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Refuses to submit
May 26, 2006

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a list and has checked it twice, much to the chagrin of Parliament Hill journalists.

It’s sort of like Santa’s list since it is meant to reward those who have been nice and punish those who have been bad. The Prime Minister’s Office communication staff have been told by the prime minister to canvass reporters prior to a press conference, jot down the names of those reporters who want to ask Harper questions and then a PMO staffer calls out the name of lucky reporters on the list.

This has enraged the parliamentary Press Gallery whose members don’t want to be hindered by a list and instead blurt out questions in the manner to which they have become accustomed. It’s more or less a free-for-all with rules of engagement that include lining up for questions, which is apparently downright messy in the eyes of the prime minister who likes to have more order in his dealing with the press — media scrums and their tone are anathema to Harper.

Harper didn’t like seeing the press gallery setting up its own microphones at Ottawa news conferences, Canadian Press reported. Harper’s aim is to restore order to chaos, according to the PMO.

But, before anyone gets the idea that it’s a Harper move to silence critics, it should be noted that he didn’t start the process. Prime Minister Paul Martin’s staff had their own list of reporters wanting to question the ex-prime minister and called out the names of the chosen. It was supposed to be a relatively unbiased process, but it soon became evident that some reporters critical to the Martin regime were being excluded or seldom were called upon to ask questions.

That’s the danger. Be a critic and you’re no longer deemed to be nice and on the list. Reporters actually have some grounds for being skeptical about the process.

For about two months, the press gallery reporters have refused to submit their names for the list. Because of their refusal, Harper refused to answer questions from reporters not on the list when the prime minister announced aid for Darfur. About two dozen journalists were reported by the Canadian Press to have walked out of the press conference when Harper refused to take their questions. Actually, Harper refused to take any questions because of the absence of names on the “nice” list. 

Tves Malo, a TVA reporter and president of the press gallery, asked his colleagues who were attending the press gallery to join him in a boycott and most agreed. The announcement thus had to be made before a small gathering of reporters, cameramen and photographers.

Following the refusal and counter refusal, a Harper spokesman said a select group of reporters were showing disrespect to the prime minister.

Reporters have in the past shown open disrespect for a prime minister, but that usually followed some rather nasty exchange.

A case in point is former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and the 1962 election campaign. By this time, it was becoming apparent that “Dief the Chief” was becoming increasingly paranoid and losing his populist appeal.

In his book, Renegade in Power, Peter C. Newman wrote that during a campaign stop in Edmonton, Diefenbaker started out not by praising his own accomplishments nor by criticizing the Liberals, but by launching a tirade against some unnamed forces which had been in clandestine opposition to him for years.

“Strong interests are against us,” he told the audience, “but whatever the strong interests may be, I prefer to have the people with me.”

“When Charles King, a corespondent for Southam News Service, reported of the Edmonton meeting: “In the same city where the Conservative campaign caught fire in 1958, the Diefenbaker bubble burst last Friday night, Diefenbaker refused to answer any further questions put by him,” wrote Newman.

“The next evening at Trail, British Columbia, the Prime Minister shouted at King: ‘I have nothing to say to you ... I mean that, too. That’s final with you.’ He continued to berate King, rudely and bitterly, ... ‘I thought you were through with that kind of thing ... It’s another diabolical concoction ...’

“Diefenbaker eventually strained his 

relations with accompanying reporters so badly that as he climbed on the Prime 

Minister's aircraft on another leg of the campaign, Val Sears of the Toronto Star summed up the feelings of most correspondents at that stage when he sarcastically remarked: ‘To work, gentlemen. We have a government to overthrow.’”

What is surprising about this turn of events was that it was the press that was responsible for Diefenbaker’s meteoric rise to power, playing upon the myth of the Prairie populist who was going to slay the Liberal dragon which had been in power for what seemed like an eternity. In the end, his fall from grace was equally meteoric as in six short years he had gone from the pinnacle of power to the depths of defeat. 

His paranoia had risen to the point that references to once mythical “strong interests” being against him became a self-fulfilling reality.

Harper’s desire to control the media is perhaps a reflection of his earlier suspicions that they were against him. Actually, these suspicions were not altogether unfounded in his his earlier political career. The national press had continually related earlier so-called bunglings and had opined that Harper would never lead a party that would form the government. 

He proved them wrong, but Harper should also admit that he received somewhat of a free ride in relation to the pillorying of the Liberals by the media during the last election campaign. The media treated Harper as the instrument to overthrow the tired, too-long-in-office Liberals. Reports during the campaign were often glowing and with this kinder reporting, Harper led his revitalized Conservative Party to victory.

The recent bad vibes emanating from the press gallery towards the prime minister do little to keep the media on his side. If it continues, the press gallery may wonder if it has another Diefenbaker on its hands.