"Go write a story about it."
That's the advice I was given by Conservative communications apparatchik Kory Teneycke when I complained about their arbitrary limit on who gets to ask questions of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"It's not arbitrary," he told me.
Judge for yourself.
At every event with the Conservative Party leader on the campaign trail, journalists get five questions—or, at least, they're supposed to get five questions.
That's a notable improvement from before the campaign, back when he was running the country full-time, when there was a slim chance of ever getting to ask questions of Harper.
But even so, there's a catch.
Four of the five questions go to tour media—those journalists who are on the official Conservative campaign bus—and one goes to the local media.
To get on that bus, you'll need to shell out $3,000 ($2,200 USD) a day. Or, alternatively, you can get discounted long-term rates of $12,500 ($9,450 USD) a week, or $78,000 ($59,000 USD) for the entire two-and-a-half-month campaign.
Local reporters, on the other hand, have their questions vetted to ensure they're "local" enough. Local reporters are not permitted to ask national questions. Teneycke vets their questions.
We national reporters—who are neither paying that huge sum of money, nor are local reporters—assumed that we'd still be able to ask questions. Turns out not.
I got in the car on Sunday, foregoing an afternoon of laying on the beach, to cover Harper's event in Eastern Ontario. He was announcing another tax break for people who join service clubs, like the Masons or Knights of Columbus (though not, presumably, fight clubs).
I flipped an email to some Conservative staffers: Hey, I'm hoping to ask a question. Is that doable?
They said they'd look into it.
So Teneycke enters the media holding pen and I ask him about it. Turns out that there are only three media there from the bus—CTV, CBC, and the Canadian Press, with the usual francophone RDI reporter missing. That means that, under their five-question rule, there was space.
Teneycke pulls me into the hallway: He wants to know, in general strokes, my question. So that Harper can give a more detailed answer.
I tell him my question is on the fight against the Islamic State, and how Harper plans on dealing with Turkey, who is currently bombing our allies in the fight against the Islamic State, the Kurds.
Teneycke nods, and I get the impression that my question is on the roster. Booyah.
In my mind, I'm relieved. This campaign has been going on for nearly a month, and I've had virtually nothing to write about. None of the leaders have actually announced anything significant thus far—mostly just incredibly specific tax cuts that don't exactly allow for much in-depth reporting.
Put another way: I do not want to write another goddamn column about media access.
Other reporters, who have to fill the top story on the nightly newscast, want to ask about disgraced former Senator Mike Duffy, who is currently being tried for fraud.
I, on the other hand, am thinking I can put together a great policy story about what this election means for Canada's involvement in the coalition effort to stop the Islamic State's expansion.
This story, by the way, would play exactly into Conservative Party messaging. They've been itching to talk about the Islamic State.
So I walk into the tiny room where Harper is speaking, relieved that the Conservatives have finally come to their senses and relaxed their media relations strategy to the point where Harper can finally be Harper, and field questions on an assortment of topics.
Inside, I double-check with Bryn Weese, who handles a lot of the media on the campaign. He, like Teneycke, is a former Sun News employee—a place where I also used to contribute—and generally a good guy.
"So I get a question, right, Bryn?"
"Let me check with Kory," he says.
He comes back and shakes his head. "You can go talk to Kory about it."
So I do.
"What the fuck, Kory?"
He explains that the tour media—the ones shelling out $78,000—get four questions, and local media get one question. I am neither tour, nor local. I get no questions.
I point out that there are only three tour media present and, lo, there is a question left! Can I have it? Will local media get two? What about Daniel Leblanc, the Globe and Mail reporter who's in the same spot as I?
Nope. There'll just be four questions.
"Go write a story about it."
So Harper wraps up, and begins taking questions. One on Duffy. One on retirement benefits. Then Andy Blatchford, Canadian Press reporter, asks: "Why do you only take five questions at your campaign events?"
"I think you're all very aware of how we've structured our press conferences. This is a long-standing policy, it was cleared with everybody. And what's important to me is that we're able to answer a range of questions on a broad range of subjects. That's why every day I speak to a different topic."
Well that sounds nice.
So then Harper took a question from a local reporter about his tax break, and then it was a wrap. No fifth question. He does, however, take the mic one more time: "Friends, nobody asked about this, but..." he then preceded to underline how fragile our economy is, answering a question that nobody asked.
Naturally, I began yelling: "Mr. Harper! I have a question. I have a question. I HAVE A QUESTION. What about that fifth question?"
And so on. Harper initially looked at me, then shuffled off to glad-hand. Staffers nervously looked at me. I think one made a beeline for me, but another staffer stopped her. Security glared at me. One supporter turned around, and said something encouraging about how he wanted Harper to answer more questions, too.
Eventually, he departed through the back door. Frustrated, I made for the exit. Teneycke was waiting for me.
"Happy? That was really classy. Really good job," he says, obviously pissed off.
This is where we're at, folks. A half-dozen reporters, the ones that are willing to shell out the hefty sum of money, will be the only ones permitted to ask national questions of the prime minister. That's the media strategy of the Conservative Party on this campaign.
Also a possibility: The prime minister didn't want to answer my question, so he spiked it himself.
Either way, that fucking sucks.
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