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Covering the 'Great Wall of Harper Campaign'

After a stint in Beijing's state media, reporting on Conservatives is déjà vu.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 14 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders. Please consider joining.

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Flexing power by stifling dissent, conducting affairs in secret, and obsessively controlling message.

The more I cover the Conservatives this election, the more I feel back in Beijing, where for a time I worked inside state media.

I took that job hoping China was opening up, lured by a false promise I'd be helping the media there grow into an independent and free one. Instead, before I quit, I got a real schooling on how totalitarian manipulation of the news works.

Having completed that education, these days I am increasingly startled by similarities between tactics of the Tories and those of the Chinese Communist Party. Both seek to preserve power by stifling dissent, conducting affairs in secret, and obsessively controlling the message.

The latest example from the Conservatives is MP Paul Calandra blocking journalists (myself included) and other people he doesn't like on Twitter. It's a bigger deal than people might think. Here you have a government official trying to prevent the media and some of the public from seeing what he says to other people whose votes he seeks.

If you, like me, believe that one of the key differences between Canada's democracy and China's authoritarian communism is that here we hold elections where candidates are available to be questioned and held to account, consider these incidents of late:

Earlier this week CKNW reporter Shelby Thom attended a Conservative event in Richmond, B.C., and said that after she tried to ask supporters their views on marijuana legislation, Conservative staff harassed her and then kicked her out. The party denied the allegation.

Conservatives rolling into towns on their campaign trail have angered local news media by telling reporters they aren't welcome because there is a "pool reporter" provided by the party to write the story doing more than enough journalism required.

Members of the voting public attending Conservative campaign stops must be vetted by the party and hold a ticket to get in. Last week Harper's handlers doubled down, demanding party faithfuls not talk or tweet about what was being said at such events -- a policy they backed down on after bad publicity.

If that sounds like the Conservatives don't value the work of a free press when the public is choosing leaders, consider party spokesman Kory Teneycke praising Conservative propaganda: "We're better than news, because we're truthful."

China expert sees parallels

I'm not the only one who notes similarities to how the Communist Party in China operates. The same thoughts occur to James Palmer, a China media vet and author of Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes, a book chronicling Mao Zedong's death and the 1976 Tangshan earthquake.

He describes Beijing's attitude toward foreign media this way: "There's the treating of the press as a purely hostile force and the shielding off of stuff from the press from any kind of examination or access. Everything now has to be channeled through the party's control mechanisms."

Palmer said in Beijing, foreign reporters, much like independent reporters in Canada at government or Conservative party events, are cordoned off at official pronouncements.

Here's how China's rulers respond to media asking for information or access: "If you put in any request for an interview at any state-linked agency or government department they won't outright refuse it," Palmer said. "They will say you must submit your request by fax and the request will sit around for months."

Here, reporters can have talking points emailed to them by the Harper government if they make a request, but trying to get any even remotely sensitive information can take months as access to information requests are processed.

Harper's propaganda squad

Not that there aren't resources available to spend on speeding up such requests. It's just that the public's money is spent instead on propaganda made and controlled by the prime minister's own team, including a crew that follows Stephen Harper around filming photo-ops, producing fake news pieces crafted to show Our Leader in the best light, and posting the finished product on a state-controlled site called 24/7 that is worthy of envy by the Chinese politburo.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese Communist Party as well as Canada's Conservative party, members are expected to display undying loyalty and not talk about party meetings and business or they risk being purged.

I saw it all first hand during the more than three years I worked in Chinese state media.

Controversial stories were simply avoided, the "wise" decisions of the Communist Party played up. A "fact-checker" at the end of the table proofed copy before it was read or printed, removing anything Beijing's authorities wouldn't like.

And every now and then recruiters for the Communist Party would come to the office amid giddy staff to invite them to join the party. I wonder if this is how it goes down at Harper's 24/7 "news" operation?

Back in Beijing?

The Conservatives' new campaign promises only to reinforce such similarities to the Communists of China. Like the vow to declare parts of the world off-limits to Canadians. Add in the proposed building of bizarre national monuments. Legislation like C-51 enabling the government to spy on citizens. And secret hearings going on in Vancouver with government agencies accused of spying on anti-pipeline activists.

Call each of these stones added to the Great Wall of Harper. A wall meant to keep out anyone but the targeted Conservative party members or "base."

The ultimate example of the path we're on happened to me one night in Beijing after I said the word "censorship" in a radio report about the movie industry.

After the show the phone rang and my Chinese co-host just made sounds indicating contrition and agreement to the person on the other end as a stoic look overtook her face.

"What was that about?" I asked.

"They're upset the word 'censorship' was used on air," she answered.

"Who was that?" I replied.

"I don't know," she said.

Right now, the Conservative party knows what the public and journalists are up to.

They can read tweets or articles whenever they wish.

But stone by stone, their great wall rises, preventing the public and journalists like me from keeping them similarly accountable.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

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