The press and the PMO need to take a Valium

The media, PM's office should compromise on press conferences with Harper

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The Gazette, Friday, March 31, 2006

Both the Ottawa Press Gallery and the Prime Minister's Office need to take a step back from their standoff over where Stephen Harper holds his news conferences, and who controls the questions.

There are other flares, such as ministers being muzzled, a lid on announcements, whether cabinet meetings are announced in advance, and even whether reporters can stand outside the cabinet room as members come out.

One side calls it is a gag order, the other calls it message discipline. They're both right about that.

It doesn't look good on either side. The gallery look churlish, like a bunch of spoiled kids. Harper looks like a control freak, micro-managing process.

The PM's communications director, Sandra Buckler, had a meeting with the gallery last week to try to sort things through, but when she and her staff got there, there was a microphone on the table. The meeting would be taped, a transcript released, meaning it would be on the Internet.

That was Buckler's moment to push back from the table, and wish everyone a nice day. Instead, she decided to stay, and the exchange - principally among herself and gallery executives Emmanuelle Latraverse and Stephanie Rubic - reads like a fight in the ladies' washroom.

At the end of the terse conversation, Latraverse complains of reporters having to leave voice mails at the PM's press office in the middle of the day, and Buckler points out it's a busy place. "OK, whatever," Latraverse replies. Buckler retorts: "Oh, hey, that's nice."

At which point the conversation, mercifully, ended. "I've enjoyed our chat," Buckler said, scoring one on the way out.

What did both sides accomplish? Nothing. Both could use a little seasoning in the art of the Canadian compromise.

Here's the deal. Harper likes to meet the press standing up at his podium in the foyer of the House of Commons. He's more comfortable, and more in command, than he would be sitting down in front of flags and a drab blue backdrop in the National Press Theatre, a setting badly in need of a makeover. Harper has offered to go to the theatre on occasion provided the media give him a podium. But he prefers the lobby of the House because it's just down from his office in the Centre Block, because he's standing up, and because the visuals are much better, and quite striking when the doors of the House are open with the speaker's chair as a backdrop.

One of his press assistants also stands at a side microphone and selects which reporters ask questions. And this is a real point of contention with the gallery because as Latraverse acknowledged, they like to be in control of who asks questions.

Which, from the PMO's perspective, is one more reason to give Harper home ice advantage.

At the White House, the press theatre is just down the hall from the Oval Office. And when the president holds occasional newsers there, or in the more formal East Room with foreign leaders, he selects the lucky reporters himself, beginning with the main wire services and networks. It is the same at Downing St. in London - news conferences are at No. 10, and Tony Blair chooses the questioners himself.

The truth is, there isn't anyone outside a four-block radius of downtown Ottawa who cares who chooses the questioners, so long as the questions are asked. And it doesn't matter where the microphone is, so long as there is one.

And this is where the compromise looms - the gallery should agree to have press conferences in the foyer, and Harper should agree to let the gallery manage the questions. That way, when reporters are annoyed at being overlooked or ignored, they could complain to their colleagues, not the PMO.

While Harper has put his ministers on a short leash, at least until they learn their files, the prime minister himself has been available on a weekly basis, and sometimes more frequently, in the seven weeks since he took office. He's had more formal media availabilities in Ottawa in less than two months than Paul Martin had in the previous year. On Tuesday, he met reporters in the foyer, and took 19 questions, including supplementaries.

He answered questions about the NAFTA summit, softwood lumber, Kyoto, the election in Belarus and whether the cabinet was meeting in secret.

Cabinet meetings are always secret, but the fact that there is a meeting is within the public domain, and the media are always told. They weren't notified of this meeting, and they are right to dig in their heels over that.

But things got out of hand this week when a CBC television reporter, renowned for her pit-bull journalism, banged on the door of Harper's Centre Block office, demanding admission to a photo op with young cancer survivors.

Journalism, a colleague once observed, is the only profession in which anti-social behaviour is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

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