David Jones on Harper & the media

Written by  //  July 14, 2007  //  Canada, David/Terry Jones, Media  //  No comments

Monday, July 9, 2007

A VIEW FROM WASHINGTON, D.C

The Media and the Prime Minister:

How Poisonous Are Relations?

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Harper believes inter alia that the scrums previously held after

Cabinet closed-doors sessions were hare and hounds exercises

with the media operating under ‘survival of the rudest’ rules.

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By David Jones

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A very senior Canadian journalist proclaims that Prime Minister Harper is getting the worst coverage from mainstream media (CBC, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail) in 50 years. Other journalists either raise skeptical eyebrows or suggest that, if so, it is what Harper deserves.

Really?

Well, every Canadian Prime Minister and, for that matter, every U.S. president believes that the media are hostile, not just hostile generally, but to them in particular. And, in a democratic society with freedom of press/speech, the media exists inter alia to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—an attitude which rarely means that those in power get much in the way of warm fuzzies from the press.

Nevertheless, it is also a time-honoured axiom for political conservatives that they will not get a fair shake from the establishment media. Consequently, to the extent possible, political conservatives push past these media; when they can be ignored, they will be ignored. If they can be manipulated, “spun” with press releases designed to force them to deliver the conservatives’ message, that approach will also be taken. Negative news will be released when least likely to secure press or public attention. Hostile commentators get no interviews from senior officials. Access to information requests are delayed and answers “redacted” to provide minimal information. And maximum effort is made to reduce leaking by unauthorized sources with a consistent “line” from official sources.

In the United States, the FOX TV network (“Fair and balanced” to be sure) was created and endures because a substantial portion of the U.S. audience served by ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN concluded that the reality it perceived (one more conservative than what was being espoused by mainstream media) was not presented. American journalists are indeed more liberal not only than Republican politicians but more liberal than the U.S. population in general. In Canada, one might argue, Conrad Black’s National Post attempted to present a conservative alternative. And it would be surprising if Canadian working journalists/columnists were not more liberal than Canadian conservative politicians—after all, approximately 60 percent of the electorate is more liberal. As the phrase goes, “even paranoids have real enemies.”

Nevertheless, regardless of the political backdrop, the current tactical reality in Canada is one where the Prime Minister and a significant portion of the Ottawa media (and notably the Parliamentary Press Gallery) are at daggers’ point. Harper has concluded that the media are implacably hostile to him, politically and personally, and declines to nod, let alone bow, in their direction. One non-Tory observer suggested that the media were getting what it deserved—to be ignored. Harper reportedly has taken a lesson from the Mulroney experience wherein despite giving the media substantial access (“What are the boys saying?”), he was subsequently brutalized by some of those to whom he accorded access. Consequently, Harper believes he will be “hanged” by the media in any event, so rather be hanged as a goat than as a sheep.

Some observers compare Harper’s apparent contempt for the media as akin to Trudeau’s disdain. But Harper is not Trudeau. The difference is that Trudeau dazzled in a will-o-wisp JFK manner and was above criticism—able to pirouette behind the Queen, wear a cape, be “dashing” (rather than regarded as rapacious) regarding the opposite sex, etc. Trudeau could say “fuddle duddle” in Parliament and offer a “Trudeau salute” to critics without unleashing a media firestorm. Moreover, Trudeau “played the game,” meeting with the media under their ground rules and usually by intellect, wit, and substantive command beating them at the game.

Harper has attempted to change the rules, believing inter alia that the scrums previously held after Cabinet closed-doors sessions were hare and hounds exercises with the media operating under “survival of the rudest” rules. He apparently seeks to move to a style somewhat akin to that of a U.S. president wherein the president determines who he will call upon—obviously a device to at least somewhat control what questions are posed. He gives selected interviews and provides access to local press when travelling; he largely freezes out national press.

What had initially appeared to be a resolvable snit between the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the PMO has become a trench warfare exercise. One might have thought a year ago that resumption of Parliament would have included a quiet creative compromise. It now appears close to a zero sum game with neither side willing to bend. Indeed, the impasse could endure until the next federal election in which a Tory victory would cement Harper’s approach and a defeat would provide quiet media satisfaction.

David Jones is a former political counsellor who worked at the U.S. Embassy

in Ottawa from 1992-96. He works in Washington, D.C., and keeps an eye on

Canadian politics. He just returned from a visit to Ottawa.



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