For the record:
Members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery hit the road this week to travel, at their own expense, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he made his first appearance at the influential World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
We left on Tuesday evening (Ottawa time) and arrived in Davos mid-day on Wednesday (I’m counting that as night 1). Towards the end of that day, at the end of a photo opp with Zimbabwe prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the PMO allotted the assembled press one question in English and one in French. As is the normal practice for reporters travelling with the PM, we huddled and decided we needed one question on global financial system reform (FSR) and one question on Harper’s stated goal of getting the G8 to focus on maternal and child health health. We selected Heather Scoffield of The Canadian Press to pop the FSR question (she had been, until last year, the Globe and Mail’s ace-in-the-hole reporter for coverage of central banks and financial system reform) and we agreed CBC television’s Terry Milewski would query Harper on his perhaps admirable but rather vague ideas about focusing the G8 on maternal and child health during Canada’s year of being the G8 President.
And that was it for any questions from Canadian reporters travelling with Harper. Two questions.
The next day, Harper did a photo opp with former U.S. President Bill Clinton. We had been warned by Harper’s aides that we could not ask Harper a question at this photo opp. If you are a Harper supporter, you likely think this a perfectly reasonable prohibition. If you are a Harper opponent, you likely think we are lapdogs for caving to such a demand.
Fair enough. I don’t think we can win on this one either way.
But for what it’s worth, our readers and viewers, of course, include both Harper’s supporters and his detractors and reporters must remember that we write for all of them.
Harper’s detractors may think we should just give the metaphorical finger to such directives from the PMO but, at one photo opp while we were here, a reporter who did just that and asked a question at a photo opp, despite warnings not to, was immediately warned that, if she continued, reporters would no longer be allowed to attend such photo opps. That would not be good for our access would be curtailed even further. PMO staff also made veiled threats that that individual’s organization might suffer further sanction — all because of the impertinence of asking a question. If you are a media organization in Ottawa, these are no small consquences. If the PMO doesn’t like you, you can bet that every cabinet minister is going to give you the cold shoulder, too. I know, I know: Those who hate Harper say, tough! Ask away and bring on the consequences! Well, … maybe: But if we did yell at him and disrupt his schedule and annoy his rather large RCMP bodyguards, what would we get for our trouble? Do you think he — or any public figure accosted this way — would say anything? Would you in the same situation if someone was yelling questions at you? I don’t care if you’re Judy Rebick, Stephen Harper, or Bobby Orr: If a TV crew starts chasing you with a reporter yelling at you, you are not going to say much. Now sometimes that’s part of the story: we’ll report that they would not answer questions and let a reader decide if that was appropriate behaviour. But remember: A good reporter remembers that they represent viewers of all political stripes. So if you’re going to hound a politician by yelling and screaming after him, you’d better be sure that an overwhelming majority of the people you represent — your viewers — would agree with that kind of behaviour. Some readers and viewers think I should yell and scream at Harper. But should I also yell and scream at Ignatieff if he isn’t forthcoming? At Layton? At Duceppe?
At the end fo the day, the best scenario here is to have a political leader — Jack Layton, step forward as a great example — who is perfectly willing to spend 20 minutes a day standing in front of reporters patiently answering whatever stupid questions we might put to him. Sometimes those questions will be softballs; sometimes they will be difficult questions. But whatever they are, the politicians cannot have prepared precise answers and must speak from the heart and with some candor when they answer.
And so back to the Clinton photo opp. As PMO had warned me not to ask Harper a question, I naturally hurled a question at Clinton as he and Harper emerged from their meeting. It would be great to hear from Clinton in any event but our thinking was that if we get Clinton to stop and talk to us, Harper’s going to have to stop too. It turns out that getting Clinton to talk to reporters is pretty easy. He enjoys it. He’s good at it. He knows that if he talks to us, he’s pushing his message and his agenda. But I’d never pitched a question to Clinton before so I figured if I yelled out a relative softball question, he’d stop and answer. So I shouted: “Mr. President, what do you make of Canada’s reaction to the Haiti earthquake?”
Easy question for him to answer and so he stopped.
But I didn’t even need to throw him an easy question because, after I did, he actually sought out the Canadian media from the few dozen reporters in the crowd scrumming him. He wanted to say something nice about Canada and Haiti. But before he said anything, Clinton turned to Harper and invited him to speak. (That’s the 1/2 question) Now the PMO may have been annoyed if I’d asked Harper something at what was, ostensibly, a photo opp, but Clinton can do pretty much what he wants.
When Clinton stopped Harper to have him answer questions, that opened the door for the rest of us. The Sun’s Peter Zimonjic asked if either he or Harper were worried that the world would forget about Haiti in 2 years. Good question. Some not bad answers from both men. After that, though, our third question of the PM over two days, his aides shut us down, had Harper do his handshake photo with Clinton, and hustled both out of our reach.
Now though, as I type this, Bill Clinton is not around and I could use him.
We’re in the PM’s plane on the tarmac at the airport in St. John’s. We’ve just landed here after flying from Davos, Switzerland. The PM, at the front of the plane, got off here but no reporters were allowed off the plane. While we were in the air, the PM announced 5 senate appointments; the Supreme Court ruled Omar Khadr’s human rights have been violated; Elections Canada is appealing a court ruling that the Conservatives won; and our GDP grew sharply last month. Sure would be nice to hear from the PM on any of those topics but he’s not talking to reporters today. He’ll give a speech tonight in St. John’s but then leave the podium — without taking any questions — for a private meeting with Premier Danny Wiliams and then he’ll take the Challenger back to Ottawa.
Now, as I said, I’m paid to represent a broad cross-section of readers. How do you feel? Is the prime minister perfectly right to ignore our attempts to ask him how he feels about these issues? Or are you upset that he doesn’t provide a little more information about how he feels about these issues? Comments below. …