OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative caucus members are back at work in Ottawa and spoiling, it seems, for a fight — and not just with their traditional House of Commons rivals.
These days, while Liberal and NDP members of Parliament are sporting their share of political shiners, so too are the journalists who cover them.
Sparring between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Parliamentary Press Gallery is hardly new. But the gloves came off on Wednesday when a dispute over access to a government caucus meeting turned into a Conservative fundraising pitch.
Most of the media gallery refused to show up for Harper’s speech to caucus members on Wednesday when his office insisted on allowing only photographers and TV cameras to attend — no reporters.
Before the day was out, the Conservatives were using the dispute to raise money — a fundraising letter accused the “Ottawa media elite” of sinking to a “new low” — in hopes of turning Canada’s love-hate relationship with its journalists to the party’s political benefit.
In closing the door to reporters, the Prime Minister’s Office was surely mindful of the last time it invited the media to a caucus meeting — this one at the height of the controversy surrounding Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and his $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy.
On that day last May, reporters shouted questions at Harper as he entered the room and took the podium, demanding to know more about why Wright — who resigned his post just days earlier — had paid off the embattled senator.
So when reporters were barred from Wednesday’s caucus meeting, television, radio and print outlets – with the exception of Sun Media – refused to cover the speech, insisting their journalists be allowed in rather than having to rely on the PMO’s own transcripts.
“It’s about reporters being able to do their jobs,” said Daniel Thibeault, president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. “You need to see people. You need to see the reaction, the body language …. and in the past, it’s never been an issue.”
The Conservatives also took issue with the fact some journalists opted to accept an NDP invitation to sit in on New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair’s caucus speech, taking place across the hall.
“You won’t believe what the Press Gallery just did in Ottawa,” Fred DeLorey, the Conservative party’s director of political operations, said in his fundraising email.
“Rather than send cameras to cover the prime minister’s speech, they attended the NDP’s meeting, and were welcomed with cheers and applause. We knew they wouldn’t give us fair coverage — but this is a new low for the Ottawa media elite.”
A Harper spokesman later insisted “various media organizations were invited to attend to capture the prime minister’s speech, but chose not to.”
Just as it did prior to a cabinet shuffle earlier this year, the Prime Minister’s Office turned to Twitter, tweeting snippets of Harper’s speech. That enabled reporters to learn and report the details, but didn’t mute complaints about what they consider a filter-free end-run around the mainstream media.
The dispute comes on the heels of a major personnel change within the PMO’s media-relations arm. Jason MacDonald, Harper’s new director of communications, took over last month from Andrew MacDougall, who was widely viewed as being among the more gallery-friendly officials in Harper’s inner circle.
Conservatives have long tried to get around the Ottawa press corps, often by reaching out to regional and ethnic media organizations, because they view the mainstream media as hostile to their message, said Harold Jansen, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.
“There’s nothing terribly surprising about the throne speech fight — it’s just more of the same,” Jansen said.
Indeed, the latest dust-up represents just the most recent round in an enduring sparring match between Harper and the media that has raged since the Conservatives took office in 2006.
DeLorey’s fundraising email suggests the Conservatives still consider it a winning strategy to assail the media in front of party faithful — a tactic they appear to have been revisiting in recent weeks.
In September, a veteran CTV cameraman asked a question during a Harper photo-op in New York — breaking an unwritten rule that prohibits unsolicited questions during photo-op moments that don’t include a formal Q-and-A session.
In Canada and the U.S., it’s long been standard media procedure to shout out questions during public appearances. More often than not, elected officials will provide a brief response to an unanticipated question during a photo-op.
However, Dave Ellis — the cameraman in question — was told he would not be allowed to cover Harper’s trip to Malaysia and Indonesia the following week, even though he was already accredited to attend. Ultimately, the PMO backed down and allowed Ellis to board Harper’s plane.
“They are remarkably effective at fundraising, so they’ll pick these fights and then send out a fundraising email and say: ‘See, we’re standing up for you,’” said Jansen.
“And they also believe the average Canadian simply doesn’t care that the media is shut out of events, that it’s not an issue that is going to cause them any trouble on election day.”
Christopher Waddell, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, called the Conservatives’ anti-media tactics puzzling.
Harper is a skilled communicator and gives full, well-considered answers when questioned, Waddell said.
“His unwillingness to engage in all of that ends up hurting his cause, not helping his cause,” he said.
“The impression that’s created is that they’re not interested in explaining themselves, they’re not interested in being open. They’re not interested in the questions and answers and the debate that is part of a democracy.”