Fair time

The following is part of a note I received from a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The original email that was sent to me sought to set the record straight from this scribe’s point of view. I’ve asked to reproduce it here on and my correspondent has agreed on the condition that I do not reveal his identity. I’m interested in presenting both sides of the argument (and both accounts) so that we can evaluate the current issue properly:

From Harper’s first media availability in the Commons foyer, reporters who wished to ask questions were asked to provide their names to Dimitris, who wrote them down. The first six questions that day went to TV stations, then a couple to wire services, then a couple to major daily newspapers. (I was keeping track for a sketch piece.) Harper made lots of news and everybody went away happy (no grumbling about having too much work to do – perhaps the most ridiculous assertion I’ve heard in this entire debate.) A couple more availabilities followed, with the list system being used, and reporters began to notice that the order of names called out by Dimitris bore no relationship to the order that he received them. Getting your name on his list first (or second, third or fourth) didn’t mean you’d get to ask a question, even if 15 names were called. There was no obvious pattern, other than a penchant for giving TV reporters most of the first several questions. This was not the issue.

But getting to ask questions matters to a lot of media, for a lot of different reasons. Some have exclusive stories they are pursuing that they know no one else will ask about. Some recognize particular angles of a story that have not been addressed and need fleshing out. Some reporters who are known to be pursuing very troublesome stories for a government (I’m thinking of Daniel LeBlanc and Campbell Clark’s work with the Globe on the early sponsorship revelations) will never get a response from a government minister in a free-wheeling scrum, where politicians have been known to turn stone cold deaf to troublesome media members. Some senior editors expect to see their reporter up asking questions, and the reporter may have to explain later why he or she failed to represent the media outlet. The tension over who gets to ask what, when, never goes away. But as long as we scrap it out amongst ourselves in the PPG, there is no perception of partisanship or political bias in who gets to ask the questions.

After several Harper availabilities in which the list was used — and against a backdrop of other measures by the PMO to control or deny access (to cabinet, to photo ops, to information on visiting heads of state, to a simple list of ministerial media contacts) – PPG media members collectively and rather informally decided the list idea was really unnecessary and potentially very problematic down the road.

The current proposal by the PPG is to have two microphones set up at the prime minister’s press availabilities. Reporters would line up on a first come, first served basis. No shouting. Exactly the same degree of decorum as under the list system. The PM’s list system is designed to give the PMO control over who is allowed to ask a question. That is the issue, plain and simple. Now, let the debate continue.

Elizabeth Thompson, an occasional PPG sparring partner of mine, posted this a few days ago in the comments section of a previous post:

This is not the first time the gallery has boycotted a prime ministerial event. It happened under Jean Chretien when his office tried to cut off the right of pool reporters from CP and Presse Canadienne to throw a question each into a photo op. When parliament isn’t sitting, photo ops are sometimes the only opportunity over the course of days, if not weeks, to ask the PM a question.

The gallery actually gave the new system a chance before refusing to cooperate. What bloggers and others saw on television was Dimitri Soudas calling out reporters in an orderly way to ask a question. What they didn;t see is that it quickly became clear that Dimitri was cherry picking reporters – passing over those who had scurried to be second or third on the list to give questions to his favorites. If you were a television reporter for a major outlet you were a shoe in. If you were a print reporter from the Maritimes or out West your chances were small if not nill. Entire areas of the country were being blocked from any chance of putting questions about their preoccupations to the prime minister. It then became apparent that those who had been critical of the PM or had asked a question the PMO didn’t like were getting passed over as well. We’ve got the benefit of the hindsight of our American colleagues who tell us about the chill factor that set in when it became clear that if you asked a tough question you would be passed over for a good long time. That’s the point at which the gallery decided to no longer cooperate. It’s not just about a list. Lot’s of press conferences are run with lists but they are generally first come, first served.

The gallery has proposed a system under which nobody can cherry pick – the PMO or the gallery. We have suggested reporters simply line up at a mike and are recognized in turn. The PMO refuses to even consider it.

Whatever system results from this dispute will be the one the Conservatives will have to live with some day down the line should they once again return to opposition. Would people be happy if Liberals cherry picked to get softball questions? What if Jacques Parizeau or Lucien Bouchard had tried to do it when I covered them in Quebec City and during the run up to the referendum? What if Andre Boisclair gets in with the promise of another referendum. Would you want him to adopt the current PMO’s strategy of cherry picking the questioners?

Paul Wells suggests that the following thoughts of his are relevant to this issue:

We have become a ridiculous bunch. For the past five years it was hard to find 200 words, in even the Globe and Mail, on the contents or ramifications of any bill before the Commons. In fact, for months at a time, the people whose job it is to cover Parliament would claim there was nothing going on in Parliament. Oddly enough, when a session was suspended or prorogued, or Chrétien dropped the writ for an election, we would read long, long lists of important-sounding legislation that would now never be passed. How come we never heard about a bill until it died on the order paper? One of life’s little mysteries.

I have taken you through this grim landscape to demonstrate something you probably have already noticed: the stuff you devote your lives to — quality, well-designed delivery of services to Canadian citizens — has vanished from the Press Gallery’s priority list.

I spent half my life reading the Globe to find out what was going on. Now all it tells me is who’s popular.

UPDATE: From a PPG contact:

I get the impression from many of these posts that when people talk about the 300-whatever members of the gallery, they are really talking about three or four TV pundits. That’s frustrating. We’re not one big happy family. We’re competitors and have strong opinions about the quality of each other’s reporting. … [however] there is a remarkable degree of solidarity on this list issue

UPDATE: Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday:

“I think frankly it’s all inside Ottawa stuff … I don’t ask to control the editorial policies of newspapers but we do set up our own press conferences … I think history would indicate that we’re very open to anyone who wants to ask a question. We keep a very complete list of all who request.

UPDATE: PPG writer Mark Bourrie weighs in:

“The Press Gallery of 1945, with its fifty or so members, was important. Its coverage was the only way people got the news from Ottawa, and, in those days, this news was very important. The gallery of today is not the gatekeeper of anything. Want the best coverage of Question Period? Tune into CPAC from 2:15 to 3:00 Monday to Thursday, 11:15 to noon Friday (and at rebroadcast times) and see it yourself. Want coverage of debates, written up the old fashioned way? Go to www.parl.gc.ca and look over the electronic Hansards. At least someone will be reading them. Reporters aren’t.”

You barely need to be here to cover Parliament. Quite possibly, you could so a good job witha phone, a computer and a TV in Flin Flon. In fact, most reporters never go into the Commons. They watch Question Period on TV, then hike over to collect quotes in the post-Question period scrums. The TVs go off, the handful of reporters in the galleries leave the Commons along with 95% of the MPs, and debate on real laws goes on, with a handful of people talking about bills and no reporter covering what they have to say. Small wonder so many MPs are frustrated.

What’s covered — the reaction stories, the speculation, the coverage of political party politics — is the cheapest, most easy-to-find stuff around. It is available on any news web site. Quite literally, anyone of average intelligence, nice clothes and basic hygene can collect it. Unless you are an absolute junkie dependent on knowing every poll, every possible twitch and turn of the PM and his government, you are getting all the political news you need.
The handful of investigative reporters on the Hill don’t need scrums and cabinet outs. They need real Access to Information rules. In fact, the more the government tries to hide, the better stories they get. And if the Opposition comes up with a real scandal, Harper’s rules won’t affect coverage.

UPDATE: David Akin:

The PMO communications staff prefers to canvas reporters ahead of the press conference, note the names of the reporters who wish to ask a question and then, once the Prime Minister arrives, a PMO official calls out a reporter’s name based on the list. It is not a first-come, first-serve sort of thing. Generally, the names called out alternate between reporters for the French-language outlets and reporters for English-language papers. Some print reporters complain that electronic media seem to get more questions than print reporters.

In any event, so far as I’m aware, there have not yet been any accusations that some reporter or organization is getting frozen out because the PMO doesn’t like someone’s reporting. That said, the concern that this could happen is reason enough, the Parliamentary Press Gallery believes, that a representative of the PMO ought not to be the one deciding who gets to ask the questions. The Press Gallery stands ready to maintain its own list — as has always been the practice for any press conference at the National Press Theatre — and moderate a press conference in a professional and dignified manner. When that happens, the outcome is the same — a politicians answers questions put to him or her by a reporter and the reporter gets a chance to ask the question once he or she is recognized by another journalist who acts as the moderator of the press conference.

During the last election campaign, incidentally, the Prime Minister Paul Martin’s communications staff kept a list of reporters who wanted to ask questions and then they would call out a reporter from that list — just like the current PM is doing. During the week I was with him, covering the Martin for CTV News, I got all of two questions. We learned later that Martin’s team was very unhappy with our coverage of his campaign. Mind you, we weren’t as bad apparently in Martin’s eyes as The Toronto Star. During the week I was on the campaign with Martin, the Toronto Star reporter that week, Sean Gordon, got precisely zero chances to put a question to the Liberal candidate.

UPDATE: Andrew Coyne:

I don’t want to shock you, but I’m told these leaks go disproportionately to reporters considered “friendly.” (Perhaps the gallery should take charge of the leaking process, too.) And what gets a reporter counted as friendly? In part ideology, either that of the reporter or his news organization. And in part a dedicated and sustained campaign of flattery, including sympathetic coverage: what’s known in the business as “cultivating your source.”

Were they not fed such a consistent diet [of leaks] by their political and government sources, many of these reporters would be out of work. And indeed, the “independence” they are asserting now is mostly a demand that the government keep them supplied with clips and quotes in the usual way. It is the independence of the junkie from his pusher.

Well, fair enough. The press has interests like any other trade, and is entitled to defend them. What we’re not entitled to do, however, is to dress up our complaints as some sort of constitutional crisis. It is not the responsibility of the government to make our jobs easier. And it is not our job to serve as the Opposition.

The task of holding the government to account, in a parliamentary democracy, is assigned to Members of Parliament. Were the government to presume to decide who could ask questions in Question Period, or in what order, that would be an outrage. This is a lovers’ quarrel.

At a conference of the National Association of Journalists in Halifax a few weeks ago, PMO Communications Director Sandra Buckler told the attendees that there would be no leaks from the government to friendly sources. She noted that under previous Liberal governments, the Globe and Mail and CBC would receive the majority of the leaks.

I’d like to invite those that are stakeholders in this current squabble between the PPG and the PMO to use this blog post and the comments link that you’ll find below to vent, debate and perhaps find common ground. Regular commentary from other readers is encouraged as well.