“If there’s another subject, I’ll answer it”: PM

Journalists reached their boiling point over the five-questions rule at a recent campaign presser in Halifax last week. Standing behind a yellow barricade 12 feet away from the Prime Minister, journalists peppered Harper but the PM wouldn’t budge.

Neither would reporters. In video footage posted to the CBC’s Inside Politics blog, one reporter plugs on after repeated rebuffs: “No, no, listen. There is a bit of an irony here that we’re standing behind a fence and you’re campaigning as a Prime Minister, as most do, promising to be open and accountable. So our only question is why do you limit the number of questions to four questions per day.”

Unsurprisingly, Harper stuck to his mum’s the word mantra. Earlier he told reporters, “If there’s another subject I’ll answer it.” Now: “If there are other subjects I’m not addressing, I’ll take them. What’s the subject? One subject?”

The presser closed shortly after, with journalists having no further insight into Harper’s decision to limit questions at election press conferences to four from reporters on his tour (two from English-based organizations, two from French) and one from a local reporter. Journalists pay more than $10,000 each (and up, for accommodations) to follow Harper on the campaign trail.

While at least one Conservative staffer has very publicly criticized the policy (taking to Facebook to call it stupid and a threat to Harper’s image), it was a Nova Scotia’s senator’s tweet that really went viral.

After the Hali presser, Senator Michael MacDonald (who goes by the handle @senatorjake) went online to name-call two jounros: “Lovely day on Halifax waterfront for PM’s trade status. CBC reporters [Terry] Milewski and [Jennifer] Ditchburn were like attack dogs afterward – pathetic!” (Note: Ditchburn actually works for the Canadian Press.)

Twitter lit up, and MacDonald eventually apologized — but not to Milewski or Ditchburn (who had retorted on Twitter: “I’ve worked for The Canadian Press since 2006. Asking questions is my democratic right. My g-father fought for that in WW2″).

No, MacDonald said sorry to Sun Media national bureau chief David Akin, who tweeted: “Not cool @senatorjake Not cool. Reflects poorly on you, sir.”

MacDonald responded: “Mr. Akin — you are correct and I withdraw — I thought I might hear a few questions about NS during the questions — it’s frustrating.” He hasn’t tweeted a peep since.

The plus side to all this tete-a-tete: MacDonald’s Twitter traffic jumped, and fellow twits weren’t just reposting. Roughly 20 per cent of tweets were fresh comment, and most of that comment was negative.

Will this inspire Harper to answer more than five questions? Likely not. But will someone finally, now, get an answer as to why he’ll only answer five questions — besides the desire not to run “freewheeling” pressers? Well, fingers crossed.

Either way, as a recent editorial in the Toronto Star says: “Harper’s strategy of refusing to take more than five questions a day from reporters amounts to a gross disservice to the public … It’s a fragmented format that renders it almost impossible for reporters’ questions to build momentum and bear down on an issue.”