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Under Harper, Parliamentary Press Still Waves the White Flag

The last time PM held a press conference worthy of the name was December 2012.

By Andrew Mitrovica 19 Mar 2014 | iPolitics

Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor. For much of his career, Andrew was an investigative reporter for a variety of news organizations and publications including the CBC's fifth estate, CTV's W5, CTV National News -- where he was the network's chief investigative producer -- the Walrus magazine and the Globe and Mail, where he was a member of the newspaper's investigative unit. During the course of his 23-year career, Andrew has won numerous national and international awards for his investigative work.

The last time Prime Minister Stephen Harper held a press conference even remotely worthy of the name -- one where more than a hand-picked handful of reporters got to ask questions -- was in December 2012.

In fact, full-fledged pressers by this prime minister have been a rarity since the spring of 2006, when CBC reporter Julie Van Dusen publicly objected after Harper failed to acknowledge her as the next questioner in line.

After that, the PMO introduced a new order: All news organizations would have to sign a list to be granted the opportunity to cover an event involving the prime minister. Being on the list meant media organizations had to agree to the following conditions:

Indeed, the PMO gave no guarantee that any reporter would be permitted to ask a question -- even if that reporter's name were on the pre-cleared list.

Some news organizations resisted… temporarily. In May 2006, for example, two dozen reporters walked out of a Harper "press conference" in protest after the prime minister refused to answer questions from reporters not on the PMO's list.

By August 2006, several media outlets, notably CanWest Global, signed on to the list and were subsequently granted interviews with the prime minister. The resistance, such as it was, quickly crumbled.

Since that time, the list has remained firmly in place and -- beyond an impromptu shouted question or two -- the Parliamentary Press Gallery, its editors and proprietors have largely adhered to it, willingly or not.

Where's the unity?

In my column last week, I challenged the gallery to stir itself from its long apathy and do more than take largely symbolic (and, frankly, embarrassing) votes to reaffirm the democratic right of journalists to ask questions of the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues.

It's important to note that I was not the first journalist to urge the gallery to take decisive and meaningful action in the face of state-sanctioned efforts to prevent the press from holding the powerful to account.

An open letter released way back in June 2010 -- signed by the six provincial press gallery presidents, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and the then-president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery -- urged journalists to "stand together and push back" against the Harper government's strategy to "muzzle the press."

"This is not about deteriorating working conditions for journalists. It's about the deterioration of democracy itself," the letter's signatories noted. "Politicians should not get to decide what information is released. This information belongs to Canadians, the taxpayers who paid for its production. Its release should be based on public interest, not political expediency."

The central problem, of course, is the apparent inability of the gallery, its editors and their various owners to "stand together." I recognize that, given their competitive instincts and self-proclaimed iconoclastic natures, many (certainly not all) journalists are reluctant to act collectively. But if ever there was a government that required reporters to set aside their parochial personal or professional interests to serve and defend the public's right to know, the Harper administration is it.

When I wrote that piece last week, I said I doubted such a common front was possible. My doubts were confirmed pretty much instantly, in many journalists's reactions to my suggestion that the gallery resurrect the idea of instituting a permanent boycott of government-orchestrated photo-ops and press 'availabilities' where questions are forbidden. No questions, no reporters.

Some high-profile gallery members promptly took to Twitter to dismiss the idea as "ludicrous" and "funny." Another absurdly suggested that I had "invented" facts to support the widely-held view that the Sun News Network, unlike its competitors, enjoys a rather agreeable and self-serving relationship with the Harper government.

Another veteran Ottawa-based journalist claimed on Twitter that the gallery had not only championed, but also had once enacted the very boycott I was now "belatedly" recommending.

Summing up: Some gallery members think a boycott is a stupid, useless idea, while others think it's a worthy concept whose time has passed. Not exactly the definition of unity.

Guess what? It's your fault

Still, it's clear that these disparate voices inside the Gallery have one big thing in common: They've spent the past eight years waving the white flag in the face of a government which tells them how to do their jobs.

One scribe places the blame for this capitulation not with the gallery, its editors or any corporate owner, but with you, the public. That's right. This cockeyed reasoning holds Canadians responsible for the gallery's woeful inaction -- because they didn't come rushing to its defence eight years ago.

Setting aside this exculpatory nonsense, I think Harper has long understood that the Parliamentary Press Gallery is, and will always be, unwilling to "stand together." Nobody should be surprised that he and his cynical advisers have taken full advantage of this. Their victory has little to do with Harper -- the mythical 'master strategist' -- or with supposedly complacent Canadian news consumers who don't care about protecting press freedoms. (That's nonsense by the way -- if the vociferous and near unanimous reaction to my piece is any measure, the public cares very much about press freedom.)

Last week, I spoke with the new gallery president, CBC reporter Laura Payton. She told me that she was negotiating with Harper's press secretary to try to get him to agree to permit questions at photo ops and "availabilities."

Payton, who deserves much credit for trying, said she was hopeful that, eventually, something could be worked out with this intransigent and paranoid (my words, not hers) government, since the gallery was becoming more "united."

Yeah. Good luck with that, Laura.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics, Media

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