Mark Rogers in Peterborough, Ont. asks: “Are the questions asked by reporters vetted first by the PMO? Are the number of questions limited? And how are questions chosen?” Political columnist and author John Ibbitson, who has reported from Ottawa, and is now The Globe’s writer-at-large, has a biography of Stephen Harper that will be released later this year. He sheds some light into the relationships between Harper and the media:
Relations between Stephen Harper and the Parliamentary Press Gallery are notoriously testy. Actually, that’s not accurate. Testy implies that some kind of relationship exists, and there really is none between the gallery and this prime minister.
Mr. Harper last convened a press conference in Ottawa in December 2012, to explain his decision to permit the acquisition of the Canadian energy company Nexen by the Chinese firm CNOOC. There may be no other developed nation in which a head of government has gone more than two years without holding a press conference.
The most common situation in which reporters are able to directly question Mr. Harper occurs after a meeting with another government leader, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was in Ottawa on Monday.
In such a circumstance, Canadian reporters are allowed to ask two questions, one in French and one in English, with follow-up questions prohibited.
To come up with those two questions, Gallery journalists confer among themselves, choosing both the topic and general wording of each question, and which two reporters should ask them. This is done by consensus and usually goes surprisingly smoothly. The Prime Minister’s press secretary is given the names of the two reporters who will be asking the questions, but not what the questions will be. There is no vetting from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Mr. Harper also holds the occasional “avail” (shorthand for “media availability”), usually outside Ottawa, after making a government announcement. In those cases, there usually isn’t any cooperation among reporters, who compete to be able to ask a question.
Of course, this is not the only way in which the media and the government interact. There are conversations—sometimes on the record, sometimes off, by mutual agreement—with aides to the Prime Minister and ministers. Those conversations can be in person, by phone, or email. Government ministers or representatives routinely appear on cable news programs to offer their party’s line.
And reporters submit access-to-information requests, though the requested documents often don’t arrive for many months and are usually heavily redacted.
On the whole, the Harper government is uncommunicative, preferring to get its message out directly through party or government advertising, or through interviews with local media outlets, who may be less critical in their approach.
The Liberals and NDP promise a more open and responsive relationship with the media if either of them forms the next government, though to be honest, all governments become more secretive and uncommunicative over time.
But at least we can say this: the other guys could hardly be much worse.