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?