Journalist shows up at wrong event, writes juicy story for Ottawa reporters

One of the favourite narratives of the Ottawa media is that the Prime Minister doesn’t talk to them on enough occasions. This, of course lazily and unfairly extends to “doesn’t talk to reporters”. However, while some in Ottawa may yearn for more face-time with the PM, the PM’s comms focus has always prioritized local and regional news to get the story told outside of the “Ottawa bubble” and outside of the pack mentality of some in the Ottawa press gallery.

Yet, here’s a local reporter, getting a lot of buzz in Ottawa this morning among my fellow flacks and hacks on Twitter. Brad Bird’s story about a Prime Ministerial “snub” at a shellfish research centre in BC fits the Ottawa press narrative but has me a bit puzzled because it goes against the PMO local media outreach strategy. Or does it? Local reporter Brad Bird wrote,

For the media it was an odd dance, since no talking with the PM was permitted, and he allowed but that single comment to acknowledge them, during the quarter-hour allowed.

“Give ya 30 bucks if ya ask a question,” one scribe said to another. But it wasn’t that easy. He was too far away for that, and engaged with others. Interrupting would have been rude.

Reporters gathered for an event and no questions? Why? Here’s the event notice from the PMO that went out to all reporters,

September 7, 2010
Ottawa, Ontario

Public events for Prime Minister Stephen Harper for Wednesday, September 8th are:

Deep Bay, British Columbia

1:00 p.m. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper will Tour the Vancouver Island University Centre for Shellfish Research. He will be joined by James Lunney, Member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Alberni.

Vancouver Island University
Deep Bay Field Station
Deep Bay, British Columbia

*Photo Opportunity Only

There are no questions at photo ops of course, but can we really have a PM that only does photo ops? Oh wait. There were two media avails later that day. From the same notice,

Nanaimo, British Columbia

3:00 p.m. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make an announcement at Nanaimo’s Cruise Ship Berth. He will be joined by Stockwell Day, President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway; and James Lunney, Member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Alberni.

Nanaimo Port Authority – Assembly Wharf
11 Port Way
Nanaimo, British Columbia

*Open to Media

NOTES:

• Media are required to present proper identification for accreditation.

Victoria, British Columbia

6:00 p.m. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper will deliver remarks. He will be joined by Stockwell Day, President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway; and Gary Lunn, Minister of State for Sport.

Hatley Castle at Royal Roads University
2005 Sooke Road
Victoria, British Columbia

*Open to media

NOTES:

• Media are required to present proper identification for accreditation.

From Bird’s article,

This wasn’t Jean Chretien, who enjoyed engaging with media.

Chretien would come over and talk to us. Sometimes he’d get all choked up about it, or someone else would, he was that intimate.

If Bird remembers the days of Chretien, surely he’s enough of a press vet to know the difference between a photo op and a media avail?

UPDATE (2/25/2011): Brad Bird sends me an email and I’ve received his permission to publish it below.

The politics of paternalism

The big news this week was the bombshell interview given by CSIS director Richard Fadden to CBC’s Peter Mansbridge on The National where Canada’s spy chief alleged that a number of cabinet ministers in provincial governments are under foreign influence. Red flag, or McCarthy smear?

Early last year, a mid-level diplomat named Richard Colvin rocked Ottawa when he alleged before a Commons committee that Canada was turning a blind eye to Afghan torture and some therefore argued complicit in torture and guilty of war crimes. Whistleblower or troublemaker?

The reaction to both events is very telling of our national psychology and perhaps of the psychology of western democratic citizens. The condemnation of Fadden was swift and there’s even talk that those around the Prime Minister are considering his hasty ejection while Colvin was romanticized as a small guy with a big message. Perhaps Fadden’s biggest miscalculation was that he wasn’t so small. Imagine the inverse of the outcome if Fadden had juvenilized himself in the equation by alleging that big bad daddy Stephen Harper knows that there are Chinese elements within provincial governments and that he’s covering it up. Of course, this would have been a different sort of career mistake for Fadden, but he would have found himself with the backing of the Canadian media rather than round condemnation. A modern folk hero standing up against the order! Instead Fadden is the perceived order and the order is trampling on smaller people.

When the west was entangled in a ideological and proxied military struggle with the Soviet Union, there was a external threat to our way of life, who we were as free citizens and our freedom to choose our future. When America emerged from the cold war as the world’s remaining superpower it suddenly found itself to be the only adult in the room. While an anti-establishment movement was growing within its borders, it was small and kept out of the mainstream because most were focused on the external threat, the structured order that sought to gain control.

As students of history tell us, the good guys won. The West did not wash away with the red tide of communism that lapped its shores for half a century. But now, the West is the order without threat. What are freedom-wired folks supposed to do without an external threat to their freedom?

Australia just got its first female Prime Minister. Most of us outside of Australia don’t know what she’s about but we surely know that its a good thing because we’re told that she succeeded in world that told her that she couldn’t. Same for Barack Obama; hope and change were simply code for tearing down the perceived societal order which was believed to be unbalanced. However, during the election, Barack Obama was America’s boyfriend. Now, that he’s president, he’s their father. That hope and change? More of the same. And those hopeless anti-establishment romantics? They throw bricks at the G20.

In Canada, Liberals have been the establishment for the overwhelming majority of the last 100 years. This establishment party has always had a knack for the gosh-gee little guyism. Anti-americanism was the Liberal stock and trade because in the politics of paternalism, America was the larger external threat to our way of life. We even had to regulate what Canadians could watch on television to protect them from this ordered systemic threat designed to subjugate us. The p’tit gars de Shawinigan? The desperately disordered Paul Martin? These men were forgiven because, well, they’re we just doing the best that they could against a bigger and meaner entity.

Stephen Harper finds himself in a world without personified threats to the Canadian way-of-life. Instead, he has trouble tapping into the politics of paternalism on both sides of the equation. First, he is paternalistic. He’s described as being calm, collected, calculative, “always three chess moves ahead”. Though he comes from the middle-class, it is a challenge for him to be perceived as the guy that fights with us rather than the guy that tells us what to do. On the other hand, the external challenges that would have buoyed his brand in the past have taken up an amorphous form. From the asynchronous challenge of the Taliban to the black-shirt anarchists at the G20, there’s no face to what menaces Canadians. And those that menace our ways of life? They are trivialized and get our arrogant sympathy. Some in this country view allegations of complicity of torture against the Taliban to be small people hurting small people while the big guy is uncaring. G20 protesters get more coverage from the media than the policy determined at the conference because the perception is that small people are sidelined while the establishment makes the rules.

A father figure is one that denies abortion or a gay marriage while a mother figure just loves you for who you are. Stephen Harper has smartly understood that Canadians eschew these elements of the paternalistic state yet he struggles with the maternal. The “nanny” state is one that tells us that we must, rather than mustn’t. We must “share our toys” according to maternal governance. Paternalism dominates in “our dad can beat up your dad” situations (ie. when external threats are perceived). In the absence of external threat, our defender is perceived as he who denies us. Currently, the children are upset about global warming, globalization, and fake lakes. Better that than red balloons and gulags, I suppose.

What is Stephen Harper to do? He cannot hope to re-raise us as well-balanced adults can he? In order for Harper to safely navigate the politics of paternalism he needs to be seen as smaller man fighting with us smaller people against the bigger world that threatens our way of life. Canada is the most sea-worthy vessel on the stormy seas of the global economy but there is no personification of the threat that surrounds us. Who is the Gorbachev of the global bank tax? Whom do we fight as we fight for small business and for the ma’s and pa’s that sell things in small towns? Who is the face of the looming union pension bubble that is about to burst?

Why do we as Canadians, and perhaps more broadly we in the west, tend to put more stock in the words of those that fight the establishment tell us rather than believe what we’re told by the establishment? How do we sort out what benefits us from that which disrupts? We are innately freedom-seeking people. In the absence of something external that threatens us, we turn our attention within. The ultimate expression of freedom surely isn’t anarchy and it certainly isn’t socialism, but without form those that romanticize this challenge to the order as mischaracterized expressions of freedom will continue to push these notions, often violently. And those of us who think one’s size and challenge are the only moral yardsticks will only continue to enable disorder at our own expense.

A sample of articles about the history of prorogation in Canada

Page 1 (Drummondville Spokesman – May 27, 1930) has a bit of a parallel to today’s prorogation. The PM wanted to set a new direction with a new budget and new multinational economic unit. The Economic Action Plan of the 1930s?

Page 2 (Glasgow Herald – March 16, 1939) is a two inch column describing a potential prorogation of Parliament by the King himself.

Page 3 (Ottawa Citizen – June 30, 1938) describes a 200,000 strong group (and this before Facebook) to protest the government’s move to jail violators of a media blackout law on reporting election results! The article describes that ministers would not meet with delegates of the group due to a “rush to prorogue Parliament”.

Page 4 (Montreal Gazette – March 15, 1939) – Describes the King coming to Parliament to prorogue the session or give royal assent to bills if session business is not complete

Page 5 (Montreal Gazette – June 11, 1928) – Mackenzie King – “We have concluded all the business of the session, so far as the Government is concerned”. I have not been able to find reference to the Toronto papers called King a tyrant or a despot.

Page 6 (St. John Sun – July 13, 1906) – Description of prorogation and reintroduction of House business when parliament resumes.

Page 7 (Toronto World – May 17, 1916) – Controversy as GG not present for prorogation proceedings. Prorogation to be completed by Chief Justice instead (who was deputy GG)

Page 8 (St. John Sun – April 5, 1902) – Description of prorogation despite 28 bills on order paper in a provincial parliament.

Page 9 (Ottawa Citizen – May 19, 1916) – Prorogation unusually quiet and with lack of ceremony. Did the PM request prorogation via telegraph?

Page 10 (Ottawa Citizen – Mar 13, 1911) – A member of parliament suggests that Parliament prorogue due to Typhoid epidemic sweeping through Ottawa.

Page 11 (Poverty Bay Herald (New Zealand) – June 13, 1914) – Prorogation and Senate politics. A delay in prorogation causes a deadlock in the Senate with Senators refusing to pass a bill increasing the number of Senators in the Upper Chamber.

Page 12 (Montreal Gazette – May 18, 1909) – A rush to prorogation

Page 13 (Montreal Gazette – September 9, 1911) – The government insisted it prorogued because it could not get money bills through while the opposition accused it of blocking an inquiry into a slush fund.

Page 14 (New Zealand Evening Post – January 8, 1903) – Obituary of Canadian journalist who numerous parliaments that had “assembled and prorogued”

Page 15 (Ottawa Citizen – October 28, 1985) – Broadbent dismisses PM Mulroney’s valid option of resetting Parliament due to “disasterous” session to come back with new Throne Speech

Page 16 (Ottawa Citizen – November 26, 1983) – description of business prior to potential prorogation by PM Mulroney.

Page 17 (CBC – November 13, 2003) – Report of prorogation of Parliament by Chretien to allow Martin to assemble new cabinet.

There are numerous other stories regarding prorogation. According to a deep news search going back before the turn of the 20th century, today’s particular instance of Prime Minister-recommended prorogation has produced the most news stories in Canadian history.

For perspective, Google News shows that 1,561 articles have been written by the Canadian media in the last month regarding prorogation (as of the time of this blog post).

Comparatively, 1,351 articles have been written about H1N1 over the same time period by the Canadian media.

If we search for Google News stories concerning “prorogation” OR “prorogue” AND “Facebook” we learn that the Canadian media has written 424 stories, while the Facebook group protesting prorogation has 208,744 members. This amounts to 492 new members to the Facebook group for every MSM article referencing the group over the past few weeks. This number does not include television, magazine and radio coverage of the Facebook group. And to think, it all started with a “fury” of 20,000 when the group was in the budding stages of becoming an MSM darling.

An historical perspective shows that prorogation is quite a common parliamentary procedure in the country and most prorogations have passed without too much ink spilled on the pages of Canada’s historic newspapers.

So why the media fixation on prorogation? Canada’s news organizations are facing hard times and this news is evident to those who regularly buy newspapers — which, it seems, is not a lot of us. Budgets of Ottawa bureaus have been slashed with some offices closing completely. Prorogation may be a threat to those that report the news because of a sparser parliamentary calendar and a move by parent companies to prioritize resources elsewhere. An annual prorogation, as bandied about by the PM earlier, would not serve the Ottawa news business well.

Furthermore, the current vacuum of news content slices two ways; the frustration by many without content to fill columns and airtime and the news vacuum that now exists without anything else going on in Ottawa.