Thursday, May 25, 2006

Well that's just silly

So the Prime Minister is no longer giving interviews to the national press corps since he has problems with them. "Unfortunately the press gallery has taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government," he's reported as saying.

This happened after about two dozen reporters walked out on a press conference after refusing to submit a list of who wanted to ask questions, so that the PM's staff could decide who gets to ask questions.

The PM also feels the press is out to get him.

Well, of course they're bloody well out to get you. It's the national press gallery. Sometimes it's not being paranoid when you think a group of people are out to get you. It's merely stating the really obvious.

Harper's problem is in thinking they're after him personally. And they're not. The reporters who cover Parliament Hill hounded Prime Minister Martin and did it quite effectively. You may notice he's no longer prime minister. They went after Prime Minister Chretien. They almost didn't need to go after Prime Minister Campbell. And God only knows they threw everything at Prime Minister Mulroney. Bullets, heavy artillery, knives, stakes, crosses, silver, whatever it took. If the Ottawa press corps couldn't come up with something to tag on Mulroney at least once week, I'm sure many of them felt they were falling down on the job.

They're not after Harper. They're chasing after the Prime Minister. It's the position, not the person. If Martin was still PM, they would still be trying to make his life miserable. There's a difference. I can understand why Harper might have a problem recognizing it, but he's going to have to and he's going to have to deal with the national press.

I've met a few Parliament Hill reporters over the years. Nice enough people, but they are all clearly alpha personalities. They are determined and will seriously consider slitting the throat of an otherwise good friend, just because he works for a competing media outlet working on the same story. Trying to keep these people on a leash and make them civilized is not something Harper is going to have that much luck with.

The thing that surprises me out of all of this isn't the racket over Harper trying to control who asks questions and the press not going for it. The thing that surprises me is that a dozen of them agreed on something and walked out of a press conference.

That's the real news because I never thought I would see a Parliament Hill reporter turn his back on a story and let a competitor get it, let alone two dozen of them.

Some sort of balance will eventually be reached. Yes, the media need access to the prime minister. But Harper is going to want to get reelected at some point. Good luck with the whole "not talking to the national press" strategy come election time. It's an awfully quick way to end up back in the opposition benches.

Harper is proving to be a vexing prime minister. Yes, I admire the lack of waffling that was endemic with Martin. The idea of making a decision and then doing something about it is novel after years of Chretien and Martin. Focus. It's kind of refreshing.

But I wonder how long people are going to find that attitude refreshing and after awhile just plain arrogant and aggravating. Harper is getting the same honeymoon that Chretien did in '93. There was no one in opposition ready to step forward and be the next prime minister. And as long as that remains the case, Harper is going to remain prime minister and have deceptively popular poll numbers.

But if (and it's a big if) the Liberals get their act together and elect someone who could step up to the job, then the honeymoon might be over. I hear that some Tories want to engineer an election in the hopes of getting a majority. Becareful what you wish for...


pat the wench said...

I just heard Caroyln Bennett, contender for the federal Liberal leadership, on CBC Radio. I just about went off the effing road when she said:

"This party needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, and I know bottom-up."

Just had to share with you!

Liam O'Brien said...

The Duffy vs Duffy squareoff during the 2006 election campaign gave us a glimpse into some of what the Ottawa press establishment seem to be keen to do to secure stories. Clearly CTV's Duffy saw his story cow losing the race. But also clear was that there had been a long standing relationship that wasn't "out to get" PMs like Martin and Chretien. Seems the gallery got prissy when Harper wouldn't play ball.

Don't forget these people aren't the be all and end all of Canadian journalism. Provided Harper takes the show on the road and gives others a good chance in press conferences, I could care less if the Ottawa press gallery sits on its ass like a group of sleep teamsters.

If you don't see the doble standard, to which exhibit should I refer you? Jim Munson or Susan Murray?

towniebastard said...

Which conviently skims over one thing, Liam...the Prime Minister wants to decide who gets to ask him questions in Ottawa. So if a reporter has been asking particularly annoying or embarassing questions then Harper can just shut him out. Ignore him completely.

If a Liberal PM tried a stunt like this, you would howl. When Martin and the Liberals complained of unfair press treatment earlier this year and last year, I doubt if you had much sympathy.

And hey, I'm all about press outside of Ottawa getting more access to the PM. I was one of those reporters and those rare changes I got to ask question to a PM (I also interviewed Harper when he was runnning for the Tory leadership) I appreciated the chance.

But local reporters are going to focus, for the most part, on local issues. "How is this going to impact people here in X" with X being Newfoundland, Alberta, Toronto or whereever. They are not going to be inclined to focus on national issues as much. Is a reporter in St. John's likely to question the PM on Dafur? Probably not. The questions are more likely to be about fisheries, Goose Bay, Churchill Falls, etc.

So you can not like the national press gallery. And lord knows they have faults and problems. But they are important, they do play a role and shutting them out, as Harper is doing now, is idiotic.

Carrie said...

Thanks for this post. I was pointed to it via Sir Robert Bond Papers blog.

Your response to Liam was exactly what I've been saying to friends and family. In fact, just today I wrote a draft post but was waiting to publish it until Monday. Seems you've done a better job of it so I'll just point people your way :)

The only thing I do want to see someone with a gift for writing do is write about the spin and twisting of facts Harper enjoys. When he was in my city last week, the local press only asked him about the PPG issue. Harper completely turned it into "oh they won't talk to me so we have to try to get our message out via local news". Give me a break. I so can't stand the doublespeak, lies and twisting of facts. And I worry how many Canadians are believing it.

WJM said...

Clearly CTV's Duffy saw his story cow losing the race.

Which cow that now?

Liam O'Brien said...

Craig - is there any evidence that a switch to this format will lead to any more favouring/punishing than usual?

This format is used in other countries. Strangely enough the leaders there don't get all softballs. Why is it that Canada's evil PM would necessarily be different and more controlling for simply following suit in his preference on the style for PPG?

Maybe both sides are two insistent on the manner. The difference between the Prime Minister and the PPG is that the Prime Minister is expected to be somewhat political. The PPG throwing a hissy fit is not something we should simply accept as healthy. They aren't supposed to be that political. Instead of pre-emtively trying to run the show, they should have waiting until they had evidence of Harper doing something specifically wrong using this style. They didn't. That tells me that they probably weren't sure it would play out that way, so they pre emptively started the shouting match.

towniebastard said...

Liam, the fact that other press galleries around the world may not have the same access as ours is not a reason for us to emulate them. It is, in fact, every reason for them to emulate us.

I don't want the horse put back in the barn. Because once it's back in there, that's it. It'll be a miracle if it ever gets out again. Do you think a Liberal PM is going to be inclined to let press ask whatever questions they want, especially after the Tories got them all nicely in line?

No chance. And at some point, it will come back to haunt everyone.

Oh, and have I seen evidence that a leader will favor and ignore other reporters? I've certainly seen Newfoundland premier do it. That includes Danny. Tobin was bad for it. And I certainly heard Wells was just as bad for it (I was on the receiving end of one of Wells lectures when I was a student journalist).

As for other world leaders, well, the US press corps's highly restricted access to the president is certainly working out well, isn't it? There are some prominent, very good reporters who get to ask a question to the president less often then a blue moon on a leap year. Why? Because they might ask a hard question he can't answer.

I'm not saying you can never put restrictions on the press...but you have to go a good, long way to convince me they're just. Right now, this is Harper being upset at something he can't cower or control. And that's not a good enough reason.

Ed Hollett said...


What was the lecture about?

I don't recall he favoured some over others. God knows I pushed him to talk to people he'd rather not but in the end there were very very people he absolutely refused to talk to at all.

towniebastard said...

It was the '94 budget, when student grants were eliminated and provincial student loans were introduced. Most of the reporters in the lockdown didn't really understand the issue. But between being with the Muse and being on student council, I knew all about it. I was briefing some of them, at one point.

So during a scrum afterwards I started to fire off a few questions about the program, about how students were going to loathe it (they were already howling) and was it a wise course of action to annoy so many students, etc...

And then I got The Lecture. It lasted about 10-15 minutes, explaining how I was wrong, bereft of a clue and that obviously he knew better than I.

It was an impressive piece of arrogrance, I must say. I was the envy of my fellow student reporters for getting chewed out by the premier. I think we ran the interview verbatem.

Turns out he was wrong, though. The provincial student loan system he introduced was an evil piece of work, a bureaucratic nightmare that harmed an awful lot of students.