Will the New Year see parliamentary press reporters doing more to hold the government accountable, or will they continue to simply ?catch spit? as Harper gives them the same headline-friendly sound bites?
From the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery’s office at 150 Wellington Street, it’s a short walk across the road to the Houses of Parliament, traditionally the setting for scrums with the Prime Minister. But since Stephen Harper declared war on the Gallery last May, that path has been trodden a bit less often.
In mid-December, the PM held a news conference in the Senate foyer — his first encounter with the press corps in nearlyseven months. He appeared at the Gallery’s children’s holiday party on the Hill. And he did a series of interviews with the networks. Some Ottawa journalists read in these entrails a new year truce. Others merely see mischief afoot.
Harper’s previous full press conference in Ottawa was on May 23, 2006, when two-dozen journalists walked out over efforts by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to take control of the event. Harper’s deputy press officer, Dimitri Soudas, had asked reporters to sign up if they wanted to ask questions, which allowed the PMO to choose whom to answer.
Some journalists saw Soudas’ move as a premeditated effort to break with the Gallery — to minimize the kind of bad press suffered by Harper’s predecessor, Paul Martin. “Mr. Harper has adopted a communications strategy unlike any Ottawa has seen before,” Chris Cobb, senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen, wrote last month. “Government by surprise is part of a Harper communications package that also includes tight control over public statements from his cabinet ministers, and a muzzle on senior bureaucrats, parliamentary secretaries and ministerial communications advisers.”
Others blamed sheer inexperience with power. “It may be because there is no one working in PMO communications who seems to have any experience with journalism,” says Susan Delacourt, the Toronto Star’s Ottawa bureau chief. “They seem to think that political communication is the same as product marketing in the private sector and rely heavily on tired old tactics of repetition, props and slogans.”
Either way, the subsequent walkout was, as Ira Basen wrote on cbc.ca on November 1, “a bold, and in many ways, courageous gesture by a press gallery that too often exhibits the weaknesses of in-group journalism.” But Harper’s response was to cut out his meetings with the Gallery altogether. “Well, I’ve got more control now,” he boasted in an interview with the right-leaning Western Standard in June. “I’m free to pick my interviews when and where I want to have them.” He told the Standard that he felt the Gallery had become too convinced of its ability to control the news. Breaking that conviction would be “helpful for democracy.”
On one level, it’s odd to hear this critique of the press coming from the very person who is, by his own admission, happy to have won “control” over the flow of government information. (True to form, the PMO did not return my own calls for comment on this story.). As Alan Findlay, a Toronto Sun reporter, points out, it’s the government — not the press — that escapes accountability when reporters don’t get the chance to ask tough questions. “Not returning calls, not holding press conferences, cherry-picking reporters for interviews all make it difficult to collect and scrutinize government information.”
Yet, there may indeed be a way that the PMO is — unintentionally — strengthening “democracy” by refusing to make things easy for the press: closing the easiest channels of access could force the Gallery to work harder. Antonia Zerbisias, for one, believes that Harper’s avoidance of the press is just the push that journalists need. Hill reporters “need to get off their butts and do some real journalism,” says Zerbisias, media columnist for the Toronto Star. Cobb agrees. “There is … a school of thought here that thinks Harper’s media strategy could be beneficial to journalism,” Cobb says, “if it sends reporters off on digging expeditions rather than taking what falls from politicians’ lips — ‘catching spit’ as we charmingly like to call it.”
One member of this “school” is Simon Doyle, deputy editorof the Hill Times. “Lack of access does make it more difficult to find out what kind of thinking is going on inside the government,” Doyle said, “but another impact of this, I think, is that it forces reporters to fan out to find stories on their own through experts, lobbyists and the opposition. I think this can lead to less coverage in Ottawa of the government’s announcements and more analysis and criticism of its initiatives because you have fewer government voices making the news.”
But Robin Sears, a political strategist and former chief of staff for then-Ontario opposition leader Bob Rae, has not observed any drastic change in the coverage of the PMO — and he reads four newspapers a day. Sears offers four reasons. “Reporters are scared to be seen to be anti-Harper so far: in part because they were so hard on him in opposition and in part because it would be seen as sour grapes,” he says. “Secondly, only the most senior can survive without access to government sources, and this government has been quite brutal in punishing enemies and rewarding media friends. Thirdly, there is little appetite for a non-government driven news agenda at most news organizations, so independent or investigative stories are not encouraged. Finally, it is hard work to find, develop, source and write stuff on your own, so few people try.”
In any case, Paul Attallah, associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, doesn’t think too many people are really paying attention to the PMO-Gallery war. Most Canadians, he says, don’t care about it, because they hold the Gallery “in the general low esteem in which they hold all journalists.”
For their part, the Hill’s reporters spent the New Year wondering what 2007 holds for their battered relationship with the PMO. Cobb calls Harper’s holiday truce the launch of a “charm offensive” — an attempt to improve relations with the press gallery in advance of the next election. Doyle agrees: “Some political observers say the PM needs good relations with the press gallery and needs to create a favourable mood among the media if he wants to have the benefit of the doubt from the press in the next election campaign.”
But first, there’s the next session for everyone to get through.