At the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, I recall a strong feeling of shame as I waited for then-Prime minister Stephen Harper and former President Barack Obama to emerge from a meeting.
I was the designated pool reporter with The Canadian Press, killing time with my Associated Press counterpart. I sheepishly admitted that reporters were forbidden from asking the prime minister an unscheduled question at an official event — on pain of being barred from future events.
“Why the hell would you put up with that?” was the general reaction from my American colleague, suggesting that the Washington press corps would never accept such restrictions on speech.
When the two men walked past us, I shot a question at Obama rather than my own prime minister, which the president answered.
Six years, one prime minister and a president later, it seems American journalists will be asked to put up with a lot of things.
It’s not an overstatement to say the first few months of the Harper administration in 2006 were traumatic for the press gallery.
Scholars Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch talk about the “role relationship” between the media and government, and the traditional expectations of behavior each side has of the other. Periods of adversarialism and outrage arise when the role expectations are dashed.
In Ottawa, journalists went from weekly access to cabinet ministers, unfettered “scrums” of leading parliamentarians and frequent background briefings to nearly nothing. The flow of information was throttled. On one trip to Vietnam, we turned to Chinese officials for information about a meeting between their president and our own prime minister.
In his nearly decade in power, Harper only used the National Press Theatre (the equivalent to the White House briefing room), seven times — and none between 2010-15. Harper’s people also thwarted the “first-come-first-served” tradition for reporters posing questions, instead requiring journalists to submit names in advance. This allowed Harper’s office to pick who addressed him.
One image — that of the prime minister’s staff erecting stanchions on the tundra to keep a handful of journalists away from him — summed up the attitude towards reporters quite well.
And then there was the odious ban on questions at photo ops. Reporters were threatened with being banned from future events if they dared to shoot a question at the prime minister at activities designated as “photo opportunities.” At one point, Harper’s office attempted to bar a TV cameraman from traveling with the prime minister overseas because he had dared ask a question at a previous event. They blinked when the TV network threatened not to go at all.
So, what was the impact of this, over nearly 10 years?
The bad news first.
The constant hostility towards the media was a morale killer. Sure, you sign up for a healthy amount of confrontation as a political reporter — and even relish it sometimes — but you get weary of fighting for even small bits of information.
Without access, journalists become more suspicious, less trusting overall of the meager information that does come out. Every little misstep of the politician in power becomes amplified. Gotcha journalism comes with this territory.
Reporting becomes much more black and white, in a world that desperately needs more nuance. The damage that was done to the division of public and partisan inside the Canadian government will probably never be undone. We will never get back the era where bureaucrats will have unscripted conversations on the phone or quickly send along basic information without having it dressed up in talking points first.
With a prime minister who had such antipathy towards journalists and their profession, no serious policy discussions took place over a decade about the withering away of the industry and the impact that would have on a sense of common purpose and national identity in the long term.
The good news is that national reporters arguably became much more skilled over the Harper years.
With so few scheduled opportunities to talk to Harper and his ministers, members of the national media became experts in dealing with documents, either public ones or through access to information (our version of freedom of information). Media requests for records went up 210 percent between 2003 and 2013.
Montreal’s La Presse newspaper hired a person at the capital whose job was to file document requests. Reporters turned increasingly to other sources, the kind that the administration couldn’t control — lobbyists, academics, foreign governments, provincial governments and so on.
In that way, the conservatives deeply misunderstood what makes journalists tick. Journalists like things that are new, they’re deeply curious, they like to poke around in dark corners, they like to challenge authority and they really like a scoop.
If you don’t give them a news conference, they’ll find something else to do. Chances are, the politicians won’t like the result very much. One of the contributing factors to the decline of the conservative government was a spending scandal uncovered by enterprising journalists.
Reflecting on our experience here in Canada, it would have been good for the major news organizations to collectively explain to the public, perhaps through a national advertising blitz, why independent and well-funded journalism is critical to democracy.
And the news media could have been more courageous about skipping the leader’s agenda from time to time. If there isn’t going to be any access, why bother going on that trip overseas? Scarce journalistic resources can be used elsewhere, as others have noted.
I always hoped the parliamentary press gallery would show more solidarity and reject edicts that limited journalists from asking questions in any context. There were a few walkouts and plenty of letters and meetings over the years.
And yet, as soon as one or two media outlets show a willingness to bend their principles, it’s very difficult for the others to reconcile themselves with any perceived competitive disadvantage. This was true even here, where the press gallery has the advantage of being an autonomous organization that controls its membership and thus access to the parliamentary precinct and the National Press Theatre.
The far more realistic and effective long-term strategy is to keep the quality of the journalism strong, with the public interest the driving force behind the work. Wobbly ethics and accuracy only hands the government more ammunition, allowing his or her team to dismiss the serious questions raised by journalists.
I worked for an organization that stood its ground on most principles — The Canadian Press would not agree to have its reporters submit to a government-vetted list of questioners during news conferences. It would not agree to restrictions during interviews, either on the nature of questions or who the questioner would be. Harper did not agree to an interview with the nearly 100-year-old national wire service for eight years. The Canadian Press focused on investigations and in-depth reporting in the meantime and kept its integrity intact.
In the spirit of solidarity with American colleagues, let me offer this French expression — il ne faut pas baisser les bras — don’t let up. You were there before he arrived, and you’ll be there after, too.
Jennifer Ditchburn is the editor-in-chief of Policy Options, a digital magazine published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy. For two decades, she covered Parliament Hill for The Canadian Press and for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). She is the co-editor of The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy.