The “Harper Model” of media relations

Journalists are integral to our democracy. They keep an eye on those in power, and ensure that they aren’t misbehaving. But Mr. Harper has been rather uncooperative with the media in this regard. In 2008, a group of jurists and academics came out to denounce the “Harper model” of refusing to speak to journalists.

For instance:

  • Since 2006, Minority Prime Minister Harper requires registration for journalists who want to ask the PM a question. That way Mr. Harper’s press attaché can easily decide who gets chosen to ask the PM questions, and who doesn’t. Is Mr. Harper afraid he can’t handle the tough questions?
  • Ministers now seldom make themselves available to appear no radio and television shows, preferring their scripted responses and press releases.
  • Mr. Harper in fact obliges all ministries and federal agencies to submit all requests for interviews to the Office of the Privy Council (OPC). This OPC now has new powers to decide which interviews will be granted – or denied. Even if they’re granted, the OPC also gets a say on the content of the interview itself. The situation is an inversion of the principle that the public has a right to know the dealings of its employees, including the Prime Minister.
  • Ministers in the current government announce major public policy decisions outside of Ottawa, which allows them to deliver important information for all Canadians to journalists who are unaccustomed to researching and reporting on federal politics, and again avoids our media’s critical eye.
  • The government has taken to making announcements via social media like Twitter, which conveniently avoids making the announcements to inquisitive journalists.
  • Mr. Harper also tries to control all government statements through “Message Event Proposals” (MEPs). These MEPs are in fact directives for the statements that every ambassador, diplomat, and “chargée de mission” now has to make when any journalist asks them any question, anywhere in the world. The MEPs are conceived by the Privy Council Office, which is controlled by Stephen Harper. They ensure that no one gives away any information that might subject the government’s policies to serious public scrutiny.

In June 2010, representatives of Canada’s main journalism associations published a letter in Le Devoir, denouncing the facts that:

  • The PM himself has been choosing what information is made accessible to the press and what will be kept secret from Canadians by their own government.
  • Journalists are being barred from more and more public events, without providing any just cause, thus preventing them from doing their job of holding the PM and his government to account. Instead, the PM now has highly edited photo and video communiqués sent off to the press rooms of the country.
  • Civil servants no longer have the right to speak to journalists.
  • Stephen Harper’s government has created a labyrinth of delays and refusals designed to make the entire system of access to information in this country exceedingly difficult for both journalists and the public.