Business reporters don’t usually write about press restrictions (or freedom of press) but my experiences in reporting on prime minister stephen harper‘s two events in Calgary this past Monday left this reporter no option but a discussion of freedom of press and that “pink elephant in the room“. (This report is cross posted at examiner.com.)
*** Photo credits: Kempton Lam. ***
Background facts before the main discussions,
- The Calgary press were given practically no advance notice for the two Calgary events at 9:30am and 11am on Monday Feb 8th, 2010. Notice of the public events was posted on Sunday for a Monday event.
- For the 9:30am budget roundtable, the gathered press were herded into the room at around 9:40am. mr harper spoke almost inaudibly (I had to increase mr harper’s volume in the video by 200%) for less than a minute for the photo op. No questions were allowed for the gathered press as stipulated in the public events media advisory. mr prentice and 10 Alberta businessmen sat there quietly as planned and staged when mr harper was speaking.
- It was unfortunate that the room for the budget roundtable was very small, the 50-70 seconds for photo op was too short, and mr harper spoke way too gently (inaudibly). The end result was chaotic, more than one Calgary/national media outlets were unable to get useable material at the first photo op.
- Upon requests from the gathered media, the PMO (Prime Minister Office) promised to try to find someone attending the budget roundtable to speak to the media. And on this, the PMO delivered and an roundtable attendee was made available. Actually, another attendee who left by the front entrance also stopped by to answer questions from the media. Both persons’ answers can be seen in the following video.
- For the 11:00am Alberta caucus meeting, the gathered press were herded into the room, a much bigger room for the 20+ attendees, where more spaces were available for cameras and TV cameras. Again, mr harper spoke almost inaudibly (the 200% volume boost didn’t help this time because the camera shuttle sound nearby was louder than many of mr harper’s words). But at least photos were taken and the press were herded out of the room in about 60 seconds.
- Again, upon request by the gathered press to have someone answering questions after the Alberta caucus meeting, the PMO said they “will try” to find someone to answer questions. This reporter decided to leave before the end of the caucus meeting (see reasons in the discussions).
Discussion of issues raised by the above facts (with matching fact & discussion number),
- As a courtesy and a little bit of respect to the Calgary press (and press in other cities), it makes sense to give more advance notice to the press. I suspect the 10 businessmen and the 20+ Alberta caucus members didn’t get a call on Sunday about the roundtable so they had much more advance notices to prepare. This would be useful especially for a Monday morning event at 9:30am. Bottom line: Yes, courteous would be nice but the PMO can do what pleases it on this one. The PMO doesn’t have to be courteous to the press. My understanding is that Calgary, mr harper’s home riding, is simply getting the same discourteous treatment as other cities mr harper had been holding roundtable. So Calgary is nothing special for mr harper.
- What the prime minister said in the two events for about 60 seconds each was almost inaudible and the total lack of opportunities for reporters to ask mr harper questions before, during, or after the budget roundtable was unacceptable. Bottom line: If all the prime minister harper and the PMO wanted was to have local media take photo and video of mr harper and be his official mouth piece, then the PMO should consider not informing the media outlets about the Calgary or other cities’ events. And simply issuing standard PMO approved photos and videos. This way, at least the video will have audible sound! (more in #3)
- Bottom Line: The very funny thing was the PMO actually had a boom mike setup for both events to capture much better sound than local media ended up getting. Of course, this reporter is being facetious in suggesting the PMO to NOT inform the local media and simply distribute “approved photos and videos”. In fact, if PMO takes on the role to distribute “approved photos and videos”, then it is functioning no different than the China’s government controlled mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency (the sole government approved news source if and when the Chinese government declare a news as “embarrassing/sensitive” including the 2008 Sichuan earthquake).
- The gathered press (me included) were lucky to have two budget roundtable attendees answering questions. So some general sense of the discussions could be obtained. But the clear and present pink elephant in the room was mr harper! Yes, mr harper was the pink elephant in the room that every reporter wanted to asked a question or two. In fact, after the chaotic first photo op where some of the gathered reporters were angry of the impossible arrangement and the superficial nature of the photo op. Later that morning, I was reliably informed by a TV reporter colleague that mr harper had not allowed reporters any questions when harper visited Calgary last year. This lead me to think mr harper has become way too controlling and has been unable to communicate effectively. Bottom Line: The press in Calgary and other cities should be viewed as proxies for Canadians. The press’ jobs are to ask questions important to Canadians, and to get answers from their elected politicians regarding issues & initiatives important to Canadians. The role of the press is even MORE IMPORTANT now because the parliament has been prorogued single-handedly by mr harper for an extended period. When opposition parties (elected by Canadians across the country) cannot hold prime minister harper and government ministers accountable by questioning them in the parliament, that important role of “holding the government accountable” falls, unfortunately, onto the shoulders of the press.
- Well, the photos and video clips were taken successfully at photo op #2. The formalities were done. Unfortunately, the important issues raised above remains unresolved.
- This reporter decided NOT to wait for the caucus meeting to finish because of two reasons. First, the “will try” from the PMO was not good enough for this reporter to wait for another hour to 90 minutes. Second, and this is the key reason why I left, when the clear and present pink elephant in the room (mr harper) would NOT answer questions, the sad fact of life was that the token politician in that room sent to answer questions would only be authorized to speak from a list of likely meaningless scripted talking points. Bottom Line: In China, the value of reporting meaningless & scripted talking points may mean staying alive and be employed for another day. In Canada, this reporter made the conscious decision to walk away and refused to be a mouthpiece of mr harper’s or the government of Canada’s information/disinformation.
Here is the report video.
“We need more people to stand up against the powerful and idiotic politicians in Canada, U.S., Hong Kong, and many places around the world where we have the rights to freedom of speech.“
I never quite thought that I would be the person/reporter that “stand up” and speak up against powerful politicians: writing about mr harper, freedom of speech, and naming mr harper as the pink elephant in the room. But in life, sometime things need to be done. And in this case, this reporter/blogger ended up discussing freedom of press, mr harper, and the pink elephant in the room, because of mr harper and the PMO persistence and dangerous press restrictions.
Note: When mr prentice came to Calgary the week before to talk about the new environment policy, he at least had a press scrum and answered some media questions.