Journalists Are Banned from Stephen Harper's Events and It’s Stupid Nonsense
With just weeks to go before a federal election, pessimism about the government's draconian anti-media policies is at an all-time high.
The phrase "photo opportunity only (cameras and photographers only)" appears 90 times in my inbox.
All 90 emails are from the Prime Minister's Office regarding upcoming events with Stephen Harper.
That line means that if ever an enterprising print, online, television, or radio journalist were to dare enter the event, security would prevent them and, if need be, remove them from the premises.
I know, because I've tried.
I've driven a half hour to go to an event with Harper in the hopes that I might be bestowed the grand honour of asking the Exalted One a question (I wanted to know why we weren't providing weapons to our Kurdish allies). But after hearing a 20-minute speech, I had a friendly PMO staffer instruct me that I was to leave. I tried to resist—I slipped off my bright-red "MEDIA" badge—only to be confronted by security a hot second later. I was escorted from the school gymnasium.
We've all just given up, at this point. We've, metaphorically, put on a housecoat and pulled a half-eaten carton of Chunky Monkey from the freezer.
Which is why it was so adorable to watch American journalists recoil in horror when staffers for president-to-be Hillary Clinton guided them around on ropes. Such simple disdain for the media feels almost quaint by Canadian standards.
A day later, journalists in Alberta were bullied by PMO staffers at a joint event between the Prime Minister and Premier Rachel Notley. The advance team instructed the journalists that cellphone pictures were verboten. They later relented. Questions were still banned, though.
Update: A reporter from the event has contacted to inform me that reporters were, in the end, banned from the event altogether. The PMO was kind enough to send a recap of the meeting to reporters in the Press Gallery, however, because they're so fucking helpful.
Why? Because why not.
When you hold all the power, why not abuse it? If you run an event, why not ban the pesky media? If you control the flow of information, why not decide how it goes out?
It's been a problem since time immemorial. Whether it's editing Joseph Stalin's executed allies out of his photos or Barack Obama cherry-picking friendly media to roll out carefully packaged news stories, leaders always want to control the message.
But most leaders recognize that there's a balance between message-strangling and the public's right to know.
Not Stephen Harper, apparently. Not anymore.
I began working in the Parliamentary Press Gallery in September 2013. Since then, Stephen Harper has done fewer than six open media availabilities in Ottawa.
Every single one has been when an elected head of state has come to visit. You know why? Because we don't want to make our leader look like a goddamn control freak in front of our foreign allies.
When Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to visit, Canadian media were permitted two questions—one in English, one in French—at a joint media availability. Australian media were given two others. I asked the English question (on whether it was odd for Canada to be decrying the legalization of sex work when Australia, its leader on stage next to Harper, had some relative success after partly-decriminalizing the sex trade.)
One of the Australian journalists leaned over to me: "Hey, mate, is it normal for you guys to only get two questions?"
"No," I said. "We normally don't get any."
He began laughing. Then realized I wasn't joking. Then he stopped laughing.
At events in other parts of the country, Harper has sometimes taken open questions. PMO staffers have tried to create lists of who will be permitted to ask questions, but local media—who generally don't give a shit about their relationship with some Ottawa-based 20-something media relations czars—resisted, and so that died. Now, events are infrequent, and still tightly controlled.
So how did we get this way?
The easy answer is that we let it happen, but that isn't quite right.
The Press Gallery has fought back in the past. When journalists were banned from an open-door caucus meeting (one of those "photo opportunity only" events), the whole gallery staged a boycott.
"You won't believe what the Press Gallery just did in Ottawa," began the Conservative fundraising email that went out shortly thereafter.
After that, it all fell apart. Television reporters would never again sign on to a boycott that would mean creating holes in their nightly newscasts. Some print reporters became uncomfortable with becoming the story. Some of us, who didn't have to fill column inches or airtime, were a little more activist.
The most that came out of it was a strongly worded motion, adopted unanimously, that I'm sure elicited raucous laughter from the politburo within the Prime Minister's Office.
It's not that the PMO staff are bad people. I know many of them, and sometimes they're actively helpful in providing information, interviews, and details about stories.
But more commonly, they are actively trying to pile-drive Canadian democracy through a four-inch table as a stadium full of blood-thirsty partisans hoot and holler from the sidelines.
It's like there's a real fear that, given the chance, the Canadian media will walk onstage with Stephen Harper and tear-up a picture of the Pope, or begin yelling "BABA BOOEY" into the microphone.
We really just want to ask some questions. Reasonable questions. Questions about how our country is being run.
Instead, the only real opportunity we get is when Harper stands up to mouth off in Question Period, or when a stray minister wanders into the foyer of the House of Commons to answer questions.
There's a good chance that, by writing this, my future calls to the PMO will go unanswered. (Virtually every media request made to any department, MP, or minister ends up in the hands of a PMO staffer.)
If so, fuck 'em.
It's probably our willingness to accept these occasional handouts from the PMO that's keeping this system alive.
I spoke on a panel at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference last month, where my entire point was that making friends and contacts in control-freak governments such as this one is a good way to get around roadblocks to access. Which is true. But at what point is it contributing to the decay of a once-pretty-good system?
Because, while we in the media are notoriously guilty of inflating our own self-worth to mind-boggling proportions, we are still an integral part of the democratic process.
No more of this bullshit. I'm done. Whether it's this summer, during the campaign, next year: I'd rather get tasered than put up with this nonsense anymore.
But also, please don't taser me.
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