Pride and Prejudice

It is no secret that the Conservative government and the reporters who cover it don’t get along.  And now that the resumption of Parliament has reunited them, the two sides should keep in mind the words of A.J. McKenna, a senior member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery: “Today the enlightenment of any country may be judged by the degree to which its lawmakers facilitate information about the business of government.  The members of the press gallery are the trustees of this heritage.  They must ever pressure and keep unhindered this essential ingredient in the democratic function.”

Mr. McKenna was speaking in 1955 against a government proposal to move the press gallery’s offices, kicking and screaming, from the Centre Block of Parliament to the West Block.

This week it came to light that the Conservative government seriously considered doing something much more radical.  It planned to spend $2 million to set up its own media centre for playing host to press conferences and speaking to the nation, just blocks from the one the press gallery runs.

The project was quickly ridiculed as a mini-Ministry of Truth and the government instantly disavowed it, saying it no longer intends to build such a facility.

But anyone who really wants to understand this government – a tight-lipped operation adamantly protective of its inner thinking – would do well to monitor its relations with the media. Here, curiously, is one of the few instances in which its behind-the-scenes strategy comes into view.

For Canada’s so-called new government, rhetoric about the media being trustees of enlightenment is the height of absurdity. It considers the media an impediment, not only to the Conservative partisan agenda, but to democratic politics. If you believe that, or if you can be convinced of it, then the passive-aggressive hostility the Stephen Harper government has shown toward the media makes perfect sense.

It springs from a deep-rooted conviction that, because the media are fundamentally opposed to the Conservative platform, they will at every turn portray its policies as extreme, hysterical and not wanted on the voyage.

Or as Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary political science professor and former Harper campaign manager, puts it succinctly in his new book, Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, “The media are unforgiving of conservative errors, so we have to exercise strict discipline at all levels.”

Since the mission of the Harper Conservatives is precisely to shift the mainstream thinking of the nation – to make their priorities the new common sense – they cannot help but see the media as anti-democratic. In their eyes, the media labour to restrict what will count as a legitimate policy alternative. It is bad enough that reporters are nuisances poised to cause trouble for whoever happens to be in power. It is infuriating to think they can usurp the national debate. It is time, the Conservatives believe, to put them in their place.

But how to do so?

This government clearly bears the stamp of one man. And whether his distrust of, exasperation with and contempt for the media are prudent or paranoid, Stephen Harper comes by them honestly. All political observers agree that he learned a great deal from his defeat in the 2004 election, turning that to his advantage in 2006.

There were at least two incidents in the campaign three years ago that convinced Mr. Harper that it was essential to corral the media. First, with 10 days until the vote, the Conservative war room issued an electronic news release headlined, “Paul Martin supports child pornography?” It accused the Liberal government of being soft on child porn for supporting exemptions for material deemed to be in the “public good” and for refusing to establish a national sex-offender registry.

At a campaign stop in Quebec, reporters rounded on Mr. Harper over the incendiary headline. Instead of admitting that it was uncalled for, he defended it in a heated exchange – and the press mauled him for it. Mr. Harper resolved never again to allow himself to be put in a position where he could be trapped that way.

The other object lesson for Mr. Harper was the way abortion emerged as an issue. Early in the campaign, Conservative health critic Rob Merrifield mentioned in an interview with The Globe and Mail that it would be “valuable” for women contemplating abortion to receive counselling before making their decision.

When the story appeared, its headline suggested that the Conservatives favoured drastic changes in abortion legislation that would include mandatory counselling. This, despite the fact that the party proposed no such thing, that Mr. Merrifield had said nothing about making counselling mandatory and that, indeed, compassionate abortion counselling is a policy of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.

Other media followed The Globe‘s lead and for a week the Conservatives had to fend off accusations they harboured a secret agenda to rewrite social practice if they were elected. The fact that Mr. Harper refused to fire his health critic became an election story.

The entire incident could not help but confirm in his mind that the media would seize any opportunity to paint the Conservatives as extremists whose values were at odds with those of the country. (It may also be why just last Friday his chief of staff, Ian Brodie, shocked a private gathering at the C.D. Howe Institute, a Vancouver-based conservative think tank, with an extemporaneous tirade against The Globe – a paper that endorsed his leader in the last election.)

Hence the Conservative media strategy in the 2006 campaign: extraordinarily tight message discipline in which party members said nothing to the media that was not pre-approved, and a practice of releasing a policy announcement every day, taking control of the news agenda and forcing the media to cover what the party wished them to cover.

The results of that election persuaded the Harperites that the news media could and should be controlled. And if they squawked about it, well, it’s not as though the public holds them in any great esteem. As American satirist Garrison Keillor has written: “A person does feel sheepish picking on journalists, a class already so richly despised that if a planeload of them crashed in flames most people would smile from pure reflex.”

And so began the litany of measures intended to contain and circumvent the journalists who cover the Hill:

The Prime Minister’s refusal (until very recently) to set foot inside the National Press Theatre, where press conferences are moderated by a member of the gallery.

Demands that media outlets submit questions to the Prime Minister in advance so that his staff can select who will ask questions from a list that they draw up.

Attempts to control which reporters would accompany the PM on a trip to Afghanistan.

Using the RCMP to physically remove reporters from a hotel where the Conservative caucus was holding a retreat.

Muzzling public servants.

Breaking tradition by declining to attend the press gallery’s annual dinner.

Flatly ignoring a polite letter from gallery president Richard Brennan of The Toronto Star, seeking to normalize relations by giving press conferences the sense of order the Conservatives said they wanted.

In the face of all this, gallery members have been divided on how to respond. But in the main they are dismayed.

“It’s so acrimonious,” Mr. Brennan says, “it borders on hatred.”

Many are convinced that the government’s behaviour is not only autocratic but reveals a petty mean-spiritedness that is embedded in its character. In turn, the government no doubt sees their willingness to believe this as yet more evidence of media prejudice.

As to “the list”: From the PM’s perspective, why shouldn’t he try to manage his message by selecting who gets to ask questions? Why should he be compelled to hand himself over to the predations of people he sincerely believes wish him no good fortune?

His aides have pointed out that his predecessor, Paul Martin, used a list to select reporters’ questions during the 2006 campaign and that, although reporters groused, it was not held up as a sinister assault on democratic practice. That is a charge the press supposedly reserves for the Conservatives.

Nor is this Prime Minister the first to shy away from the National Press Theatre, a dowdy Pearson-era room ill-suited to the needs of an image-conscious government.

As Winnipeg writer Allan Levine points out in his 1993 book Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media, in 1978, “in an attempt to exercise greater control over the prime minister’s meetings with journalists,” Pierre Trudeau’s communications director, Dick O’Hagan, “moved the weekly gatherings down Wellington Street to the Canada Conference Centre. Now the conferences were chaired by Trudeau’s press secretary Jean Charpentier, who decided which reporters could ask questions.”

Looking back today, Mr. O’Hagan recalls that Mr. Trudeau was exasperated by the press and especially hated being buttonholed in “scrum” sessions with reporters. “But we pulled back. We weren’t going to go to the mat over this. We weren’t going to compromise our relations with the gallery.”

The current PM, however, “is in a different situation and is a different kind of guy,” he adds. “I’ve been kind of amazed at how far he’s prepared to go with this. I’m surprised how determined he has been to prosecute this issue. He’s trying to change the terms and conditions of the relationship … make it into a different kind of relationship altogether. It’s an Americanization of the process, but so far he’s been successful.”

Some of Mr. Harper’s actions, such as the recent announcement that he is skipping the press gallery’s big dinner on Nov. 25, are open to interpretation. Because it’s an event at which political leaders are expected to deliver self-mocking speeches and generally show what good sports they are, many journalists consider his refusal to attend a gesture of contempt from someone who cannot bear to be in the same room with them.

By the same token, it could be seen as refusing to participate in a hypocritical charade – why is the Prime Minister expected to behave with jollity toward people he sees as antagonists?

Other objections to the Conservatives’ communication strategy are more substantial. For example, many journalists are infuriated by the strategy because they believe it damages the country its creators serve. “We’re not getting a clear picture of what this government is doing,” Mr. Brennan says. “That’s planned.”

CTV reporter Roger Smith points out that at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Hanoi in 2006, Mr. Harper refused to talk to the press for three days. When he held a controversial meeting with the President of China, Canadian reporters had to resort to other sources. As a result, all anyone back home knew about the private discussions came from Chinese officials.

The communication strategy has been implemented so rigidly that it is now impossible to know what we are not being told. For example, the Ottawa Citizen revealed that in April the National Research Council and the British Museum were set to make a joint announcement: They had discovered a mineral with the exact formula for kryptonite as spelled out in the movie Superman Returns.

Things went awry when the Privy Council Office refused to clear the innocuous release, saying it needed five days to review it. But the BBC had already been alerted by the British Museum. And so the story went round the world that kryptonite had been discovered by the Brits, with no mention of the fact the analysis had been conducted by two Ottawa scientists.

Presumably, the government feels that missteps like this are a small price to pay to prevent errant press attention that would cause political turbulence. Others will take it as evidence of a hyper-controlling instinct that subordinates everything, even the most trivial matter, to the will of the Prime Minister and his deputies. This was just a quirky science story, but four months elapsed before the Citizen found out about it, raising questions about what else is being kept from the public and why.

Ottawa media consultant Barry McLoughlin respects the message discipline the Conservatives have imposed, but he wonders whether it may not backfire in the end. “If you get a lot of negative filtering through the media to the effect that the government is controlling and secretive,” he says, “voters may indeed start to see them as aloof and arrogant. You can go one step too far with control.”

Perhaps that’s why a relaxed Prime Minister paid a surprise visit to the National Press Theatre two weeks ago, fielding questions from journalists on their terms for 45 minutes. And why the government was so quick to disavow the plan for its own media centre once it came to light. Election talk has been in the air.

And so relations between the government and the media bear watching. They are a political Rorschach blot that reveals either a leader true to his principles and uncompromising in his commitment to realizing them, or a man who, for all his grasp of political machination and the apparatus of government, is at root deeply distrustful of the messy business of

  • Globe and Mail October 20, 2007