Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jeffrey Simpson on Harper's hatred of the media

For the second time in a week, a leading Globe columnist has taken on Harper's inaccessibility to media and the PMO's stranglehold on all communications emanating from the government. The media are on the front lines trying to do their jobs and the PMO is frustrating them at all turns. As Simpson points out, Harper and Sandra Buckler et al. have no doubt bet on the notion that the public don't care about any of this. That they're happy to have shiny bait dangled on a hook in front of their faces from time to time, witness the imminent announcement of a GST cut. But the little problem with their gambit is that the media are getting angry. In the last few days, there have been reports about blacked out portions of documents released after lengthy delays in the Access to Information process on our mysterious involvement in Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. The CBC, CP and the Globe have all reported on the delays this government has caused to the release of information. And columnists are devoting their precious platforms to the issue now. That's what it takes for a story line to take root and cement the perception that the Conservatives do indeed have something to hide. Because it appears that they actually intend to hide everything that they possibly can.

Here are some excerpts from Simpson's column, starting off with his view on Harper's not attending the press gallery dinner:
In the great scheme of things, the Conservative absence didn't matter, except as part of an unprecedented pattern of hostility by the government toward the media, restricting access to anything but Prime Minister's Office-approved information, stage-managing events, muzzling civil servants, and trying to control the public agenda - as in the decision, suddenly announced yesterday, to have Finance Minister Jim Flaherty deliver today the economic update to try, in part, to upstage the Auditor-General's report.

Some of what Canadians now observe in Ottawa has been seen before under premiers such as Ralph Klein and Mike Harris. It's also the George Bush style of media management in Washington, as it was Tony Blair's in London.

Centralized media messaging. Spin control. Prime ministerial government. These are all old verities of modern government. So there is nothing new about the Harper government using these strategies.

But never in Canada have these approaches been carried to such extremes, backed by such overt hostility toward the media, a hostility the Conservatives are certain, perhaps correctly, that the public cares nothing about and might even welcome.

Responses to Access to Information requests are slowing down, as reported last week by The Globe and Mail. Ministers are not allowed to speak without their remarks being vetted by the PMO. Civil servants have been told to refer all calls to the PMO, a rule sometimes honoured in the breach.

Cabinet meetings are no longer announced, so journalists cannot question ministers outside. Journalists are removed from a hotel where the Conservative caucus is meeting. Only journalists who agree to place their names on a list controlled by a prime ministerial aide can ask the Prime Minister questions. Briefings on substantive policy issues have all but evaporated.

All the brave talk while the Conservatives were in opposition about encouraging whistle-blowing and candour has disappeared into a strategy of minimizing dissent and controlling all information.

The Prime Minister travels in a kind of public relations cocoon, with manufactured backdrops and photo ops, teleprompters, and ministers and MPs reduced to nodding for the cameras. The only thing missing from these set pieces are flesh-and-blood people, except as props.
You know what this calls for, don't you...