Tyler Dawson is an Ottawa journalist. His writing has appeared in in the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post, and Vice News.
Any look back on the Stephen Harper years would be incomplete without an attempt to understand his remarkable campaign of information control. In fact, other political parties now looking to emulate the electoral success of the Harper-led Conservatives will find it difficult to ignore the advantages of non-stop spin, tightly controlled messaging, and limited media access.
That’s a problem.
Each day after work, journalists on Parliament Hill can be found in pubs griping over the blatant changes in work practices that they butt up against daily. A simple interview with a Member of Parliament is now an ordeal, for example. Despite being indisputably asinine and downright embarrassing to the speaker, politicians, particularly Conservatives, have been trained to read from their talking points, come hell or high water. No Tory Member of Parliament is likely to speak to a reporter without a red pen from the Prime Minister’s Office having dangled over the text. Staying on message has become a central tenet of Harper’s governance strategy.
In the past century and a half there have been many Prime Ministers who’ve loathed the press. That’s nothing new. But there have been fundamental changes to the relationship between the Parliamentary Press Gallery and Stephen Harper. As journalist Mark Bourrie writes in his recent book Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, Harper moved swiftly to change the way reporters ask questions, doing away with the first-come, first-served system. Now the Prime Minister chooses who gets to speak. Harper also moves more or less secretly around Parliament Hill, surrounded by his goons. The control extends beyond the confines of the Hill: when on the road with the Prime Minister, even bathroom access has been restricted by police.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Ottawa earlier this year, reporters got to ask two questions.
Two. In total.
Journalists from different organizations — television, national newspapers, wire services, and tabloids — had to get together before the conference to agree on the questions. This is not the way journalists get good answers to questions that Canadians care about, but it is the way Harper runs the show.
At the Merkel event, a question was asked about Eve Adams, who had just crossed the floor to join the Liberal party. Does anyone outside of Ottawa and Toronto care about this? Not likely. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask about foreign policy, given the circumstances?The restriction on media access has the side effect of producing news that’s less and less relevant to the majority of Canadians.
In 2013, a CTV cameraman was nearly barred from covering one of Harper’s trips after daring to ask questions when reporters were told none were allowed. The Gallery boycotted one of the Prime Minister’s events because no journalists, only cameras, were allowed in. The Gallery then resolved that reporters would ask questions whenever they pleased. Of course, that hasn’t meant the Prime Minister bothers to answer.
Behind the scenes of the federal government, Bourrie says there is an army of more than 3,000 media relations personnel working to craft talking points and stonewall journalists. It is hardly irregular for a journalist to ask a specific question, and set a deadline, only to receive a non-answer well after the paper has gone to press. Not only that, but the officials who are useful to speak to — government scientists, for example — have been gagged.
Harper and his Conservative party have also benefited from arriving in power at the same time that a profound financial crisis hit the traditional media industry. Advertising revenue plummeted, websites such as Kijiji and Craigslist scooped up paying classifieds customers, and the Internet, which offers few real options for the media to actually make money, began to capture the attention of those who otherwise would’ve been reading newspapers or watching the evening newscast. All this means that, over the last decade and a half, newsrooms have been gutted. Today, there are far fewer journalists chasing stories. In turn, this makes it easier for the government to avoid journalists and their nagging questions.
Harper has even attempted to bypass traditional media completely. He started up 24 SEVEN, a slick-but-comical YouTube recap of his week. Nobody watches it. It could be funny, if it weren’t so cynically motivated.
As Election 2015 approaches, where does this leave us?
Well, dear reader, it leaves you less informed. Harper’s information machine is not just shoptalk among journalists, even if it sounds like it sometimes. It leaves you with less information about the bad stuff government does, and the good stuff, too. It means that instead of reporting on policy and issues, newspapers end up printing mudslinging talking points. In recent months, there has been some pushback against the government: some reporters no longer print quotes sent by email. Instead, they say the government responded with boilerplate and refused interviews.
Fundamentally, in an election year, when reporters are likely to deal with extremely restricted access to politicians on the campaign trail — and god bless the local reporters who don’t give a damn about access and decorum and scorn the rules set out by haughty communications staffers — there will be fewer answers for voters.
But it may just be that not answering questions and not informing the public is a good way to win an election — this way, there aren’t any screw-ups. While far more accessible than Conservatives, opposition parties are not always keen to speak to journalists, either. For example, when the satellite offices scandal broke, The New Democratic Party responded to the crisis by creating barriers that restricted journalists.
Unfortunately, for journalists and Canadians, nobody in Ottawa really believes that this communications strategy will change, because it basically works, regardless of which party forms the next government.
The fundamental alteration of political communications will resonate for years after Stephen Harper leaves 24 Sussex behind.