Harper gets questions. Two of them. Here's how they were picked.

Last night at about 7:30 pm on Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a statement to reporters and then allowed us to ask a couple of questions.

The PMO restricted the Canadian reporters present — about 15 of us — to a total of two questions, one of which would be put to him in French and one in English. No follow-ups. For years now, this has been the standard operating procedure for “media avails” when this PM hosts a foreign leader. Two questions. No followups.

Though there are 300+ journalists accredited to the Parliamentary Press Gallery and Prime Minister Stephen Harper spends the majority of his working month on Parliament Hill, these are the only chances reporters get to ask the PM questions. While he takes questions from reporters when he travels outside the nation’s capital, he has not had a press conference with the Parliamentary Press Gallery where he has taken more than two questions from reporters since early December 2012 when Canada approved the sale of Nexen to a Chinese state-owned company. Because of the size and significance of that deal, that press conference was almost entirely about the deal. (He regularly holds press conferences outside the national capital with regional media where he’ll take five or six questions and if members of the press gallery travel overseas, at their own expense, he does “media avails” of more than two questions then.)

In any event, at every one of these press conferences, reporters choose a) what the question will be  and b) who will ask the questions. The PMO has no role in either a) or b) and the PMO is only told ahead of time who is asking the questions but never told what is being asked.

By contrast, a press conference was given earlier in the day in the National Press Theatre. For press conferences there (this one happened to be the Justin Trudeau-Eve Adams presser but the following applies for any one from any party in the NPT), each reporter decides to ask whatever they want, another member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery picks each questioner (usually on a first-come, first basis after seeing people put their hands up), each questioner is usually permitted one question and one follow-up (though CBC’s Julie Van Dusen is notorious for one question and seven follow-ups), and instead of a limit based on the number of questions, the limit is a time limit usually, 30 minutes. So we get as many questions as we can squeeze into 30 minutes. Sometimes a reporter leaves without getting his or her question answered but there is no “consensus” questions and, I don’t think I’m spilling any beans to say, the press gallery much prefers this way of doing things. Our promise here to politicians is: You give us 30 minutes and we will run an orderly press conference in which we choose the questions and questioners but the answers are all up to you.

The Harper PMO has long chosen to go a different route. So: Given the parameters dictated to us by the PMO, the reporters present for the Merkel-Harper media avail all agreed one question should be on Ukraine and one on the Eve Adams defection. There is often disagreement among some reporters when we do this choosing-by-consensus approach but I was not aware of any dissent last night and I supported the choice of both topics. (I don’t always.) Having decided on the topics, we worked out ways to ask a question on each topic. We had a lively discussion about the best kind of question to ask on each topic in order to get the best kind of response from the PM. And when I say “best” kind of response, we mean one in which we hope the prime minister will not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no” or dismiss the question but one which will encourage him to consider a full answer that is

frank, from the heart, and, we hope, provides a pithy quote.

In this case, as I had suggested part of the formulation of the Adams question, the group agreed that I would put the Adams question to him and Manon Globensky of Radio-Canada would put the Ukraine question to him. We informed the PMO that they were to call on Akin and Globensky. They did so in that order.

Reaction on my social networks to my question was decidedly mixed:

Typical of the angry responder:

  Typical of the “well-done” view ..

And, indeed, he did not want to say anything about the Dimitri Soudas defection. (See transcript below).
Here’s a press gallery member jumping in with an important point:

Here’s the transcript of my Adams question:

AKIN: Prime Minister, Chancellor, good evening. Sorry, Chancellor, a domestic politics question for the Prime Minister first, if you wouldn’t mind. A bit of a party matter. Prime Minister, we’re wondering why you wouldn’t go to bat for Eve Adams as she struggled to find a riding to run in. And on the flip side, we understand Dimitri Soudas, who of course we all know was pretty much inseparable from you for a decade, helping you in your political success, do you feel betrayed by the fact that he’s now going to campaign against your government? And are you worried he may betray more secret information to the Liberals?

HARPER: Well, look, on the first subject, I’ll just say this. I think the situation’s very simple. The National Council of our party is responsible for an honest, clean nomination process. It informed MP Adams some 10 days ago that she could not be a candidate for the party, for reasons that I think everybody understands. And  that’s obviously the reality of the situation, and that’s the sole reason we obviously have the development we have today.

Pour le répéter, c’est le Conseil national du parti qui est responsable pour le processus d’investiture, un processus qui est démocratique et propre et ce qu’on s’est informé la députée Adams qu’elle ne sera pas candidate pour notre parti, pour des raisons bien connues par tout le monde. Et c’est une décision nécessaire et je n’ai pas aucun autre commentaire. Mais évidemment c’est la seule raison pour les développements aujourd’hui.

I’ve written a lot about the ‘sausage-making’ that goes into asking the PM question. You may wish to review:


27 thoughts on “Harper gets questions. Two of them. Here's how they were picked.”

  1. I can count the number of journalist from whom I can expect objectivity on one hand, of which you are one David. That said, I can understand the PM’s general disdain for members of your trade given the vultures that propagate the parliamentary press gallery. Don’t you think 300 accredited hacks is a bit much? Like you, I am not a member of any political party and have voted for all three at one time or another over the years.

    1. 300? For radio, tv, web, print — regional, national — business press, agriculture press — left-leaners, right-leaners — foreign press — English, French, Russian and Mandarin? Nope. 300+ seems a healthy number.

  2. The first question should be
    Why is the Prime Minister of Canada limiting
    reporter’s questions ?

    Second could be the same in French

    Then put this on TV every time he has a phony
    Press Conference.

    When the media accepts this charade they lose credibility

    1. Not a popular idea for the press but it certainly works for him. Doesn’t seem to be affecting him or his party adversely other than a few gripes from the press gallery. And besides, most people outside of the Ottawa sphere are not aware and wouldn’t care anyhow.

  3. It doesn’t seem to matter what questions are asked as Harper has no intention of answering. What would happen if the press directed all their questions to Merkel and completely ignored Harper? If he tries to restrict your questions to Merkel, tell him he is no better than any other head of a fascist regime.

  4. It would be much more effective if, instead if agreeing on two questions, you all agreed not to show up at all. Ever. Make that the news. Even for foreign leaders. Playing the charade means he wins, every time.

  5. Harpers handlers know that he isn’t smart enough to answer more than two questions a day without embarrassment.

  6. The media brought this on themselves. They played gotcha journalism for decades to the point where politicians in power have everything to lose and nothing to gain from answering questions. Anybody remember the fuss they made about fit, sporty Stockwell Day riding up on a jetski? Want to bet what the reaction would have been if Trudeau did it? Trudeau can do no wrong now, but the press will turn on him in a flash and mark my words his behaviour will change.

    No wonder politicians feel they need to “control the message”. Conservative politicians have good reason to be even more paranoid because they really are out to get them. Even question period has become a mokery of what it should be because all anyone cares about is getting a three second soundbite or not being on the end of someone else’s three second soundbite. Until journalism starts to do more in depth and balanced reporting truly capturing the essence of the subject under debate, count on politicians to only use journalists to get the exact message they want (or to bypass them and go to the people directly).

    1. And yet the fundamental principle of a democracy is that political choices are made by an informed public. The public relies on a free press to provide that information. Too many reporters and media elites are simply serving as government and corporate shills. We need a much more aggressive press in Canada, we won’t get much from the mortgage holders and favor curriers we see now.

  7. Why does the Parliamentary Press Gallery accept such behaviour? Is there no way to fight back against this gallingly unaccountable and seemingly impervious policy?

    I wonder how many Canadians know that their Prime Minister does this. I think most would call it undemocratic.

  8. I can’t believe that journalists would think that talking about Eve Adams is more important in front of Merkel than Ukraine, Russia, Greece, or even Canadian issues. All I can think of is that it was an attempt to embarrass the PM in front of a foreign dignitary. And you wonder why he doesn’t talk to you often.

  9. Perhaps if journalists asked questions pertinent to the topic then the PMO wouldn’t have to restrict journalists to two questions. I mean, here is the leader of Germany in Ottawa to strategize/gain support for what’s going on in the Ukraine and the first question from the media is Eve Adams defecting to the Liberals! Really?! You might as well have thumbed your nose at Merkel, why waste her time? Do you think she came to Canada to hear about a distraught MP who’s leaving the party clearly because she didn’t get her own way. As a Canadian, I was embarrassed and if I were Harper I would’ve apologized to Merkel. What’s going on in the Ukraine is more important than Adams soap opera!

  10. Justifying your question by saying you’re just playing along with these phony press conferences is a poor excuse.

    The real question is for you and the press gallery: why do you accept to participate in these phony press conferences?

  11. I wonder how your German colleagues reacted to that question last night? Surely they thought Canadian journalists were a narrow-minded bunch ignoring life-and-death matters. While I hear your point, David, many of us remember when the Parliamentary Press Gallery effectively declared themselves the opposition to the government in 2006. None of us are losing any sleep that Harper doesn’t invite Glen McGregor, Stephen Maher, and the UFO-hunting club over for dinner.

    I’m reminded of Hannah Thibedeau’s interview of PM Harper with Melinda Gates. That was perhaps the lowest moment in modern Canadian journalism. It was a hack job, a pathetic attempt to take away from a monumental global achievement for maternal health and reduce it to a juvenile, ideological drive by smear. Melinda Gates was obviously plainly disgusted by the Canadian media’s attempts to play petty politics, wasting her time rather than discuss an enormous achievement.

    Albeit to a much lesser extent (Thibeau’s interview should be a case study, an example of the worst moments in Canadian journalism), the Parliamentary Press Gallery repeated that mistake last night with the German Chancellor.

    You’re a straight shooter and a fair guy. But take a look around, David. Ottawa is filled with anti-Conservative zealots who think Eve Adams telling a shameless lie is more important than a million displaced Ukrainians from Russian aggression. A million people displaced, thousands dead, and world leaders engaged in serious crisis talks. But, yes, some woman nobody has heard of told a shameless lie next to a twerp who was too dumb to notice he’s a rebound grab moments after ‘last call.’

    You didn’t just waste Angela Merkel’s time. You told a million Ukrainians that nobody cares Russia has chased them from their homes because the world needs to know what Harper thinks about … what was her name again? Ya know, umm. The girl who thinks makeup is an election expense.

    If Harper wasn’t dragged into this ‘who kissed who behind the school’ stuff every time he talks to you folks, maybe you’d get that dinner invite. Just leave McGregor, Maher, Thibedeau, and their UFO hunters behind.

  12. The PM answers questions directed to the visiting dignitary as well, doesn’t he? It seems to me that he answers more than two questions. And he answers in a complete and fulsome manner, not like some of his predecessors.

  13. Is Harper scared of the Canadian press or is that he just doesn’t care? I know he’s a control freak but the fact that he will take questions internationally has implications beyond a sour relationship with the Parliamentary Press Gallery. His arrogant persona is such that his every move is met with skepticism and cynicism. My sense is that he doesn’t care what the media thinks and sees people such as Adams and Soudas as just so much detritus in his way. I’ll be glad to see him go but don’t see an alternative. Mulcair may have potential at some point. Trudeau is like a Mexican river.

  14. To all those above who wonder why we are asking a domestic question in front of a foreign dignitary, I ask you:

    Why does Steve Harper go abroad, usually to New York City, and make domestic policy announcements in front of business audiences?

    (A: he is answering to his true masters.)

  15. David,

    With such few questions allowed- a tactic any freedom loving citizen should abhor- is there any way to ask why during the Ottawa attacks of 2014 there was already a heightened state of security ongoing, specifically, the DND’s Operation: Determined Dragon? http://bit.ly/1Bpn2pb
    It was run in concert with the RCMP, American NORAD reps, and Ottawa police knew as well. It’s odd no one said- ‘Oh- these Ottawa and Hull attacks all occurred with known suspects, during the week we were very much focused on preventing the very same event that occurred.’
    Zero mention of this on the news from what I saw. Sad to know Justin’s team is okay with the new unchecked security act, with its origins on such shaky ground. It reminds me of Congress approving the Patriot Act w/o reading it.

    Anyway, thanks for what you do.


  16. Love how the Harper supporters blame MSM for his shortcomings, unless the question doesn’t praise Harper they think their out to get him

  17. It is the job of the press to hold the government to account. This is after all a government hat needs to be sued to release information that Canadians have every right to know. I can not remember in my time on this planet a time when a Canadian government acted with such secrecy! There is no barely any debate in parliament and reporters are allowed two questions. This is not a functioning democracy!

  18. Thanks for posting Tom…..I’ve always believed by the way PMO behaves, that he doesn’t want Canadians to be informed…divide and concur…the less we know or have the opportunity to discuss about anything the governerment knows or plans to do, the better for him (he believes) we’ll see!

  19. Canadians should know that Mrs Mary Robinson former President of Ireland, later as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, read before the 1999 UN Annual General Assembly in New York, that the arbitrary denial of equal access to all journalists in Canada to the publicly funded facilities and services of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa is in violation of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, known around the world, as Article 19, and to stop this practice.
    So serious is this violation of freedom of expression by the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery Inc. to democracy that it is included in “Selected Decisions of the Human Rights Committee,” placing Canada right up there with those countries that violate the fundamental rights of their citizens:
    p. 158, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/SDecisionsVol6en.pdf

    In Canada, a few people (and their employers) have gained virtual monopoly control over the public media with the result that the free flow of misinformation unverified.
    There are other ways to silence journalists in Canada besides bullets. Some 400 privileged members of the publicly funded monopoly Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery Inc., are hardly in any “holier-than-thou” position to fault the Prime Minister over violations of freedom of expression in Canada.

    I salute PM Harper for protecting the accuracy of his presentation in Richmond Hill and avoiding the usual garbled reporting on such an important matter by the herd mentality of most of the accredited “journalists” in the monopoly/cartel Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery Inc. (Full text of UN Human Rights Committee is also posted at the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, the largest human rights library in the world, Case 633/1995)

    Thank you,

    Robert G. Sheehan-Gauthier, Proprietor/Publisher,
    The National Capital News Canada – Le journal de la capitale canadienne, est. 1982,
    Ottawa, Ontario K2P 2G6

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