Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Media Double Standard

Where was the outrage over Martin’s press policy?

By Lorrie Goldstein

My own view is that both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Parliamentary Press Gallery (PPG) have been behaving like a couple of horse’s butts in their ongoing confrontation.

But since the PPG is insisting Harper is entirely wrong and it is entirely right in the many news reports and media panels devoted to this issue by various PPG members, I do have some questions about the credibility of the PPG’s position.

This ongoing war between the PPG and Harper over access to the new Conservative government re-ignited last week when Harper gave a television interview in which he accused the PPG of being biased against the Conservatives, adding a Liberal prime minister would never face this kind of opposition from the PPG. Harper’s comments were made in the aftermath of a recent walk out staged by PPG members during a news conference with the PM on Parliament Hill.

The PPG said this walkout was to protest Harper’s insistence that his own staff will choose who in the PPG gets to question Harper and the order in which they will do so, as opposed to past practice where a member of the PPG made these decisions.

The PPG argues Harper’s format will limit the ability of its members to aggressively question him, since his aides might deliberately ignore certain reporters.

But if this is the PPG’s most pressing concern about Harper’s relations with the media, why didn’t it just as strenuously object when former prime minister Paul Martin instituted precisely the same format for taking questions from the media during the last two federal election campaigns?

As Maclean’s Ottawa columnist Paul Wells wrote on his political blog (weblogs.macleans.ca/paulwells) on March 28:

“The biggest problem with our complaints that it’s the PM’s staff, not our fellow journalists, deciding who gets to ask questions is that that’s not new. Paul Martin innovated, in this matter, during the 2004 campaign when he answered only reporters his paid, partisan press aide, Melanie Gruer, acknowledged during daily news conferences. This practice continued for the duration of the 2006 campaign.

“I, for one, was pretty damned surprised to learn, in the second week of the 2004 campaign, that we were letting a Liberal decide who got to put questions to a Liberal prime minister. And during the entire 2004 campaign I didn’t get to put a single question to Martin in any formal news conference. (Grand total for 2006: one question, plus one follow-up.)

“But for the life of me I couldn’t get any of my travelling colleagues to show an ounce of concern about the practice. It sucked then and it sucks now, but it is a bit rich for everyone to start complaining only now.” Indeed.

Here’s David Akin, a parliamentary correspondent for CTV National News, commenting on the same issue in his political blog (davidakin.blogware.com) on May 18.

“During the last election campaign, incidentally, 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 Martin for CTV News, I got all of two questions ...”

If the PPG cares so much about this issue now as an infringement on press freedom, why didn’t it object just as publicly and loudly when the precedent was established by Martin and his staff in the 2004 and 2006 federal election campaigns?

Never mind Harper’s allegations that the PPG are closet liberals. Surely the more relevant point is that the PPG has undercut its own credibility in this confrontation — and lent credence to Harper’s charge that a Liberal PM would not be subjected to the same attack as he has been because ... well ... because that appears to be what happened.

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