Harper and the liberal journalists of Sparks Street


“What is the obsession with process?”

That’s the burning question that the Prime Minister’s press secretary had for Jeremy Nuttall, a journalist with 24hr’s Vancouver paper.

Nuttall’s question had been why the general media hadn’t been invited to a reporter roundtable with Stephen Harper during his tour through British Columbia.  A handful of cherrypicked ‘ethnic’ media were invited to the non-publicized (hell, non-disclosed) event and were “allowed to ask Harper one question each and were given a chance to” deep breath “have their photo taken with the prime minister.”

Well that just got Nuttall incised in such a way that most members of the national media learned to stop being a long time ago, and he harangued the boss’ press flak, Carl Vallee, until he finally explained that the Prime Minister regularly meets with ethnic media and that’s just how it goes.  That’s the process.

Those journalists should count themselves lucky, really.  It’s not often that the great white leader sits down with us lowly muckrackers.

From an informal scan of my email, the Prime Minister has held about ten public events since November (excluding Remembrance Day.)  Of those, only three were open to the type of journalists that write things down or say things on-air.  The rest were exclusively for photo-takers and cameras.

That might seem arbitrary and punitive, you say, to allow journalists in but only if they don’t say anything.

Well you would be right!

But that’s the process, now.

If you’re looking for the genesis of the boss’ distrust of the media party, pick up a copy of Paul Wells’ The Longer I’m Prime Minister, which paints a nice tableau of the erstwhile Reform leader’s early days in government.  (Or, if you want the slightly more colourfully filled-in version, get a copy of Lawrence Martin’s Harperland.)

Dear leader’s aversion to journalists isn’t absolute, really.  In the early days, he just had disdain for the prevailing liberal wisdom that wafted from the Parliamentary Press Gallery, down the corridors of Parliament.  So he turned to the arbiters of Conservative thought in places like the National Post and the Calgary Herald to diffuse the message he felt was oft-distorted when he turned to the ink-stained wretches in such socialist bastions at the Globe and Mail.

But, of course, journalists are not fond of favourite-playing, and the Press Gallery cried foul.

Fine, said Harper, then nobody gets interviews.

And thus, nobody got interviews.  Press conferences were tightly choreographed affairs.  Scrums were lore of yore.  Sit-down one-on-ones were guarded by goblins deep inside an active volcano.

And so here we are today.

The media is, still, admittedly, small-l liberal.  Not our fault, of course.

While Calgary’s high-rise office buildings are staffed by Western-born oil executives, raised in the boom to appreciate the value of go-it-your-own conservatism, the dingy low-rise press building on Ottawa’s Sparks Street is staffed with Ontario and Quebec born-and-educated journalists with a liberal federalist outlook.  The new dual solitudes.

That’s our whacky national experiment, for ya.

What that means, though, is Canada’s federal coverage is mostly by, and for, those central Canadian liberals (admittedly, most of the country.)  Harper’s base, meanwhile, aren’t necessarily the kind to be leafing through the Globe.

So he did a simple calculation: if, ceteris paribus, Conservative voters aren’t reading the national journalists who are asking the questions, then what’s the point in talking to them?

He can justify it by saying that those liberals in the Press Gallery will twist his meaning at the first chance they get.

Because while answering questions from the Toronto Star might endear him slightly to the Bloor Street yuppies, it won’t win him votes.  His voters in Toronto are probably getting their news in Mandarin or Arabic, anyway.

The Calgary Herald, meanwhile, will have his back whether he speaks to them or not.

And those die-hard Tories in the rural parts of the East Coast are going to vote Conservative come hell-or-high water and could barely be bothered with the Canadian Press stories about the Prime Minister as they leaf through to the sports section.

The point is: for Harper, what’s the net benefit in taking difficult questions from the 60 per cent, if it doesn’t mean anything to his 40 per cent?

If you let that sense of nausea pass, it’s a pretty sound strategy.

It would be nice if he stopped, though.

It may even help him out, for once, as the Senate scandal threatens to finally permeate the thin wall that separates those two ends of the country.  He might just need to win back his voters with a touch of charm.

Despite the Gallery’s non-partisan flavour of liberalism, it can still be a fair arbiter of Harper’s elite-hating Western populism, at least most of the time.

At the very least, it would be nice if released his locked-down ministers, like Peter MacKay, who has been refusing every one of my interview requests for the past seven months.

My breath is not held.


Other articles by Justin Ling

It’s time for the Toronto Star to get back to journalism
Green With Fundraising Envy
Flaherty’s Last Act

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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