Beat the press

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Media relations between the prime minister and the Parliamentary Press Gallery have officially descended into farce. The latest episode in this sad little tug of war saw Stephen Harper trying to control who gets to ask him questions, much like, say, a U.S. president would at a media Q and A. The problem is, in Canada, the tradition has been to allow the media to select the questioners, better ensuring that someone who writes a story unpopular with the government won't be excluded from getting access to the PM.

Although no one covered themselves in glory in today's fracas, Harper came off the worse, petulantly agreeing to answer questions before abruptly departing from the room like Dick Cheney fleeing sunlight.

OTTAWA -- Stephen Harper's dispute with the Parliamentary Press Gallery escalated yesterday when he reluctantly ceded control over which journalists could ask about his proposed federal accountability act -- and then took questions from just two of them.

The skirmish began when the press gallery stated its intention to set up two microphones at a morning news conference in the House of Commons lobby. That arrangement would have allowed reporters to determine who could ask questions and in what order. Mr. Harper's press assistant has made those choices ever since the Tories took office.

Some members of the media say that if the Prime Minister's Office controls who gets to ask questions, they won't call on reporters whose stories they don't like.

But Mr. Harper refused to give up the right to pick the questioners. So the news conference was moved down the hall, to a stifling space about the size of a large bedroom, and 128 reporters crammed inside.

Members of the press refused to put their name on the Prime Minister's list and, instead, formed their own line behind a microphone. They were initially told that Mr. Harper would allow no questions under those circumstances but, after giving his opening remarks, he relented.

The Prime Minister took two questions from the first journalist at the microphone then pointed to Tim Naumetz, a CanWest reporter who was seated and unaware of the line-up protocol. Mr. Naumetz stood to ask his question but was loudly chastised by the reporters around him.

"That's what the line-up's about," said one who was standing near the mike.

Mr. Harper was not dissuaded. "Go ahead, Tim. If you want a question, you can," he said. The reporters complained again.

"That's fine. I asked Tim to ask me a question. Go ahead Tim, if you want," replied Mr. Harper. The reporters complained a third time.

"Tim, do you want to ask a question or not?"

Mr. Naumetz started to sit down. "Well, I wasn't aware that there was a line," he explained.

Finally the Prime Minister turned to the first reporter behind the microphone but, after she asked three questions, he abruptly left the room.

It's hard to see what Harper hopes to gain from this little media war he has started. Unlike the U.S. the right wing noise machine in Canada has not had 30 years of undermining public trust in the media, although they are certainly trying to make up for lost time.

However his supporters try to spin this, the public is seeing the image of a prime minister trying to control the press, or trying to pick friendly reporters instead of those who might ask uncomfortable questions. It's absurd, and Harper appears a little bit smaller every time he tries to assert his "executive privilege" or whatever the hell it is he's asserting.

Now, I'm not a Harper supporter, so I'm sure the PM and his braintrust have less than zero interest in my opinion, but why is it no one that he trusts is explaining to him that he is engaging in a popularity contest he simply cannot win? Journalists may not be held in as high public regard as, say, teachers, but they certainly rank much higher on the credibility scale than politicians.

Plus, they have that whole "giant megaphone aimed at the general public" thing going on. They're going to be able to tell their side of the story better than Harper can tell his. Is this really a battle a savvy PM would want to fight?

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15 Comments

Hooray for the reporters!! It's good to see them standing up for the right to ask the questions they want to, and to keep the PM and other wanna-be fascists in line. I hope they keep on doing this, and that the general public supports them.

I think it is great that in Canada, reporters get to pick who asks the questions. That is a small but major point: no pissed-off PM can freeze out a reporter who has written a story they don't approve of. Can you imagine if that was the rule for the White House Press Corp? Might be a different world today.

Good lord what a tool.
Harper always gets touted as very bright, and he did OK in the election, but honestly I often think the sum total of his apparent brains is a result of monkey see, monkey do. He just copies the tactics of the American right (along with their policies); this gives him a big toolbox to play with, because the American right has a lot of nastily clever people working for them. Some of them work and make him seem smart. Some of them don't. He's not a total idiot--after a given approach he copied from the US has failed a couple of times because Canada isn't the same despite his fond wishes, he usually drops or at least softpedals it. But the seeming of smarts is still mainly borrowed.

I don't know whether my bedroom would be considered a "large" bedroom, although it has its nooks and crannies. After I read that G&M piece this morning (and after I stopped laughing), I went up to the ole bedroom and tried to imagine 128 people fitting into it, in any way at all. And of course I started laughing all over again.

You're quite right, Tim, and good for Gloria Galloway. If there's one thing Harper is not going to be able to survive for long by invoking any kind of executive privilege, it is laughter, and laughter is something that Canadian newsies and news junkies have become pretty good at. Of necessity.

With the success of Bush, I just can't sit back and confidently wait for a crucifixion. Instead I sort of hunch inwards towards the screen thinking "please, please, please."

Heh. Exactly, Jason.

This is Canada, Mr. Harper. We don't play with American rules.

What a coward.

Just look south if you want to see how bad this can get. I offer up Helen Thomas as an example.

How long do you all intend to let this clown inhabit the PMO? I understand spanking the Liberals and all, but this is getting embarrassing.

Unfortunately, Melanie, like the U.S., our left is in a bit of disarray right now (and I am being generous referring to the Liberal Party as "left"). There some hope for true progressive leadership in the Liberal Party, but that will have to wait until the leadership convention this fall. The upshot is, we're stuck with Harper and his crowd for at least another year.

"(and I am being generous referring to the Liberal Party as "left")"

Good save, Tim.

Heck, these days one might be a tad generous referring to the NDP as "left", much less the Liberals.

I was going to comment, but I think I'm going to be sick.....

No matter how scary I ever thought Harpo was, it never occurred to me that he would descend to this Bushleague sh--.

Fortunately, we only have to put up with this nonsense for another year. It could be worse; He could have been stuck in Parliament for four years.

Greg,

Believe me, to us on the left down here, the Liberals still look like liberals. We have no left that I can find down here.

I'm pretty content in the LPC fold; no political party is unanimous in its views and I think I'd be restless and disastisfied with some colleagues whether I were orange or red. Quite apart from the practicalities of the FPTP system, I feel I'd have a harder time reconciling myself with certain viewpoints in the NDP than I do now among Liberals.

I wish there were a different party structure; a different electoral system, failing all of that, a front populaire - but I don't hold out any hope, really. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP will abandon running 308-seats even if there were an equitably way of dividing them up. I favour proportional representation on the grounds that it might minimize the animosity within the left but it's still a depressingly fringe viewpoint.

We should remember, however, that the last time a divided left won a majority against a united right in Canada was twenty-six years ago.

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This page contains a single entry by Tim published on April 12, 2006 3:41 PM.

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