How it works between the press and the PMO

- August 25th, 2013
LondonPresser

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at a press conference in the foyer of Grosvenor House, London, UK during his Spring 2013 Eurotour. The press were allowed three questions. We were done in 3 minutes and 27 seconds. (DAVID AKIN/QMI Agency)

At a press conference Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave on Friday in northern Quebec, a journalist who is an accredited member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery but who works for the Chinese state-owned China’s People Daily, shoved a member of Harper’s communications staff. He was upset that he was being denied a chance to ask the PM a question. The RCMP were forced to intervene.

I was not there but you can read eyewitness accounts of this episode from reporters who were there, including Sun Media’s Bryn Weese, Postmedia’s Michael Den Tandt, CBC’s James Cudmore , The Toronto Star’s Tonda MacCharles, and The Canadian Press’ Murray Brewster.

As a result of this incident, my social networks have filled up with people talking about how things work between the press and the PMO. And a lot of people — including some who ought to know better — have allowed a lot of myths to fester. So let’s set the record straight starting with this canard advanced on Twitter by former Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish:

Parrish wasn’t the only one who believes this. Many do. And it’s wrong. 100 per cent completely false. Harper learns of the questions put to him by members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery when they are put to him at the press conference. No reporter has ever been told they cannot ask questions unless they submit in advance. Ever. There is also no “draw” for reporters to get positions but more on that in a minute. The bottom line here is : Harper is responding in real-time to any question you see him answer in a press conference.

That tweet above is from Daniel Thibeault, this year’s president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The Press Gallery is a corporation whose basic job is to facilitate the work of journalists on the Parliamentary precinct.  The Press Gallery’s authority is restricted to the Parliamentary Precinct though many press gallery rules are often adopted at PM events when he is travelling. But many gallery rules are not followed off the Hill. Sometimes that’s by choice of the travelling journalists, sometimes that is by choice of the PMO.

Why doesn’t the press boycott PM events?

There are some who believe journalists should boycott Harper press events until he does things our way. Well, presumably, those individuals believe the 300 or so members of the Press Gallery plus any other journalist in Canada or in the world will agree to a boycott. ( You may review a list of all 300 or so Parliamentary Press Gallery members here).  For as soon as one journalist decides to continue to report on the PM’s activities, the boycott would collapse. Reuters competes with Bloomberg. The Toronto Sun competes with the Toronto Star. It’s CTV vs Global. National politicians versus regional politicians. Radio talk shows versus cable news. The so-called ethnic press versus mainstream English media. And, of course, there is  English media versus French media.

That’s a lot of wedges right there that a politician threatened with a boycott of his or her events can use to break the boycott.

And, in any event, though the Press Gallery may get annoyed with, be disappointed by, and get angry at the PM and his press handlers, our readers/viewers expect us to tell them what he did and keep fighting for more access, not to just give up in a snit. And it’s useful to remember that for all the Harper-haters we hear from, he did get 40 per cent of the vote in the last general election. A lot of our readers and viewers like the man and expect journalists not to take sides.

Press conferences organized by the Parliamentary Press Gallery

Only journalists may be members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and only members may serve as corporate directors and officers. I have been a director of the gallery. Directors and officers are elected by gallery journalists at our annual general meeting.

The gallery employs full-time staff to support the work of all journalists in the Parliamentary Precinct. The staff are, technically, employees of the House of Commons and, as a result, fall under the authority of the Speaker of the House of Commons but, in my experience, I have never known the Speaker to over-rule or veto direction given to staff by the gallery’s board of directors.

I say all this to underline the point that the gallery is independent of the politicians they cover..

The Gallery operates two press conference theatres on Parliament Hill, the most famous of which is the National Press Theatre or NPT. Because this is “our house”, the gallery sets the ground rules for those who wish to hold press conferences there. The moderator for those press conferences is a journalist, usually a member of the gallery’s board of directors. The journalist-moderator introduces the person giving the press conference and then the journalist-moderator picks who will ask questions.

A journalist attending a press conference at the NPT gets a chance to ask a question by raising their hand and then being recognized by the journalist-moderator. The selected journalist is free to ask any question s/he wants and, in my experience, those questions are never submitted before hand to either the person giving the press conference or to the journalist-moderator. Some times not all journalists who wish to ask a question at an NPT press conference will get a chance to do so. Usually, NPT press conferences run for 30 minutes and, some times, time just runs out before all the journalists who want to ask a question get a chance to do so.

House of Commons translators staff every event at the NPT and provide real-time French-to-English and English-to-French translation for all participants.   Parliamentarians may use the NPT to hold press conferences at no charge. NGOs and others may use the NPT but are charged a fee, mostly to cover the cost of the translators.

The other venue operated by the Press Gallery is 130-S, The Charles Lynch Room, located in Parliament’s Centre Block. There is no journalist-moderator and there is no translation. Here, a press conference is a bit more of an organic thing. Once the presenter finishes an opening statement, questions come from seated journalists in more of a scrum style with journalists hollering them out. Sometimes the presenter will point to this reporter or that reporter. But in no case is a list of questioners provided to the presenter and, so far as I know, no journalist provides the presenter with questions ahead of time.

Like the NPT, 130-S press conference typically run for 30 minutes so there are situations from time-to-time where a journalist won’t get a question asked.

Harper’s press conferences

While MPs and cabinet ministers have frequently used the NPT and 130-S to hold press conferences since the Conservatives took power in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has never used 130-S and has used the NPT just once, if memory services, but has definitely never held a press conference there during the current Parliament.

And yet, Harper does hold press conferences.  And by “press conference”  I mean an event in which Harper speaks to a group of any reporters who are able to attend where he is and takes at least one question from the assembled group of reporters. This would be different from an interview — in which Harper agrees to take questions from only one reporter — or a statement, in which Harper stands before the cameras, says something, and then exits before taking any questions.

Harper’s press conferences on the Parliamentary Precinct are exceedingly rare. Most often, they are joint press conferences held in a House of Commons committee room when a visiting head of government is present. Typically, at the conclusion of that visit, Harper and his guest each read a statement about their meeting and then the two leaders take four questions. Two questions are reserved for members of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery; two questions are reserved for reporters travelling with the other head of government. There might be three, four or five of these a year. Translation services are provided.  The moderator function is performed by a member of the PM’s staff and not by a journalist.

The other kind of press conference Harper will hold on the Parliamentary Precinct is to allow the PM to respond to extraordinary events such as the decision to send CF-18s to Libya as part of the UN-led force that would overthrow Khadaffi. The PM usually holds these in the House of Commons foyer in front of the main door into the House of  Commons. There is no translation service here and the moderator is a member of the PM’s staff. For these press conferences, we will be told that the PM will take 2, 4 or 6 questions. Less often, we will be told the PM will take as many questions as can fit in a period of time like 20 minutes.

Who chooses who asks the PM questions?

Many believe that because the PM’s staff is moderating the press conference,  it is the PMO who is choosing who gets to ask the questions of Harper.  Is this true? The answer is a qualified no.

Early in Harper’s tenure, journalists who wished to ask a question would present themselves to Harper’s press secretary before the press conference started and ask to be put on the “list”. This would be the practice for Harper press conferences on Parliament Hill or off Parlimanet Hill. To get on the list, all you needed to do was give your name. For Harper press conferences off the Hill, many local or regional journalists (non Press Gallery journalists) would be on the “List”. I know of no journalist ever required to divulge the content of the question to get on the list.

Some news organizations found this practice objectionable and refused to participate in it. I was at CTV when the “list” first appeared and, for a time, CTV’s bureau chief Bob Fife, would not let reporters participate in “the list.” But after a month or so in which we made our point — and in which there was no change in PMO practice — we ended up going on “the list” if we wanted to ask a question. Other organizations, too, did the same although, notably, The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and CBC refused for a very long time to use the “list.”

Now, during this time, the press secretary might end up with 10 names on this list but there may be only six who will get to ask a question. So how did the press secretary then choose? We don’t know really know. At times, it looked like first come, first served. At other times, it looked like conscious choices were being made by the press secretary. The press secretary would, for example, alternate between French-language and English-language reporters. Becuase there are usually many more English-language reporters at Harper press events, particularly those off the Hill, you had a much better chance of getting a question in if you were a French-language reporter. The press secretary also seemed to make sure that the local or regional journalists got some questions at events off Parliament Hill. I remember print journalists complaining that the press secretary seemed to favour broadcast journalists more.

At some point, though, probably three or fours year ago, the practice changed and hardened into its current form. There is a still a “list” and it is still maintained by Harper’s press aide but the only names on the list are the names of  journalists that the journalists themselves have decided will get to ask a question. In other words, if the PMO says, for example, the PM will take four questions, only four journalists will put forward their names to be on this “list.”

Those organizations who boycotted the earlier incarnation of the list, such as CP and The Globe, no longer do so and participate in this form of the “list.”

So how do the journalists present pick the journalists who ask the question? There is no formal Parliamentary Press Gallery rule on this but a tradition has evolved among Gallery-accredited journalists to do the following:  Whether we are outside Rideau Hall or at G8 Summit in Mexico or in a barn at a mine in Northern Quebec, journalists will gather out of earshot of the PM’s aides and decide amongst themselves what topics we wish to quiz the PM about and then figure out who will do the quizzing. This can occasionally be complicated and can lead to arguments particularly at, say Rideau Hall, when most of the Gallery is present.

Generally speaking, non-Gallery journalists are invited into this huddle and given the “rules”. In London, England, a Wall Street Journal reporter was travelling with us and I explained to him what we were doing. He thought it an odd procedure, opted not to participate and subsequently put up his hand to ask a question. The PMO aide moderating the press conference did not recognize him and stuck to the list of interlocutors provided by the Gallery journalists who had kept to our “odd procedure.”

As to what it’s like inside that huddle:  if there are, say, 4 questions, it’s easy to come to consensus on two topics but the other two will be more problematic. The business press, for example  – Reuters and Bloomberg — often want to ask about interest rates or the latest economic data point, something that rarely interests the rest of us.

From time to time, a happy consensus cannot be reached and at that point, a journalist unhappy about the questions selected may seek another way to advance their cause, either by appealing directly to the PM’s aides or by simply hollering out a question in the middle of the press conference. I confess: I have done both when the consensus was going to produce answers to questions that would not be helpful for stories I am working on and I have watched other reporters do the same thing when I am part of the consensus group.  But still, most of the time, the group of reporters present comes to an agreement on the questioners and the questions.

Once again: None of the questions are ever submitted in advance. The only information provided to the press secretary is the names of the interlocutors and most of the time, the press secretary calls on the names on the list. That did not happen on Friday in northern Quebec. Though the Chinese journalist’s name was on the list that the journalists presented, the moderator, Julie Vaux, the deputy director of communications, did not call on that journalist. That was wrong of Vaux and not in keeping with the practice negotiated between journalists and the PMO over the last few years. But the reaction of the journalist – shoving Vaux or pushing any staff around — is also way out-of-bounds. As I mentioned, the tradition is, if you’re getting shut down by the PMO, just start hollering your questions. The PM will almost never answer anyway to a hollered-out question but you will have put your question on the record.

Good question and you’ll likely get difference responses from different journalists. It’s my sense that, no, reporters will not “pull punches.” A reporter will ask in a way that he or she thinks will produce the best response for their story. Remember: A press conference is not an end it in itself.  Press conferences produce elements — clips and quotes — that become the building blocks for a reporter’s story. But because so many press conferences are televised, one gets the sense that viewers expect journalists to act like opposition MPs in the House of Commons and present long indictments of aPM ahead of asking a question. Sometimes we do. But sometimes we’re just trying to learn something about the way a person thinks. But inevitably, many viewers will want journalists to be prosecutorial and it takes a journalist confident in the wisdom of their strategy behind asking a question to do what she or he thinks is best for their viewers or readers. I have asked what I think would qualify as “tough questions” but I have also asked lob-balls too.  I encourage you to read a post of mine from 2008 in which I explain why I drove 700 km to put one lob-ball question to the PM: “How To Ask The Prime Minister a Question.

I agree with the tweets above from both Michelle Simson, a former Liberal MP, and Postmedia’s Den Tandt. As a member of the Press Gallery’s board of directors and as one of several bureau chiefs on Parliament Hill, I have sat down with any number of the seven directors of communication Harper has had to ask for:

    • Regular press conferences on Parliament Hill by the prime minister in the NPT. Say, a 45-minute session once every three months.

 

  • A set time period for questions at his press conferences rather than setting the event at a certain number of questions (This would hopefully get more questions)

 

 

  • Allow journalists to have one follow-up question to their original question.

 

 

Though every communications director has been reasonably sympathetic to these and other requests, the plain fact of the matter is that their boss, the prime minister, simply doesn’t want to do it and so we have none of these things.

MPs certainly do not. And generally speaking, Ministers do not either although I’ve seen some ministerial aides try to take down a list of questioners from time to time. Usually though, as with Minister Flaherty’s press conference in Wakefield last week, two microphones are set up, journalists line up behind the mic and it’s a first-come, first-served for questions for as long as Flaherty will take questions.

  100 per cent chance you’ll get another swing at the plate — at least so far. Remember: The practice we’ve stuck to is that the journos tell the PM’s aide who is asking. So, for example, if CBC’s Terry Milewski asks an “extremely uncomfortable” question on the first day of an overseas trip, he will get to ask another one on the second day if the journalists he is travelling with agree to put his name forward again.

My experience with prime ministers, I’m afraid only goes back to the last several months of Paul Martin’s premiership. There were no lists just scrums in which reporters would try to get PMPM’s attention by hollering more loudly than their competitors. If Martin was in a good mood, you’d get a lot of questions in. If not, he’d take one or two and leave. This would happen about  once a week when Parliament was sitting after the weekly cabinet meeting. We’d all stand outside the door and when ministers or the prime minister emerged from the cabinet room on Centre Block’s third floor, we’d all start yelling questions.

Harper’s innovation, within weeks after taking office in 2006, was to ban journalists from the Centre Block’s third floor.

As a gallery, we hope it’s different with future prime ministers but we aren’t holding our breath. And we almost certainly won’t see the day again, when a group of journalists can have the kind of informal graduate seminar-like back-and-forth Pierre Trudeau had with this group of journalists outside East Block in 1970 that produced one of the most famous clips in Canadian political history.

Categories: Journalism, Politics

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11 comments

  1. Karla Sofen says:

    One of your best David. Great job and so much work and research for a blog. Thanks for making the effort.

  2. MyView says:

    Very informative. Nice to see some myths busted.

  3. J Dan Aiken says:

    Good work on this. Thanks.

  4. Paul O says:

    It seems immensely unfair to place all the blame on Vaux when the PMO’s stated comments were that the Gallery had decided to unilaterally change the rules. Where practice had been (according to their statement) to give one question to a local reporter, the Gallery had (again, according to reports) decided to give that question to one of their own in the absence of a local question, and the PMO did not agree to this change, setting up a confrontation of the Gallery’s own causation, if the reports are accurate.

  5. Gabby in QC says:

    Mr. Akin, like other commenters, I appreciate your setting the record straight on what you have appropriately termed “myths” about PM Harper’s pressers:
    • “None of the questions are ever submitted in advance.”
    • “No reporter has ever been told they cannot ask questions unless they submit in advance.”
    • “Harper is responding in real-time to any question you see him answer in a press conference.”
    • “I know of no journalist ever required to divulge the content of the question to get on the list.”
    – What about the notorious list? Those on it are sometimes chosen on a first-on, first-called basis or to alternate between Eng. & French journos. Far from shutting out probing questions, if a reporter “asks an “extremely uncomfortable” question on the first day of an overseas trip, he will get to ask another one on the second day if the journalists he is travelling with agree to put his name forward again.”

    Seems rather fair & well-organized to me. Contrast that with:
    • “… the journalist-moderator picks who will ask questions” at NPT press conferences
    • “… questions come from seated journalists in more of a scrum style with journalists hollering them out” in the Charles Lynch Room press conferences.

    Often the PM is compared unfavourably with the guy south of us. Has the Press Gallery noticed that President Obama is even more scripted than the PM, his oratory excellent when he’s using telepromters but less than impressive when speaking extemporaneously, and most importantly, that he chooses which reporter/media organization he calls upon? I wonder how and why he chooses them.

  6. Blake Dunlop says:

    Thanks for the Trudeau clip. It was wonderful to see a real leader perform.
    What a contrast with the idiot PM we have today. Could you even imagine a similar press conference occurring with Harper? No!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Mugsy says:

    Wendy Peters @WendyPeters (above) declares:

    “I believe that they carefully select the questions. I’m not sure how they do it, but they do.”

    Reminds me of the bumbling, obtuse TV comic mobster character that, after being defeated as usual by a stunt courtesy of Bugs Bunny declares:

    “I don’t know how you’s done it, but I know you’s done it!!”

    Carry on, Wendy Peters, dreaming up your conspiracy theories.

    I just hope Wendy Peters doesn’t have to rely on her whits to earn a living.

    (www.youtube.com/watch?v=8U_R446L7uU)

  8. Briguyhfx says:

    The PMO chooses the quislings, but not the questions. I didn’t know that anyone thought otherwise. It’s interesting to see that others extend (in their minds) the PMO control of the question-askers to the questions themselves. Why would they? They know who is going to ask tough questions and who is going to lob softballs.

  9. Tory Hack says:

    Thanks for putting an end to the dribble I’ve been forced to endure over the last year from my Grit Hack friends

  10. David Twigg says:

    Report (or not) away. Prescreened or not, I do not listen to a word any politician says anyway. I wait and watch what they actually do. I don’t need to listen to the BS, either through propaganda ‘publicity’ from the PMO or affiliated outlets, or 2nd or 3rd hand through the media. It is totally meaningless. The limited reporting that occurs on what the PMO, government agencies and officials, and the federal, provincial and municipal departments actually do…well, that’s the only information we actually need. And it is so often filtered, obfuscated or downright hidden that it takes a fair bit of detective work by the press to find out what was actually accomplished or avoided. The PR exercises? Save the expense of sending reporters. Have the PMO personnel video it themselves and send out copies. Same dif!

  11. Stephen Smith says:

    That’s a long explanation for rationale on how to stifile a free press. Its good to see the press think its ok for 4 questions on topics that have major implications on 34 million people. But hey as long as you get paid and an expense account, why not enjoy the ride media speak.

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