Jason Kenney was fidgeting a bit, as Senator Jim Munson recounted those glory days for the open press, under the benign Prime Ministership of Jean Chretien.
Kenney was the pork in the synagogue. Onstage with two journalists and a journalist-turned-Liberal-turned-Liberal-independent-Senator, and surrounded by a room full of the Fourth Estate, Kenney silently wondered what he got himself into.
The nature of the discussion was ‘Does the Parliamentary Press Gallery Matter?’ but it may as well have been: ‘Why Does Stephen Harper Hate the Press?’
The catalyst for the talk was a motion passed by the Press Gallery’s annual congregation, where we decided to “reserve the right to ask questions in all photo-ops and availabilities with the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and all parliamentarians, to fulfil our function as journalists in a democratic society.”
I was there for that vote (it passed unanimously) and I argued that we, as the self-important arbiters of public discourse, ought to be doing more than a simple motion. But the motion was step one.
And so the conversation began.
Tom Clark, moderator-as-roast master, facilitated the pile-on of the Employment Minister. Senator Jim Munson pivoted back to the glory days of the Liberals, when they would return every phone call put to them with a generous and accurate reply (a wonderful fable,) Senior Canadian Press reporter on the Hill Jennifer Ditchburn recounted the early days of the Press Gallery when the press were not just present but integral (spotted livers, lapsed ethics, and all,) and Sun News bureau chief David Akin offered perspective as the scrappy new kid on the block. Kenney, meanwhile, dodged and parried all night, before finally pointing out that the Conservatives would rather get their message straight to the masses — through products like 24/Seven, or via ethno-cultural media — rather than deal with the navel-gazers in Ottawa. Also, he added, things aren’t that bad.
The backdrop for this discussion was a very curious week.
In making a point about the Gallery’s penchant to race towards the bottom, Kenney quoted — of all people — Fox News boss Roger Ailes, whose theory went like this:
“If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”
Underlining just how painfully evident that can be in Canadian politics, the event took place just a few hours after the partisan bric-à-brac over the finger-gun incident in the House. The Parliamentary Press Gallery was, indeed, all over that utter non-story.
Riffing on a theme, Akin made the point that the gallery needs to be relevant to the masses. Getting trapped in the bubble is a dangerous thing and, whether we get access to the Prime Minister or not, we need to slog through and get the story told. Media naval-gazing, he argued, won’t change a damn thing.
It was in that kernel of truth that something interesting came out.
In the past decade, there’s been a fracturing between the political sphere, the media bubble, and the general public. Reporters have less access to the government, the government has less access to the broad population through the media, and the media is becoming increasingly irrelevant for a growing number of Canadians.
An easy explainer would be to say that Stephen Harper and his band of outside-the-beltway farmers came to Ottawa and cast aside the silver-spoon-sucking elites in the Press Gallery. As I wrote a few months back: you really can’t blame him.
But that initial distrust did not give way to an uneasy working relationship, it somehow become more acrimonious. Weird, isn’t it, that Harper hates us more than the days of yore when we mocked him mercilessly for leading a troupe of anti-gay, women-hating, militarists?
Well, that answer could fill a book (and it will: keep an eye out for a title from longtime Gallery type Mark Bourrie.) But one interesting aspect is the idea of countering news.
Let’s operate on a few assumptions: that the Gallery will always fall towards a small-l liberal bent, that the Conservatives’ 40% base won’t be parred down by the Sparks Street scribes, that improved access will lead to bad stories about the government, and that the Hill journalists would rather cover the guy falling into the orchestra than the many accomplishments of the Harper Government.
Those presuppositions give you the Harper government’s strategy for the first seven years or so.
But something has changed.
I would contend that the catalyst was the coverage around Wright’s $90,000 cheque, but the actual story was irreverent.
At some point, Harper’s 40% fell away. And it kept falling, until it crashed through the Tories’ 30% floor, and hit the electoral version of rock bottom, at 28%. Now, only 40% of the country would even consider voting for Harper, according to a new Ipsos survey.
You’re Harper, what do you do?
You could acquiesce to the Media Party’s demands and hold weekly briefings in Kabuki Theatre, open the Access to Information floodgates and bring up the mantle of transparency.
You could ratchet up an effort to disqualify the press altogether.
A case study: the Fair Elections Act.
Harper can play the good governance card and work cooperatively with the opposition parties to amend the legislation that has been roundly condemned by virtually every expert in the game.
Steve and the giant invisible hand can simply call into question the very existence of the news coverage. He can run back to the old us-vs-them game of political division. Pierre Poilievre can be served up to every cable news show in the country to lay out his case, and obtusely ignore and abuse the media darlings — be they the state broadcaster’s At Issue panel, or the CEO of Elections Canada himself.
For all of the skullduggery and hair-pulling in the eternal fight between Harper’s communication regime and the reporters in the Gallery, the Conservatives have never really ventured into the murky world of trying to play editor.
Whereas before they donned a ‘Haters Gonna Hate’ ball cap and used our Media Party hype to pad their coffers and spirit the troops, Harper’s communications bunker is now actively trying to discredit our sources, undercut our choice in stories, hobble our ability to get information, and skirt us as the gatekeepers of public discourse.
From making ministers even less available, withholding bills and announcements until they’ve gone out to the masses, and employing the shrewdly Orwellian 24/Seven, the Harper Government is changing the rules of engagement with his tormenters in the media gallery.
And now he has a friend that he didn’t have in those heady days of 2006: Sun News.
“Boy does this bill have the Media Party furious!” Cried Ezra Levant, in mocking the the Gallery’s obsession over the Fair Elections Act.
I don’t want to suggest that Sun is not an independent news source. It is. But its interests align nicely with the Conservatives, from time-to-time — going after the establishment in the Media Party is one such shared goal.
What is curious is that the talking heads of Sun, after several weeks of silence, decided to pronounce themselves in the last several days on C-23.
From Anthony Furey’s assertion that vouching has got to go (an assertion I think I properly rebutted when Furey invited me on his program the next day) to Brian Lilley’s 100% incorrect assertion that vouching isn’t allowed in Quebec (Lilley admitted to me that he was wrongly-informed, to his credit.) Sun has taken up this mission with bloodlust.
So what do we do?
The Media Party has never been as irrelevant as it is now. Is it because of the revolving-door of partisans coming in and out of the Press Gallery? Is it because we treat with contempt the views of conservatives? Or because we cover affairs that appear to have little bearing on the lives of the individual person?
I think the answer to those questions, to varying degrees, is yes.
The options for redress are curious.
The media can continue on the current path of general alienation and hope that a media-lover will replace Harper in 24 Sussex. Yet, rest assured, if another party takes over from the Conservatives, things will not be better. The chicanery that comes with skirting the free press won’t be better or worse, it will be different.
The press could sabre-rattle and turn Harper’s contempt of the media into a political issue that could burn him, and serve as a warning to any successor who dare hold the reigns of the PMO media machine. But that course of action is as controversial as it is unpredictable. Direct action only works if it frightens the guys in charge, and if they’re not scared, then you only serve in hurting yourself.
The journalists could, alternatively, try to mend ties. There have been many exercises in bridge-burning in recent years. The Tories, perhaps with some justification, don’t trust the media to report. They assume that, given a minister, we’ll aim for the kneecaps. They figure that, if offered a report, we’ll cut it up for the sake of a salacious headline. And maybe that’s true, to a degree.
The government should never like the media, but they should at least let us do our job. Harper, evidently, does not think we can do that.
OTHER ARTICLES BY JUSTIN LING
So proud to be in Rome
Sovereignty is dead! Long live sovereignty!
Old Stephen Harper vs. New Stephen Harper on the Fair Elections Act
Stephen Harper the dinosaur
Minister Poilievre Interviewed On Fair Elections Act
Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling