After much prodding by other bloggers, I set this up for my own writings. The name is in honour of the two women that mentored me throughout my life on politics and intelligence issues, as well as being wonderful family members, now alas deceased. I hope to live up to their standards at this site.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

This is *NOT* the standard media message control effort of new governments, this is something far more disturbing and damaging to our democracy

Up until now I haven't done a post on the media control issues that have been coming up ever since the Harper government was sworn in Feb 6 06. While I was not terribly impressed with some of the rapid turnarounds by Harper and the CPC regarding transparency and access to officials now that they were the government, I also expected a certain amount of that as a given in the case of any new government. However, the accumulation of different issues and revisions that are breaking with standard traditions followed for several decades by governments Conservative and Liberal including Martin's I might add are more than a little troubling. Take the decision to move the scrum location from the 3rd floor to the 1st floor regarding post Cabinet meetings. The main reason the 3rd floor location was used was that it made it impossible for Ministers of the government to avoid questions by media without it being obvious that they were doing so by walking away without comments. In the new location it will make it far more difficult if not impossible to get this image, which in turn makes it far easier for the Harper government to claim that the reporters were just not careful enough in getting their person instead of the more likely answer that they did not want to be questioned by the media nor do they wish to look like they are running away from questions for the negative impression that inevitably leaves.

Indeed, when I see the communications director claiming that the only reason Harper and company want this change is for the safety and welfare of the media people my male bovine excrement detector goes off loudly. This might, I repeat might be a saleable talking point/explanation if this were a party and especially a leader that does not view the media as the enemy and has demonstrated that contempt for the media throughout his political career. So that explanation makes no sense, especially given there haven't actually been any accidents or injuries to media people in that location that I have heard of, and I find it rather difficult to believe that if there was such an example that Buckler would not have had it on hand to illustrate the real safety concerns she is claiming is the motivation for this decision.

Next we come to the refusal to use the National Press Theater to date, despite it also being the traditional place for PM newsconferences primarily because it has the translation ability services to keep the playing field level in terms of those reporters not fluent in either French or English to follow along with the questions and answers given in those languages thereby allowing them the ability to either follow up on these questions or to change questions since the one they originally had intended to ask had been done so and answered. It is also noteworthy in the transcript this post is based upon that Harper wants a podium instead of the traditional long table for the visual imagery/impact of it according to Buckler. Funny thing, that is the same thing the American President uses in his meeting with the WH Press Corps, indeed pretty much anywhere he makes a speech or takes questions from media or just about anyone for that matter. Not to mention the decision by Harper to form lists of reporters that they will decide will get the "privilege" of asking Harper a question, yet another Bush policy being replicated where media management is concerned. This is also something not in keeping with tradition, it was the reporters either shouting questions out to be picked out by the PM or a line where the reporters set up order themselves and also remove the shouting which is supposedly the reason for the lists. That is significant because it is yet another example of Harper and Buckler deciding who can ask questions of the PM on a given day/issue instead of the press being the ones to determine this as used to be the case pre Harper.

Then we come to the policy of not allowing discussion with the media in any manner about anything without prior vetting by Harper's office, something I thought was idiotic from the outset, yet even more so when combined with the idea that only the "five priorities" can be discussed and nothing else. Especially when one considers that none of the five priorities deal on international issues whatsoever, and somehow I doubt those issues just up and disappeared with the new government, and since how our government deals with other governments is something most Canadians actually do care to know something about this is no minor matter. Then there is the notion of not disclosing when Cabinet meetings are to the media so that they can be ready to cover it and be able to scrum the Ministers and PM. Then there is this idea that the PM can have a private meeting with any foreign leader and have the PMO deciding whether the media and the public has a right to know about it as it happens, to know what is said in it, to have the participants questioned by the media after the end of the meeting. Something Harper and the CPC generally have yet to comprehend is that the PM does not have private meetings with any elected officials, let alone Premiers of Provinces and foreign heads of State and/or government, period. Well, they can in terms of closed door meetings, but the knowledge that these meetings are happening contemporaneously was not a problem before the Harper government came to town in recent decades either. Again, this is not something the PMO can be allowed to determine on its own, not even the great corrupt Liberal (according to this same CPC and leader Harper) PMs Martin and Chretien tried this kind of lunacy.

Near the end of the transcript it is also quite clear that Buckler does not know what was traditional in the Ottawa Press corps, she did not know there was massive difficulty in getting through to even the 24hr line of the PMO in the daytime let alone the evenings, she did not bring a list of press secretaries for the media to call, indeed it looks like she didn't even consider the need for one which is really incompetent for any communications director for a PM. She even tried to claim that when Parliament was sitting the press would be amazed at how open and available the government would be, yet when asked about the rest of the year when Parliament was not sitting she seemed completely confused and at a loss for why there should be any need for the media to cover Cabinet and such. Don't believe me? Read it for yourself.

Taken all together and I think we are seeing a level of press management and manipulation beyond anything we have seen in several decades. This looks to me to go well beyond what Mulroney attempted to do, and he wasn't exactly a big fan of the press/media either. Unfortunately what this does resemble in many different respects is the media strategy used by Bushco to not only get their message out but to do so in as minimal a verified/factchecked/investigated manner for factual accuracy and contextual accuracy as possible, mind you having FOXNEWS willing to take anything Bushco said as gospel/revealed truth certainly didn't hurt that aim any either. Indeed to not only shape the message but to also shape the medium (the media itself) so that it becomes very unwilling to challenge what the government says for fear of losing further access to the government. The importance being placed on visuals like with the podium but far from limited to it in a manner similar to the American Presidency is also disturbing. Working from PMO made lists is another example of this. As is the refusal to talk anything but the current political agenda's talking points (five priorities to the exclusion of all else, especially without prior PMO clearance), as is the increased difficulty in even knowing whom to contact within the government and actually having a working means to do so (lack of phone answering throughout day and night, especially on what is supposed to be a 24 hr line/service).

Something I think far too many people forget is the reason why we have protections for journalists and news media comes down to one civic responsibility above all others. That is to hold to account with skepticism and suspicion whatever the current government of the day is telling them. It is not the job of the media to work for the politicians and government in shaping their message, it is their responsibility to make sure that those holding power in this country over the citizenry have their decisions scrutinized as much as possible, to always be looking for signs of abuse of power and/or deceptions by government officials (ESPECIALLY ELECTED ONES!) and when such is inevitably found that it is made known to the general public. This is done so that the voting public is able to make as informed a choice as possible when they cast their votes for whomever will be entrusted with running the government which is a very important element in a representational democracy like ours is. Harper is the Prime Minister, this means he does not have the option of ignoring his responsibilities to face media questioning, even harsh and brutal questioning. After all, Martin and Chretien sure did, so it seems that Harper is fine and dandy with having the press working for the opposition when he was the Official opposition in holding a Liberal government to account but when it is his government then it is something he cannot be exposed to. Or to put it a bit more bluntly, Harper is making clear he is far more of a coward than Martin ever was when it came to having to deal with hostile audiences, hostile questioning, and generally having to accept that dealing with a media that tends to be a pain at the worst times for any government is part and parcel of the job. Any PM trying to prevent this function from occurring is someone to be wary of, someone that made as much use of the media's questioning of the prior Liberal government to "prove" how corrupt and arrogant it was immediately doing everything he thinks he can get away with to prevent having to ever suffer a similar unpleasant experience is a lying cowardly hypocrite with dangerous delusions of his own power.

I would add this last bit, if Harper was doing this in the beginnings of a new majority government then while still disturbing it would not be quite as politically stupid. However he has a weak minority, and while Conservatives generally think they have at least a year or two before having to face an election to bank on such is idiocy, especially where honking off the Ottawa Press corps is concerned, since they will be the ones most involved in national election coverage when it finally happens. The more Harper tries to isolate the media now, the more he is begging them to remind voters of this next time out, reporters being unwilling to take Harper/CPC assertions at face value like last time, and generally gives the media reason to take the CPC and Harper to task when they no longer can whip out the ability to punish media for doing so without it being seriously damaging, which in an election campaign is anytime. Seeing as the CPC government and Harper are clearly acting as if this is an election campaign from the moment they were sworn in until their government falls this seems particularly media message stupid. Then again that has been a hallmark of Harper's throughout his political career with the notable exception of the last election campaign where he was treated as the golden child for the most part. He and the CPC certainly got the most media friendly coverage of all parties and leaders last time out, so why burn all that good will so soon after the election when you do not know just how soon the next one may be?

Between the political ham handedness and the very real concerns anyone interested in open transparent government will have regarding these decisions the Harper government is just asking for trouble. It also has a strong appearance of being a conscious attempt to replicate the media strategy success GWB has had as President as much as the Canadian context will permit him to manage. Seeing as the GWB regime is clearly one of if not the most opaque unaccountable and unresponsive to public information requests from media or citizens in American history this is *NOT* something that can be seen as in keeping with Mr. transparency he who believes government must be as open as possible to the public Harper. It is however entirely in keeping with his "do as I say not as I do" approach to governing, especially given all he had to say about Martin's minority from its first day versus how he has been running his since its first day. Man, is Harper ever making Martin look better and better with time, soon Harper may have Martin's image troubles with not just the media but the public. Incidentally, for all you Conservatives out there that think this is insider stuff that the general public pays no attention to, I would direct you to this post at Galloping Beaver regarding that exact point. Canadians tend to pay more attention to what is done in their names by their government than our American neighbours and are far more politically aware and educated than it would appear most CPCers are willing to accept. This is also something that can and likely will come back to haunt them by the next election.

Media message control is one thing, what Harper is trying to do goes well beyond that. Incidentally, this rebuttal I have seen regarding how this will make reporters have to work for a living instead of being provided information by officials may sound like a good idea, but have these CPCers actually thought it through? When you provide the information you have some control on how it will be presented. When you force reporters to dig independently not only do you lose that control but you are inviting the most negative presentation both from lack of input and from probably having annoyed the reporters with this attitude. I realize it is an article of faith among many CPCers that the media is a Liberal controlled environment, and it is faith you know since no evidence actually exist to support this contention while there is evidence that refutes it, but it is not something you can treat with such contempt without penalty. Media are annoying, they are not always accurate in their coverage and occasionally their ability to understand context is totally absent but they are also something that has been a part of our democracy and representative government since Canada was founded. Harper and the CPC need to deal with that reality instead of looking and sounding like a bunch of whiny cowards that loved seeing the media dish it out on the Liberal government but is unwilling to risk any possible dishing out on their government. This is one of the ranker levels of blatant hypocrisy by Harper and his party and far too many of his supporters/defenders that think this media control strategy is a good one either politically or for the country in general. If nothing else it further deepens the cynicism that all politicians are the same kind of hypocritical liars that say one thing to gain power and then do the exact opposite when they have power than they demanded of the former government(s).


Anonymous John said...

Not a bad post here Scotian. Cut out your usual anti-Bush rhetoric and I think you have a good point. Not sure what Harper hopes to accomplish with this strategy but I guess time will tell. It sort of seems like a lot for a little. I do have to disagree with you on two things though. Closed door meetings or meetings with out of state guests do not need to always be open and scrutinized by the press. I think it is important that politicians be able to talk to each other without having to worry about how it all looks politically at the time. I would rather they be able to talk freely and focus on the issues at hand rather than just pandering to the cameras. No real work is ever accomplished with journalists constantly in your face. Sometimes the average joe doesn't always have the right to know what is going on. Also, it is not the media's job to protect the integrity of the voting process, but rather to sell newspapers and tv ad slots. Don't forget that they work for corporations and not society as a whole.

Tue Mar 28, 03:12:00 PM 2006  

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