Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2006/10/31/harper_basen.html
Special to PressThink
Stephen Harper’s Press Gallery Put Down
by Ira Basen
Rule #1 of the Canadian political spin doctor’s handbook is “don’t pick a fight with the press.” The logic behind Rule #1 is frightfully simple: no matter how much politicians try to spin the press and control coverage, it is ultimately reporters and their editors who determine what the public sees and reads. And you have a much better chance of your message being reported positively if you make nice to the beast, than if you attack it.
Ever since he and his Conservative Party took office last February, ending thirteen years of Liberal Party rule, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been poking the Ottawa press gallery with a sharp stick, hoping to provoke it into striking back. Following in the path of George W. Bush, he tried to ban cameras from covering the return of dead Canadian soldiers from Afghanistan. Routine requests for information were ignored, cabinet ministers and spokespeople were rarely made available, even the scheduling of cabinet meetings was considered to be of no interest to the press.
Finally, last May, the low level sniping between Harper and the press escalated into a full-scale shooting war. You can read the details (and see the CBC news report) here. On the surface, the issue seemed rather simple: who gets to choose who can ask questions at the Prime Minister’s press conferences.
Traditionally, a representative from the Parliamentary Press Gallery chose the questioners. But the new Conservative government had a different idea. It wanted something closer to the U.S. system, where the President gets to choose his questioners. Closer, but not the same. By tradition, White House correspondents from the biggest players—the networks, wire services, big newspapers—pretty much know they are going to be called upon during a Presidential news conference. Under the new Conservative plan, journalists who wanted to ask questions would have to put their name on a list, and the Prime Minister’s office would decide who gets asked. There would be no guarantees offered to anyone.
The walk-out: sending a signal
The press gallery was outraged. The Government said it simply wanted to bring some order to a practice that was frequently too chaotic. Gallery members saw the proposal as an attempt to usurp their power and engineer more favourable press coverage. “Does that mean that when there’s a crisis they’ll only call upon journalists they expect softball questions from?” asked gallery president Yves Malo. The journalists decided not to wait for an answer. On May 23, Harper scheduled a press conference to announce Canadian aid to Darfur. When he refused to answer questions from reporters not on the list, two dozen of them got up and walked out of the press conference.
It was a bold, and in many ways, courageous gesture by the press gallery reporters. As a group, the gallery exhibits the weaknesses of in-group journalism. It tends to focus too much on scandal and political in-fighting, travels too often as a pack, and remains overly reliant on government hand-outs. But by walking out of the press conference, the reporters sent a strong signal that they were prepared to stand up for their rights—and presumably the rights of all Canadians—to get straight answers to tough questions from their elected leaders. Any honeymoon reporters had with the new government was over, and the job of covering Stephen Harper in Ottawa was going to get considerably more difficult. Nor could they expect much public sympathy. As a rule, Canadian political journalists are not held in much higher esteem than the people they cover.
The walkout even attracted some media attention in the U.S., where apart from hockey and cold fronts, Canada normally flies well under the news radar. The New York Times covered it and some liberal bloggers in the U.S. drew the obvious comparisons between the feisty Ottawa press gallery striking a blow for the independence of the press, and their more supine counterparts in Washington.
And while some of the Prime Minister’s more weak-kneed advisors were calling for reconciliation (“I think both sides have an interest in sorting it out,” said one) Harper himself was in no mood to make nice. In a series of interviews with friendly journalists over the next several days, the Prime Minister made it abundantly clear that his decision to violate Rule #1 was not a sign of “petulance,” or an inability “to control his sulks,” as The Globe and Mail suggested in an editorial. He had no interest in “sorting it out.” This was a carefully designed strategy. Harper wanted to see if he could fundamentally change the relationship between his government and the people who cover it.
Declaring that the Ottawa gallery was biased against him, he announced that in the future, he would speak primarily to local media and other journalists of his own choosing. Reporters who made their living covering the ins and outs of Ottawa would be out. He was not prepared to cede the power to determine how Canadians viewed his new government to people who effectively saw themselves as another opposition party.
One of the journalists that Harper talked to was Kevin Libin of The Western Standard, a right-wing Alberta-based newsmagazine that is arguably Harper’s biggest booster in the Canadian media. In an extraordinary interview with Libin in June, Harper spelled out his new media strategy.
The Ottawa press corps, the Prime Minister declared, was dominated by “left-wing ideologues” who were determined to stop him from getting his message out. The Gallery’s decision to boycott his press conferences clearly played right into his hand. “I’ve got more control now,” he boasted, “I’m free to pick my interviews when and where I want to have them.”
That would clearly bring short term benefits, but Harper had bigger ideas. “The real long-term effect of this may be to break up the gallery,” he declared. The public could now see the “filter” through which their news was being reported. The gallery had become “too institutionalized, and too convinced that it can control the news.” It was actually in the way of better government. “I think if we can break that up in any way, that is helpful for democracy.”
De-certification up North .
By now, regular readers of PressThink will be noticing the parallels. Last year, Jay Rosen wrote about the Bush administration’s strategy to de-certify the press, to rollback its power its power and influence so it would be less effective at challenging the authority of the White House.
Part one of the de-certification process, according to Rosen, “is about putting journalists in a diminished pace, as in: don’t answer their questions, it only encourages the askers to think they’re legitimate interlocutors, proxies for the public. And they’re not, in the White House view.”
And in Stephen Harper’s view as well. Since breaking off contact with the Gallery in May, Harper has actually made himself available for several lengthy one on one sit-down interviews, even with media organizations he considers hostile, such as the CBC. (Video here.) Harper does well at these, articulating his positions clearly, coherently, and convincingly. Though he and George Bush share a similar political philosophy, the Prime Minister is miles ahead of the President in explaining what his government is doing and why.
But while Harper appears willing to talk to the press one on one, he clearly has no interest in holding regular press conferences, or in subjecting himself to the Parliament Hill “scrum.” For more than forty years, the scrum has been a uniquely Canadian vehicle for political accountability. The drill is that the Prime Minister or a member of his cabinet leaves the House of Commons and is swarmed by a couple of dozen reporters with cameras and microphones at the ready. The reporters proceed to pepper questions at the politician. It is unruly and often undignified, and there is little mercy shown to politicians who insist on staying “on message.” All Prime Ministers have hated the scrum, and more than one political career has been derailed by a bad scrum performance. Harper is determined that will not happen to him.
From the beginning of this dispute, Harper has argued that “it’s all inside Ottawa stuff” and “I don’t think it matters to people.” And he is undoubtedly correct. In a summer filled with news of Canadian deaths in Afghanistan, and the Prime Minister’s enthusiastic embrace of American policy in the middle east, the story of his on-going fight with the Ottawa press corps was largely forgotten.
But Canadian political bloggers have been all over the story; some celebrating Harper’s attacks on the liberal media, some convinced his real target is freedom of the press. (A sampler: Stephen Taylor, Pogge, Small Dead Animals, Red Tory, The Black Rod.)
By-passing the filter
Meanwhile, Harper has been proving that a Prime Minister in the digital age does not need the Parliamentary press gallery to reach the nation. In his interview with The Western Standard, Harper noted that it is now a lot easier for governments to by-pass the filter of the press and get their message directly to the people than it was when he worked for Canada’s last Conservative government in the 1980s. He’s turned to sympathetic newspapers and radio talk-shows, direct e-mails, websites, friendly blogs, and podcasts.
According to one survey, Harper’s podcast is the fifth most downloaded podcast in the country. Check out the official Prime Minister of Canada website at www.pm.gc.ca, and the Conservative Party website at www.conservative.ca, and see if you can tell which is funded by taxpayers and which is a party organ. Far from hiding from the press, Harper appears to be everywhere.
And that, of course, is the second part of the on-going effort to “de-certify”the Ottawa press. First, you attack the integrity of the mainstream media and limit its access; then you promote the idea that information unfiltered by the press is at least as accurate and legitimate, if not more so, than what passes through the media filter. You switch from meet the press to be the press . The Economist magazine described it this way:
If there is nothing special about the press, then there is nothing special about what it does. News can be anything— including dressed-up government video footage. And anyone can provide it, including the White House, which through local networks, can become a new distributor in its own right… In short, the traditional notion that the media play a special role in informing people is breaking down.
It’s breaking down in Ottawa too. Canada has so far not seen any of the more egregious examples of manipulation that have been perpetrated by the Bush White House in recent years. There have been no examples of fake news served up in government-sponsored video news releases, or bogus reporters allowed to ask questions at press conferences, or columnists secretly paid to write articles in support of government policies.
Reducing the government, restricting the press
Americans should understand that there really is no equivalent in Ottawa of Tony Snow or Scott McClellan. The Prime Minister has a communications director but that person stays mostly in the background. There is no “daily briefing” as there is in the White House because the PM is questioned in the House by the opposition every day the House is in session.
What is striking about Harper’s decision to take on the Ottawa press corps is that it does not appear to be based on any actual grievances. A significant majority of Canadian newspapers endorsed the Conservatives in the election of January 2006, and the Prime Minister admitted to Kevin Libin that “the actual press coverage of us has been complete, fair, and generally far more favourable than it’s ever been.”
So why fight? First, Harper desperately wants to turn his current minority government into a majority at the next election. He seems to genuinely believe that the Ottawa press is biased against him, and he clearly hopes that a discredited and demoralized Press Gallery could work to his advantage in the next campaign. But there is a larger purpose at work here as well, just as there is in the Bush administration’s strategy to roll back the Washington press.
Jay Rosen has argued that the White House’s real goal is the expansion of executive power and the reclamation of territory lost to the press, and other players and institutions over the past several decades. Harper’s goal is actually the opposite. He ultimately wants to reduce the role that the national government plays in the day to day lives of Canadians.
The Canadian constitution gives most powers to the provinces, but over the years, it has been Ottawa’s money that has funded higher education, universal health care and many of the other national social welfare programs that Canadians value. Harper, an Albertan, wants to reduce the federal government to its core responsibilities, such as defense, and let the provinces strengthen or weaken those other areas as they choose.
He doesn’t particularly like the culture of official Ottawa, and distrusts many of Canada’s national institutions (the Supreme Court, the Senate, the Governor General, the CBC, the civil service). The Ottawa press corps is simply another national institution that needs to be rolled back to meet his ultimate objective of diminishing federal power and influence.
And so the Prime Minister continues to play hard ball. On August 22, the Prime Minister’s office informed reporters that Harper would be appearing in the foyer of the House Of Commons to announce a controversial settlement to the long-running softwood lumber dispute with the U.S.. The Prime Minister made his statement, but walked away when reporters tried to question him.
Later that evening, Harper called four parliamentary reporters from three different news organizations and granted them interviews about the softwood deal. All four had earlier told the Prime Minister’s office that they were prepared to put their names on the list, though they had neglected to tell press gallery officials of their decision. Two of the reporters were employed by CanWest Global, the country’s largest media chain, which has now instructed all of its correspondents to join the list. The CanWest papers are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Conservatives, and Derek Burney, who, last winter, headed Mr. Harper’s transition team, was recently named the new Chairman of the Board at CanWest.
In the wake of such a major defection, the press gallery agreed to suspend its boycott of the Prime Minister’s list for thirty days as “a gesture of good faith”, while urging more discussion with the Prime Minister’s Office to resolve the dispute. By the fall it was clear that many reporters and their editors were having second thoughts about whether their boycott was hurting themselves and their viewers and readers, more than the Prime Minister.
This fight is over: Harper won
The thirty days are well past, and the Prime Minister’s Office has shown no interest in re-opening the negotiations, or in holding press conferences. According to the gallery president, the Prime Minister’s communications director refuses to even return his phone calls. Why should the PMO give in? This fight is over, the Press Gallery’s common front is in tatters, and the Prime Minister has emerged victorious.
Paul Wells, one of Canada’s most astute Ottawa columnists and bloggers, supports the decision to call off the boycott. He notes that the only journalists who have not gotten to question the Prime Minister in recent months are the ones who are paid to live in Ottawa and cover him. More importantly, he argues, “our self-image as monopolistic gatekeepers has taken a richly-deserved long-overdue battering this year, and I wonder how many of us are lucid enough to notice.”
But the real question might be how many Canadians are lucid enough to notice what’s really happening. The men and women of the Parliamentary Press Gallery are generally not sympathetic characters, and Harper took a low risk gamble when he decided to begin his assault on the press with them. In the end, few Canadians care who gets to ask questions at press conferences, and so long as the dispute continues to be framed that way, Harper’s moves will cause him little harm.
But Canadians should care if their Prime Minister’s real agenda is to de-certify the press; if, like George Bush, he believes that the national media’s role in framing the democratic debate needs to be significantly reduced; if, while denouncing the press “filters,” he is actually advancing the idea that the information functions provided by his office through websites and podcasts have an equal legitimacy; and if by trying to control who gets to ask questions, and relying on sympathetic media and bloggers to get his message out, he actually believes it will “helpful for democracy.”
In the end, Stephen Harper’s efforts to rollback the press may be more sophisticated and more subtle than the in-your-face tactics employed by the Bush White House. This is Canada after all! But the consequences are no less disturbing.
Ira Basen joined CBC Radio in 1984 and was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. Among his other accomplishments include his involvement in the creation of three network programs The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001). He has also written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus. He is working on
a radio series for CBC Radio about new frontiers in “spin” and a book for Penguin Canada on the same topic.