Controlling The Message

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chris Wattie/Reuters

A guard asks members of the media to leave the area outside Harper's office late last month

The relationship between the media and federal politicians has always been a love-hate affair. But since Stephen Harper's Conservatives took control of Parliament Hill in January, the amorous part of the equation has been hard to discern. The friction edged up a level last Tuesday, when for the first time in years, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) failed to inform reporters about a full Cabinet meeting. Suspecting something was up, members of the parliamentary press corps staked out the Centre Block that morning to try to buttonhole ministers entering the building. Among them was CBC cameraman Victor Modderman, who spotted Harper's three-limousine motorcade cruising up the Parliament Hill driveway. But just as the cars were approaching him, they abruptly veered to the right and zoomed toward the back of the building. Modderman slung his camera over his shoulder and took off in pursuit. He arrived just in time to capture Harper stepping out of his car and grimly walking past the usual gaggle of smokers puffing away outside the entrance. Modderman was astounded by the extent of Harper's apparent determination to avoid the media. "He hates smoking," Modderman quipped.

A Cabinet meeting was indeed in the cards. But by the time the PMO released a press advisory hinting at that, the session was well under way. Moreover, the veiled wording of the advisory--"There will be a Government media availability, today in the foyer of the House of Commons"--was almost Soviet in its stiff obfuscation.

Why the cat-and-mouse tactics from a ruling party that won the Jan. 23 election promising a more open government? The PMO says the media are overreacting, that it was just trying to ensure an orderly process. Because of an arcane parliamentary rule, journalists can stake out the third-floor Cabinet room only if the PMO announces that a meeting is about to take place. Instead the PMO wanted reporters to wait in the grand foyer one flight below, arguing that the larger space would be safer, would allow ministers who wanted to talk to the press more space to do so and would provide a better backdrop--the entrance to the House of Commons--for prime ministerial press conferences. "As long as Canadians can hear from their government, it shouldn't matter what floor they hear it from," says Sandra Buckler, the PM's new communications director.

To parliamentary reporters, however, it smacks of a government that wants to keep the press at bay. They have been stationing themselves in a gallery opposite the entrance to the Cabinet room for at least 30 years. Journalists say that being barred them from their regular third-floor perch means they no longer have a chance to approach (i.e., shout questions at) the meeting's participants and that ministers who want to avoid the press will be freer to do so. "It's a concrete example of how the Prime Minister's Office is trying to restrict and control which members of the Cabinet talk to Canadians and about which issues," says Parliamentary Press Gallery president Emmanuelle Latraverse of Radio-Canada.

The capital's journalists, who view themselves as watchdogs against government abuse, have other concerns about the Harper government. They claim:

--The PMO has restricted what Cabinet ministers, embassies, consulates and some Members of Parliament can say and do without first having their plans vetted by the PMO.

--Officials decide which reporters get to ask questions at the Prime Minister's press conferences and sometimes pass over those they suspect have questions they don't want to deal with.

--The PMO has not announced some of Harper's meetings with national and international leaders.

--The PMO has placed undue restrictions on allowing reporters into photo ops in the Prime Minister's Centre Block office, even though they have traditionally been allowed access. The PMO last week beefed up security and allowed only photographers and camera operators into a meeting in which children presented daffodils to Harper as part of a campaign to raise awareness for cancer research. Reporters who had been barred from the session got into a minor shoving match with Commons security guards.

With Parliament starting a new session this week, the journalists, at least, say the issues at stake are critical. "We contribute as members of the press to holding the government accountable for its actions," says Latraverse. "Canadians should be worried when they see the government trying to exert such an unprecedented level of control." Unions that represent journalists have spoken in even harsher terms. Peter Murdoch of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union says the new policy "smacks of totalitarianism."

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2