Afghanistan, despite what the families wanted. Now he want's to pick who asks questions from a pre-approved list? Look up the phrase "prior restraint".

And frankly I don't believe your assertions about all the "regional media" coverage - it has certainly not been my experience here in Ottawa and in Ontario in general. Besides, any regional stuff he was doing was before he decided not to talk to the PPG and insulted the regional media, implying they wouldn't ask tough questions.

Matt,

Exactly how much of a "list" will there be if Harper's strategy is to go to outlets directly, one on one? And could you provide a link for your assertion that McGuinty does the same thing? My guess is it is not the same thing. But provide the link and I will happily slam McGunity if he is doing it too.

So which "local media" will he give interviews to? Probably not the KW Record or the Lethbridge Herald (see above). Maybe my local rag, the Barrhaven Independent, which should have the Conservative Party 'C' in its masthead anyway.

Last time I checked, the PM worked for us ans was required to answer the questions posed to him and didn't get a chance to decided who asked them.

This is about control. Harper is so afraid of the media, so sure they are out to get him and are "anti-Conservative" (an allegation that is provably false) that he feels he must stage manage and control them. Sorry, but I don't want ANY government - Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green or whatever - controlling the media. Kinda goes against the whole "freedom of the press" thing.

IP,

Thanks. There are a few others out there that are very good as well. Dave at The Galloping Beaver has a great post showing yet again how this is a pale imatation of GWB. And look how well this strategy turned out for GWB.

 
At 9:18 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

I think it's way too early to say if the Harper-media war is a "big mistake" or not. If you'll recall, PM Trudeau had frosty relations with the press, and did alright for himself. Harper certainly doesn't have Trudeau's charisma, but I'm just saying that warring with the media isn't an insta-turn off to Canadians.

Regarding those McGill studies that lefties trot out from time to time - they deal with the number of negative stories during an election cycle, and count things like bad poll results as examples of negative reporting against the losing party. It's really something different than bias - even if that's not what the McGill folk want you to think.

If you would like a nice explanation of the left-leaning media bias in Canada, Adam Daifallah's book (Rescuing Canada's Right) has a good section on it. He shows how most media outlets are systemically biased in favour of statist ideas and policies, and how they demonize small-c conservative ideas and policies as a matter of course. (The Sun chain and NP are the reverse, usually)

 
At 9:40 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Andrew,

Consider it a warning, then. Maybe this won't hurt Harper but I'm not betting on it. One of the big differences between him and Trudeau (besides the charisma thing) is that he has a tenous minority (despite what a single, abberant poll suggests) and a skeptical public, unlike Trudeau.

My experience and gut tells me that the "local media" will not be as receptive as he thinks.

One would think that if you are trying to sweet talk the Canadian public into a majority, pissing off and bypassing the messenger might not be a great idea.

Time will tell of course.

I've read enough of Daifallah's stuff to know he has bought into the myth as well. This whole persecution conplex is really unbecoming.

;)

Look the NDP hasn't exactly done gang buster in the Federal level over its history, but we are hardly blaming the media for that failure. We take the responsibility on ourselves. We try harder. We don't pretend we are being procecuted by the media.

 
At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Brent Colbert said...

Hey Mike,
Intresting post but I would suggest that this is not so much as Harper needing the media as they needing him.

Files that would have languished for years are getting resolved in days and the Gallery can't keep up with their "expert" opinion on the actions of this government while the Canadian people are in love with real leadership that they have not seen since dare I say Trudeau. He never seemed to have much time for the gallery either if I remember.

One point that you made was intresting "the PM worked for us ans was required to answer the questions posed to him" and you are correct, we get that chance through our elected representatives every day for 45 minutes and every four years or so (less when Liberal poll numbers are looking good).

My copy of the Constitution does give some freedoms to the press but I can't seem to find any rights.

 
At 4:24 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Brent,

Well, you are entitled to your opinion. I'm not so sure how much the Canadian public are "in love with real leadership" on this.

Whatever you may think, if Harper thinks he is going to get a better reception in the regional press, he is mistaken. They aren't all the starry-eyed fan-boys like we have at the Barrhaven Independent - most of them are the hungry wannabes I described.

He could have settled this differently, but instead choose to act as childish as he is trying to protray the PPG.

We shall see.

 
At 3:32 PM, Blogger John Murney said...

Harper will rue the day he picked a fight with people why buy and use ink by the barrel.

 
At 2:47 AM, Blogger Candace said...

Mike et al, check out the Spectator on this. A Victoria journalist discusses the infamous list, and the fact that everyone on said list got to ask their question (granted there were 15 as opposed to 150 as may be the case in Ottawa).

But for journalists to cry "he won't talk to us" after walking out on him? Gimme a break.

Where the hell were they when Adscam was happening?

 
At 2:48 AM, Blogger Candace said...

PS: Yes, I know Adscam was initially reported by the Globe - in what, 2002? after 9 or 10 years? Is that investigative reporting? Doesn't compare much to Watergate from a timing perspective, does it?

 
At 9:46 PM, Anonymous E Ingram said...

Local press aren't all stupid, biased or uninformed. Neither are the people of BC, who were treated recently to a visit from Stephen Harper. Well, some of the people were: most didn't expect him. But we did catch the CBC at noon :)
It didn't matter who the press was or the reporter, he still waffled on questions. The media coverage of the repatriation of Canadian soldiers question was asked, and Harper waffled, then blamed his defense Minister, or a communication breakdown of his "fairly clear instructions" regarding media presence.
Then he sent his Justice Minister Teows to tell us that we're in the middle of a crime wave out here and only the conservatives and more prisons and laws can save us.
Please.
He should be afraid of the media.

Go Oilers! Go Media!! Stand up for Canada!!!

 
At 2:18 PM, Anonymous CuriosityKilledTheCat said...

Harper's double standards: the press and Tories.

Vic Toews, reflecting Harper's disdain for the press and its role in a functioning democracy, would not answer questions unless they were vetted ...

So, Harper has two rules, it seems: Be tough on criminals, but be gentle on Tories.

What are these people so afraid of?

 
At 12:16 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

Mike,

Great post.

Is the media biased against the Tories? Yes. Just as they were biased against the Libs beforehand. That's what they do. When Harper talks about the "national media" he really means the CBC and TorStar. It's not as if Sun Media is anything more than a funnel for Conservative media releases.

kgp

 
At 8:58 PM, Anonymous BlueBerry Pick'n is ThisCanadian said...

"screened in advance'

Looks like they're learning more & more of the those 'Slick Gringo' ways...

Get out there & get active for the Ontario FairVote Movement!

we need it, only 500 days left!!

WE really have to beat back this ugly tide of Gringo Politics & 'media management'...

BlueBerry Pick'n
can be found @
ThisCanadian.com
"Silent Freedom is Freedom Silenced"

 

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