Parliament Hill scrum.JPG

Frosty relations on Parliament Hill

With federal politicians set to take a break for the summer, it’s worth taking stock of the atmosphere that has existed for journalists covering the prime minister and his cohorts and that threatens to persist until the next federal election. Photo courtesy of Caresse Ley By David McKie With federal politicians set to take a…

With federal politicians set to take a break for the summer, it’s worth taking stock of the atmosphere that has existed for journalists covering the prime minister and his cohorts and that threatens to persist until the next federal election.

Photo courtesy of Caresse Ley

By David McKie

With federal politicians set to take a break for the summer, it’s worth taking stock of the atmosphere that has existed for journalists covering the prime minister and his cohorts and threatens to persist until the next federal election.

To suggest that the relationship between Stephen Harper and the Parliamentary Press Gallery is tense, or frosty—a number of adjectives will do—is to understate the extent of the deteriorating and dysfunctional relationship. The frustration came to a boil during the press gallery’s annual general meeting, where a seemingly futile discussion ensued about taking steps to gain better access—in short, to find ways to make it easier for journalists to do their jobs, which means being able to ask questions of the boss and his cabinet ministers and get answers.

It was during that gallery meeting that I asked Postmedia’s Stephen Maher to assess this relationship for the most recent edition of Media, which I would urge you to read if you haven’t done so already. In the meantime, check out Stephen’s story below.

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Closed for business in the Prime Minister’s Office

By Stephen Maher

Since his election in 2006, Stephen Harper has applied greater control over the machinery of government than his predecessors

In September 2013, when Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro was charged by Elections Canada with four Elections Act violations related to alleged financial irregularities in his 2008 election campaign, journalists wanted to get the prime minister's reaction.

Del Mastro had been the government's point man on electoral wrongdoing, standing in the House of Commons every day defending the Conservatives throughout the robocall scandal, so the fact that he was charged himself was embarrassing to the prime minister.

Stephen Harper doesn't often hold news conferences in Ottawa, but he had a photo opportunity in New York the following week.

CTV wanted to ask the prime minister about Del Mastro's charges, so they asked veteran cameraman Dave Ellis to shout out a question during Harper's roundtable with American business people.

At events like that, typically camera people come in, shoot a few minutes of footage and are shuffled out, collecting B-roll for a story on the prime minister's economic stewardship. Ellis, a mild-mannered and pleasant guy, had the unenviable assignment of shouting out a question about Del Mastro's charges. 

“Any comment today, sir, about Dean Del Mastro being charged?” he asked. Harper did not respond, and the Prime Minister’s Office staff brusquely hustled all the camera people out.

Ellis had already been accredited to fly with the prime minister on a six-day trip to Malaysia and Indonesia the following week, something CTV was paying good money for. After the shouted question in New York, the PMO told CTV Ellis couldn't go on the trip. CTV would have to pick a different cameraman.  

CTV told the PMO that Ellis was getting on the plane, and the other networks on the trip backed him up.

“Dave will be at the airport, and we’ll see what happens from there,” said CTV News spokesman Matthew Garrow.

The PMO backed down. Ellis went on the trip. The working relationship between the media and the prime minister's people returned to its normally frosty, but businesslike status quo.

In March, though, at its annual general meeting, the Parliamentary Press gallery unanimously voted to assert our right to ask questions at photo-ops:

“That we as the Parliamentary Press Gallery reserve the right to ask questions in all photo-ops and availabilities with the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and all parliamentarians, to fulfill our function as journalists in a democratic society.”

The motion passed after some debate about how to best deal with a government that members believe has restricted and controlled information in a number of ways that make it more difficult for political journalists to cover our government. 

Since his election in 2006, Harper has, step-by-step, applied greater degrees of political control over the machinery of government, requiring centralized political approval for all communications, cutting down on the number of scrums and news conferences, silencing scientists and putting more emphasis on message control, through advertising and carefully controlled photo-ops.

The gallery first squawked in 2006, in the early days of the Harper government, when press secretary Dimitri Soudas introduced a list for approved questioners. Previously, the gallery controlled who got to ask questions by moderators at news conferences. Soudas introduced a system whereby reporters would have to ask him to add their names to a list he kept in a little notebook.

Reporters didn't want to cede control in this way, for fear the government would allow only friendly questioners. So at an earlier annual general meeting of the gallery, members voted to boycott the list. But editors at some papers balked at the idea. They sent their journalists to Ottawa to get the news, not engage in a power struggle with the Prime Minister's Office, and the boycott soon fell apart.

Readers — particularly readers who would like to see the back of Harper — often urge journalists to boycott Harper photo-ops if he won't take questions. And at this year's meeting some younger journalists suggested that we stop covering Harper photo-ops if he won't take questions.

Some pointed out that in the Quebec City gallery reporters forced the government to back down by exhibiting solidarity.

But the gallery in Ottawa contains such a wide variety of journalists that it is hard to imagine we can show solidarity. From "progressive" to the conservative Sun News Network, there is a wide variety of ideological orientations, as is inevitable in an open, democratic society.

There are also Quebec separatists, conservative Catholics, foreign reporters who may moonlight as spies, all kinds of odds and sods. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. There is little chance that we can agree on boycotting anything. The outlets that matter most to the government — the big TV networks — do appear to be engaged in some fairly serious back-and-forth with the government over photo-ops, demonstrating their independence in a quiet power struggle.

So the vote to assert our freedom to ask questions was as far as the gallery could, in practical terms, go.  We have, as the motion stated, an important role in a democratic society. We cannot control how the government communicates, and should not try. What we should do is ask questions, dig for information, point out propaganda and lies and let our readers, viewers and listeners know, to the best of our ability, how they are being governed.

Of course, the government doesn't have to like any of it. But we don't work for them, and the prime minister's servants should keep that in mind.  There's something slightly authoritarian about trying to control who can ask questions or which cameraman can fly on a government plane.

The government seems to be responding by withdrawing further from contact with journalists beyond their control, creating their own fake journalists.

This winter, the government rolled out 24 Seven, a regular series of videos produced, using your tax dollars, by officials in the Prime Minister's Office. It is propaganda, but so far the government has not found a way to get people to watch it. When this article was written, one of the videos had just 33 views on YouTube.

When the government swore in new finance minister Joe Oliver in March, not long after the gallery voted to ask questions at photo-ops. The government didn't bring Oliver out to do interviews, instead issuing a special 24 Seven exclusive with a bland interview with the new finance minister. No cameraman shouted out any questions because the cameraman present worked for the government.

Like it or not, we can expect more of this sort of thing. Something similar is happening in Washington. It's not really about Harper. The Internet offers all politicians new opportunities to communicate directly with their supporters, bypassing journalists who once enjoyed a near monopoly over political information.

Political journalists have to think hard about what that new reality means and make sure we are doing everything we can to get answers to questions that matter to Canadians. Sometimes that may mean we have to shout questions at politicians who insist that our role is to photograph them in silence.

If we shout, they may withdraw farther, increasing the gulf between them and us. But I don't see how we can afford to back down.

Stephen Maher is an award-winning national columnist for Postmedia Network Inc., and author. His awards include the 2012 Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism for the robocall stories he wrote with Glen McGregor.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.