Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ottawa Press Gallery Haunts Harper

The Prime Minister and the press must learn to get along

Any relationship between the press and a member of the Conservative party in Canada tends to be a tenuous one. With the exception of a notable few right-wing publications (Western Standard, anyone?) and a dwindling number of quality media outlets (such as the CanWest publications and CTV), the media in Canada does indeed often seem biased against the Conservatives.

In Rescuing Canada's Right, Adam Daifallah and Tasha Kheiriddin (try saying that three times fast) sum this up quite nicely: "the media in Canada is out to get the Conservatives, because they think the Conservatives are out to get them".
So, then, it may be no surprise that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Ottawa Press Gallery is having what one could consider a stormy relationship.

Yesterday, Harper threw a very public bolt of lightning during an interview with a London, Ontario television station. " Unfortunately, the press gallery has taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government," he said, and later added, " It's certainly unnecessary and I have trouble believing that a Liberal prime minister would have this problem. ...The press gallery, at the leadership level, has taken an anti-Conservative view."

Naturally, press gallery president Yves Malo disagrees with Harper, saying, " We regret these comments [by Harper] because we think they are unfounded."
The ultimate point of contention is a move by Harper to limit press access to his Cabinet Ministers, and his insistence on deciding himself who will ask questions at press conferences. Last week, a number of reporters walked out of a Harper press conference because he refused to answer their questions.

" We can't accept that the Prime Minister's office would decide who gets to ask questions", said Malo. " Does that mean that when there'a crisis they'll only call upon journalists they expect softball questions from?"

It certainly is a fair question. Canadians rely on the press to provide them with the information they need, especially when it relates to government affairs. As a result, the Prime Minister has a responsibility to deal with the press openly and honestly. However, Harper should also be able to expect to not have to deal with an unduly hostile press, and does have the right to protect himself from some of the self-glorified hatchet-jobbers infesting the media. The press may claim it is unbiased all they want, but when a photo of Harper -- lit to appear in a sinister fashion -- appears on the front page of a publication as high-profile as the Toronto Star, it hurts the validity of these claims.

According to Charles Adler Online, the new media process has been far more open than many journalists are reporting to the public. Prime Minister's Office spokesman Dimitris Soudas has been spotted emerging from the office with clipboard in-hand, prepared to take a list of reporters who want to ask questions. Many reporters have refused to give their names for the list, as the Press Gallery wants its staff to control which reporters ask questions, and which ones don't.

In response to the Press Gallery's protest, Harper has decided to take his show on the road, and focus on addressing local media, as opposed to strictly focusing on the national media. However, a Thursday press conference on anti-Street Racing legistlation was hijacked by journalists wanting to discuss Harper's approach to the media, and add their own voices to the protest. Going abroad to address local media may be a good idea, but it won't protect him from criticism.

If Stephen Harper wants to build a better relationship with the press, he must realize that it must begin with him. While some members of the press will continue to play the role of the agitator, Harper must work toward earning the media's trust. Heavy-handedly refusing to play by the traditional rules won't win the Prime Minister any friends amongst the press.

The Press Gallery, however, must accept that openness and honesty must also apply to them. When journalists are being denied the opportunity to ask questions by Press Gallery staff, it only brings up uncomfortable questions that they may not want to answer.

This situation calls for what all similar situations call for -- a compromise. Harper could quiet his critics -- and create a more constructive press environment for everyone involved -- by offering to hear questions from a short list prepared by the Press Gallery, as well as a short list prepared by his own staff.

If things continue the way they have been, Harper is only fuelling his own critics. However, if the Press Gallery were to refuse any compromise, it would unquestionably be a sign of a deep cancer within its ranks -- one precisely of the sort that Harper has suggested.

Harper clearly has much to learn about dealing with the media. It is experiences such as this that will teach him how it is done -- but only so long as he doesn't refuse to learn its lessons.

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