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Media Avoidance by the Harper Government
By Canadians Defending Democracy, 14 February 2011
The desire to control communications and the flow of information to media is not a new objective of the Harper administration. This was clear almost immediately after Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in February, 2006, and it was emphasized on March 27, 2006 when security barred photographers from taking pictures outside of the Prime Minister’s Ottawa office.
Mr. Harper’s director of communications at that time, Sandra Buckler, said, “I don't think the average Canadian cares as long as they know their government is being well run.” This cavalier attitude toward media access appears to be a good summary of the current government’s media relations policy.
Shortly after taking office, Mr. Harper also stopped the practice of releasing the schedule for cabinet meetings, in order to shield his cabinet ministers from questions by reporters. According to a CTV News article :
"Emmanuelle Latraverse, a Radio-Canada reporter and president of the press gallery, said the PMO is attempting to claw back access rights that have taken years to win. "It's a privilege to govern and our duty as the press in a free society is to pick and choose the issues that we cover,'' she said. "By restricting access to cabinet ministers, it amounts to restricting the issues that we can cover properly."
Furthermore, Mr. Harper has instituted a set of rules for his own press conferences that severely limits the number of questions that media can ask. Members of the press are, in effect, forced to decide amongst themselves which questions they will ask. This system leads to situations such as this one in August, 2010: Mr. Harper had not taken questions for thirty days, and the media were eager to ask questions. They were told that collectively they were allowed four questions – two in English and two in French. The journalists were forced to agree on only two questions per official language. For some reason, one of the two questions that the English-language journalists collectively decided was most important to ask didn’t get chosen. Clearly this style of media “management” limits the ability of journalists to provide Canadians with information that the journalists think is important for Canadians to know.
The Harper Government's control of the media also includes interfering with the media’s Access to Information requests. There is much evidence to support this claim of centralized communication control in various reports from the media and other organizations (see the links below).
In the past, the Information Commissioner has expressed serious concerns over the Harper Government's tight control over Access to Information Requests by the media. Mr. Harper has achieved this control by allowing endless delays in releasing documents and, when the documents are finally released, they often have been so heavily redacted as to render them useless.
A perfect example of this behaviour is when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was forced through an Access to Information request to release the calculations he used to determine the tax leakage that was the basis for changing the tax status of income trusts. The massive redaction of that document rendered it virtually meaningless. As an excuse for these redactions, Flaherty said it was a matter of national security.
Other illustrations of this behaviour are the refusal to release the Afghan detainee documents and, more recently, the redacting of 30 pages from a document of 60 pages on the funding of the Quebec City Arena that was obtained through an Access of Information request.
American-Style Press Conferences
At one time in Canada every reporter had the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister any question he or she liked, time permitting. Mr. Harper has now introduced American-style press conferences, in which every aspect of the press conference is controlled by Mr. Harper's handlers.
In Canada, reporters are required by the Charter to report on only what they know. Thus, limiting access to the Prime Minister severely restricts what reporters can report on. Writing for the Centre for Constitutional Studies, Graham Darling said, “The press as an institution is sometimes called the fourth estate, the other three being the legislative, judicial and administrative levels of government. The press is viewed this way because of its unofficial, yet important role in supervising the different levels of government and reporting to the public. To properly perform this role, freedom of expression, including freedom of the press is protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This protection means that the government cannot place restrictions on what the press can publish unless the restrictions can be justified under section 1 of the Charter....“To properly inform the public and hold the government accountable, journalists must know what the government is, or is not doing. Mr. Harper is criticized for his government’s lack of open communication with journalists, and for his interference with their constitutionally protected right to report to the public.”
Mr. Harper’s restrictions on the ability of the media to ask questions of the leader of the Government is an assault on Canadians’ constitutionally protected right to information about what their government is doing.
The final point that must be made is about Mr. Harper's apparent attitude toward the CBC, particularly CBC radio, which offers many broadcasts that deal with political issues. Many of these programs include interactive discussion on a number of relevant topics of the day. In this format, shows like Cross Country Checkup, The House, As it Happens, and others discuss current issues in a way that goes far beyond the political parties’ scripted talking points.
Members of the Harper Government are not fans of the CBC. One of the best ways to control the CBC is by limiting or even eliminating its funding. Dean Del Mastro hinted at this idea on November 23, 2010. Others in the Harper Government share this attitude toward the CBC. For example, a direct quote from Jason Kenny, the Minister of Immigration, on February 15, 2011 highlights the Harper Government’s opinion of the CBC. According to Mr. Kenny, “the CBC lies all the time”.
The CBC is a crown corporation that answers to Parliament and operates at arm’s length from the government of the day. Its mandate is to represent the diverse opinions of all Canadians. Control or elimination of the CBC would reduce the access that Canadians have to a diversity of viewpoints.
What the Journalists have to say about this
In 2010, the Canadian Association of Journalists wrote “An open letter to Canadian Journalists” about the sorry state of access to information under the Harper government, and why that matters to Canadians. This letter is well worth reading.
An informed electorate is fundamental to democracy. The press has a critical role to play in ensuring that the electorate is informed and can, therefore, effectively and rationally evaluate the performance of its elected representatives. The Harper Government’s hindering of the news media’s ability to do its job hinders the electorate’s ability to make informed democratic choices.