Busting the myths: How it really works between the press and the PMO

By David Akin, Sun Media's national bureau chief

By David Akin, Sun Media's national bureau chief

At a press conference Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave 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 WeesePostmedia’s Michael Den TandtCBC’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:

There are no ‘surpise’ questions at any Harper pressers. There’s a draw for reporters to get postions. All questions are submitted in adv.

— carolyn parrish (@carolynhparrish) August 24, 2013

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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.

To continue reading, please visit David Akin's blog, where this originally appeared.