The media conspiracy against Stephen Harper

Thursday, June 1, 2006

The once-close relationship between the Conservative government and the national news media has grown so rocky that they’re now openly fighting for custody of public opinion and arguing about who gets to keep the House of Commons. Last week, Stephen Harper announced that he’d no longer be talking to the national reporters, and that he would be seeing other reporters – specifically those who he felt could be trusted to deliver his message without any unpleasant analysis

“Unfortunately, the press gallery has taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government,” Harper told a London TV station. “They don't ask questions at my press conferences now. We'll just get the message out on the road. There's lots of media in the country who do want to ask me questions and hear what the government is doing.” Apparently, the problem stems from the fact that national reporters are all Liberals. “I have trouble believing that a Liberal prime minister would have this problem,” he complained. “But the press gallery at the leadership level has taken an anti-Conservative view.”

Chris Dornan, who leads the journalism school at Carleton University, identified the essential problem with this assertion. “Basically, what he's saying is the regional media can be trusted to be compliant. They will find that insulting,” Dornan told The Globe and Mail. “Just as the national press corps will find insulting the suggestion that they're all paid-up Liberal hacks. He's going out of his way to make enemies – and that's not a good sign.”

Harper is gambling that you won’t care. In fact, he’s openly said that he thinks that you don’t care. But, you should care about the following:

  • You should care about a Prime Minister who holds Cabinet Meetings and doesn’t inform the media. His claim that the Constitution actually requires them to keep such meetings a secret is nonsense (only Cabinet discussions are confidential; not the fact they are holding meetings);
  • You should care that his office has restricted access to key corridors in Centre Block in order to allow Ministers and caucus members to sneak out of meetings without having to walk by reporters;
  • You should care that he prohibits his MPs and even his Cabinet Ministers from talking to the media unless the timing and content of their message has first been approved by the control freaks in his office;
  • You should care about a Prime Minister, who having cancelled a scrum with reporters, then has Conservative-friendly lobbyists phone reporters with the good news announcement that he had wanted to get out (without any of those nasty “off topic questions that come with media availability); and
  • You should care that the Prime Minister refuses to take questions unless his office is allowed to decide which reporters it wants him to hear from.

This is our government (even if we didn’t vote for it) and it should be accountable to us. Since we can’t all be there, we rely on the media (and the opposition) to represent us and to pass on information to us. If reporters can’t ask them questions, how are we to hold them accountable? If reporters are only given the information that the government wants us to know, who is going to break the next scandal?

Of course, I’m part of the problem. I admit it proudly. Yes, with all of the vast power that my little weekly column can muster, I’m aiming to defeat Stephen Harper. I consider it my duty not only as a columnist, but as a citizen who cares about the future of this country and this planet, to work towards that end.

But, as far as the more mainstream media goes, Harper couldn’t be more wrong. For the most part, the media coverage of his party and his government has been remarkably friendly. To take a couple of examples, let’s look at child care and Afghanistan. I’ve yet to see anyone in the press gallery question the Conservatives’ dishonest use of the term “child care plan” to refer to their policy of dismantling child care. In fact, the Conservatives have even registered the domain name universalchildcare.ca to promote their ideological attack on parents who need child care, and no one has gone after them on it.

When Harper showed up in Afghanistan, his office made much of the claim that he was the first Canadian Prime Minister to stage a photo op with our troops who are stationed there. In fact, Prime Minister Chrétien had bravely staged a similar photo op (you see, we our need troops there to serve as a backdrop for grandstanding politicians). I searched in vain for anyone who published a correction or an apology for having regurgitated the PMO’s spin.

So, what’s with all of the whining? It’s all about preventing the media from doing their job. If reporters are allowed to ask questions and rebut spin, then the Conservatives’ disinformation campaign is much less likely to succeed. And, by planting the seed of the notion that there is a media bias against his government, Harper has already achieved two related objectives. First, he is making the media more likely to be over-cautious about any appearance of bias, which will lead to more favourable coverage. Likewise, when the media does get around to reporting on his government’s failures, voters may well dismiss the reports as one more example of the media conspiracy against the Conservatives.
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