Loose Cannon: Harper gives public the media cold-shoulder

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

  • Harper, who once promised openness and transparency, is keeping things on a tight leash

    Harper, who once promised openness and transparency, is keeping things on a tight leash

Written by Greg Beneteau

We called it the black box.

When I worked at The Ontarion, my fellow editors and I were fortunate enough to cover a local visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper .

Stephen Dion had recently been elected leader of the federal Liberal Party, giving a fiery speech at the leadership convention that included the profoundly unwise declaration: "Let's get ready for an election!"

Harper countered with an electioneering streak of his own, combing Liberal-held ridings to mock Dion for telling his party to abstain from voting on confidence motions.

But even at his most brave, Harper was fiercely controlling of his public appearances. Guests who wanted to attend pep rally the PM's pep rally had to submit their names and contact information in advance for approval.

Many independent journalists were turned down, as were most students. No reasons were given.

Reporters who made it inside the convention centre where Harper gave his 15-minute pep talk didn't fare much better. Forbidden from asking questions, we were herded to the back of the room and on to a  small, elevated stage that the Ontarion's  editor-in-chief coined  "the black box."

The closest we ever got to the PM was when our news editor, Erin Sue, sneaked into the guest lineup to have her picture taken with him after the show.

And believe me, it was a show, from beginning to end. Nothing was left to chance, not even the guest list.

I think ordinary Canadians are finally beginning to feel the cold shoulder that the Conservatives give journalists every day.

The media has also been closely following the story of a Western student who claimed she was asked to leave a Harper rally because she had ties to the Liberal party - more specifically, her Facebook profile had  a picture of her with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, from a rally she attended last week.

It wasn't an isolated incident. On Monday, U of G students who staged a "vote mob" to encourage youth voter turnout  were barred from attending a Harper rally in town, despite having pre-registered. And in Halifax, N.S., two veterans' advocates were denied access by Conservative staffers to a campaign event.

But what about the stories that don't make it into newspapers, because the newspapers themselves are the targets? You don't need to search very hard in the news media to find hardworking men and women whose Access to Information requests were denied or delayed for months, even years, under dubious circumstances.

I could count on one hand the number of times I've been able to interview sitting Conservative MPs. And those encounters were invariably a waste of time, since they never said anything that I couldn't have gathered from a press release.

Harper has tried to brush off criticism of his campaign bubble by saying he wasn't responsible for the screening process. He even suggested that the problems lay with over-attendance, and not the fact that his rally crowds are hand-picked.

If it's true, it would be a remarkably hands-off approach for the Harper to take.  From controlling individual MPs' responses to media inquiries from the Prime Minister's Office to refusing to take more than five questions per day from reporters  - and just a quick note: one of those questions can't be "Why won't you take more questions?" - the party leader who once campaigned on a platform of openness and transparency has a history of keeping things on a tight leash.

If there's any upside to this appalling lack of communication between an elected government and the public, it's that Harper's dislike of spontaneity and on-the-spot thinking is an albatross that will continue to hang around his neck, and may even cost him his coveted majority. It may prove to Harper's benefit to protect his weak spots from the news media, but during an election, swing voters will be turned off at being turned away.

I just hope that after the polls close, people will also care about the ongoing struggle faced by journalists trying to get their foot in the door.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question

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