Saturday, March 18, 2006

Harper declares war on the media and their readers

If Stephen Harper's gag order to federal cabinet ministers isn't raising serious questions in the minds of Canadians, it should be. Aside from the fact that most of what Harper spouted during the election campaign with respect to accountability and "clean" government was immediately dispatched with the swearing in of David Emerson and the appointment of a non-elected Michael Fortier to cabinet, this latest maneouvre is intended to restrict what Canadians actually know about both government and the people running it.

This is hardly new. Successive governments have, in one form or another, attempted to control the "message". It rarely, if ever, works. The disadvantage of limiting the message is that often the "message" doesn't get out just when you want it to.

This edict of Harper's is unique in that it is early. Up to this point almost all negative media attention on Harper's government has been a result of events which took place in public, starting with the the swearing in at Rideau Hall and culminating in an open fight with the federal ethics commissioner, which proved that Harper's campaign on much touted ethics reforms weren't worth the ink wasted to print them.

Canadians now need to ask some questions. First, what is Harper trying to hide? Controlling information is really only necessary if there is a possibility that damaging information is there to be leaked out. It also suggests that Harper and his sycophants are of the impression that only the Prime Minister's Office is qualified to determine, indeed, understand the direction of the government. That's micro-management and it supports this statement from Belinda Stronach:

He surrounds himself with like-minded people and doesn't want input from others who have a different viewpoint.
The latest PMO fiat goes further by attempting to consolidate power in one office, something that violates the tenets of Westminsterer parliamentary government. In fact, it takes on a hue which very much resembles the US Bush administration and the method they use to control media communications. Ultimately it produces lies as an attempt to protect a culture of secrecy.

If there is anything noticeable since Harper took office it is the lack of information coming out of the government. Given the new PMO policy with regards to cabinet ministers' it is safe to assume that there will be even less. If it isn't the message, we won't hear it. What we will hear is good news and mistruth. Scandals, missteps and disagreements will all be buried in an attempt to avoid accountability and steer clear of questions surrounding ethics.

Of course, there is also the question of the CPoC government's loose cannons. The Conservatives are populated with an inordinate number of wingnut reformers whose views are not shared by a majority of Canadians. Part of the Harper directive surely has something to do with the fact that Canadians would quickly sour to all things Harper if the wingnuts were allowed to speak. Harper is being less than honest by attempting to silence them. Canadians have a right to know what views are held by all members of parliament but especially those sitting in the government benches.

The fact that the discipline of silence worked for the Conservatives during the election campaign has probably caused communications staff to extend the policy into government. Candidates who were likely to cause embarrassment were quickly pulled out of the range of reporters once questions started. The entire campaign was scripted and neither Harper nor his candidates were permitted to offer anything outside their little book of words. The real wingnuts weren't allowed anywhere near a microphone unless they had approved text in their hands. And we didn't get to see what the candidates really represented. The entire campaign was camouflaged and the government is about to cover itself with the same paint. Welcome to the perpetual election campaign.

This should bite Harper squarely on the ass. This is a move which establishes the traditional media as the enemy. It goes further by suggesting that the readers and viewers of the media are either complicit in wishing to destroy the conservative dream or stupid, or both.
The media will have to adapt to this new policy. They can be expected to do one or all of three things. If they cannot get answers to the questions they put to ministers and parliamentary secretaries* they will begin printing and reporting speculation. Whether that speculation is based on truth or not should not matter. In the absence of clear truth, editors will feel compelled to put unanswered questions to their subscribers.

Leaks and unattributable sources will become the stuff of headlines. Given nothing from official sources, the media will resort to the unofficial ones. Harper may think he can impose discipline, but he cannot prevent civil servants and employees from acting on principles or ideology when they find government policy unpallatable.

Major media organs will have to work to gather information. That means, if they wish to retain any credibility, they will have to engage in comprehensive investigative reporting; something they have failed to do in the last decade. It's either that or become little more than the publishers of government press releases and lapdogs of the party in power. Harper's trip to Afghanistan was an example of the media spewing nothing more than the government's rhetorical crap. For their silence they got a free ride. That has to end.

*Newspapers were questioning whether parliamentary secretaries were subject to Harper's gag order. Given that none of them were "available for comment", that should provide the answer.

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