The cone of silence
We here in the Star's Ottawa bureau have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the communications operation in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. If you're one of those people who believes that all this is just the whiny media, you might as well stop reading now.
If you're interested, however, first, there are these two fine articles in today's paper, by our own Richard Brennan.
And then there's the experience of Allan Woods, who accompanied Harper on last week's trip to Bucharest and Poland.
Let's jump right ahead to the end of the trip and the return flight. All the reporters on the plane were offered a 10-minute, off-the-record conversation with Harper — all except the Star's reporter. Participating reporters also received a bottle of vodka as a gift.
(We should note here that the Star bureau, as a rule, is not in the habit of having off-the-record conversations with prime ministers, of any political stripe.)
Why, though, was Woods not offered a sit-down with Harper? Well, as far as we can figure, it's because he had tried to ask the Prime Minister a question — about anti-gay slurs made 16 years ago by Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski.
The Star operates on the quaint notion that reporters are paid to ask politicians questions on the news of the day — and that politicians should not try to control or intimidate the questioners. PMO officials complained that Woods was being "rude" and "inappropriate" for daring to ask the question at the end of a photo opportunity. And so the Star was punished, so to speak, with no invitation to chat with Harper on the way home.
Harper, readers should know, has developed a bit of a habit of travelling abroad, on the taxpayers' dime, and avoiding contact with reporters (whose trip costs are paid by their own news organizations, usually in the realm of several thousand dollars). This has resulted in ridiculous situations, including several occasions when Canadian reporters have had to rely on foreign governments to brief them on meetings our own Prime Minister holds with other international leaders.
This latest trip was no exception. It started out well enough, with Harper even doing a panel discussion in Bucharest.
But then the silence descended. The Prime Minister and his delegation made their way to Poland for a visit to Auschwitz and a session with Lech Walesa. What did Harper have to say about all this? Nothing. All he would permit were photographs.
Do other leaders of major nations do this? Uh, no. Can you imagine George W. Bush trying to avoid the White House media travelling abroad with him — saying no questions, only pictures?