Conservatives spar with media
Oct 19, 2013 / 8:16 am
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative caucus members are back at work in Ottawa and spoiling, it seems, for a fight — and not just with their traditional House of Commons rivals.
These days, while Liberal and NDP members of Parliament are sporting their share of political shiners, so too are the journalists who cover them.
Sparring between the Prime Minister's Office and the Parliamentary Press Gallery is hardly new. But the gloves came off on Wednesday when a dispute over access to a government caucus meeting turned into a Conservative fundraising pitch.
Most of the media gallery refused to show up for Harper's speech to caucus members on Wednesday when his office insisted on allowing only photographers and TV cameras to attend — no reporters.
Before the day was out, the Conservatives were using the dispute to raise money — a fundraising letter accused the "Ottawa media elite" of sinking to a "new low" — in hopes of turning Canada's love-hate relationship with its journalists to the party's political benefit.
In closing the door to reporters, the Prime Minister's Office was surely mindful of the last time it invited the media to a caucus meeting — this one at the height of the controversy surrounding Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and his $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy.
On that day last May, reporters shouted questions at Harper as he entered the room and took the podium, demanding to know more about why Wright — who resigned his post just days earlier — had paid off the embattled senator.
So when reporters were barred from Wednesday's caucus meeting, television, radio and print outlets - with the exception of Sun Media - refused to cover the speech, insisting their journalists be allowed in rather than having to rely on the PMO's own transcripts.
"It's about reporters being able to do their jobs," said Daniel Thibeault, president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. "You need to see people. You need to see the reaction, the body language .... and in the past, it's never been an issue."
The Conservatives also took issue with the fact some journalists opted to accept an NDP invitation to sit in on New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair's caucus speech, taking place across the hall.
"You won't believe what the Press Gallery just did in Ottawa," Fred DeLorey, the Conservative party's director of political operations, said in his fundraising email.
"Rather than send cameras to cover the prime minister's speech, they attended the NDP's meeting, and were welcomed with cheers and applause. We knew they wouldn't give us fair coverage — but this is a new low for the Ottawa media elite."
A Harper spokesman later insisted "various media organizations were invited to attend to capture the prime minister's speech, but chose not to."
Just as it did prior to a cabinet shuffle earlier this year, the Prime Minister's Office turned to Twitter, tweeting snippets of Harper's speech. That enabled reporters to learn and report the details, but didn't mute complaints about what they consider a filter-free end-run around the mainstream media.
The dispute comes on the heels of a major personnel change within the PMO's media-relations arm. Jason MacDonald, Harper's new director of communications, took over last month from Andrew MacDougall, who was widely viewed as being among the more gallery-friendly officials in Harper's inner circle.
Conservatives have long tried to get around the Ottawa press corps, often by reaching out to regional and ethnic media organizations, because they view the mainstream media as hostile to their message, said Harold Jansen, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.
"There's nothing terribly surprising about the throne speech fight — it's just more of the same," Jansen said.
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