Turned down again

Leslie ShepherdWhen Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC Radio’s The Current, invites federal cabinet ministers to be interviewed she is turned down more often than not, writes Leslie Shepherd. The show now gives listeners a running tally of requests and refusals. Why officials are so unavailable.

Anna Maria Tremonti  is passionate in her belief that Canadians have a right to know why politicians make the decisions they do.

But when the host of The Current invites federal cabinet ministers to appear on the CBC Radio One morning news program, she is turned down more often than not.

A lot more often.

The show has made 18 interview requests to cabinet ministers since its eighth season began in September, but only three have accepted: Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, and Peter Kent, the minister of state of foreign affairs for the Americas. That’s less than 17 per cent. A batting average of .166.

Request CountThe tally is updated every Thursday on a new feature called “Request Count,” which draws listeners attention to the difficulties in getting the other side of the story.

“I think it’s important as Canadians to know how our elected representatives—people who represent us in cabinet and make decisions—how they think about the decisions they make,” Tremonti said in an interview.

“It’s part of the checks and balances in a democratic open society to be able to ask questions and get some kind of answers from those people who make decisions that affect our lives. It’s only fair to tell our listeners when we try and they’re not available.”

Tremonti said the increasing difficulty in holding elected politicians accountable for their decisions predates the Harper Conservative government and its sometimes-testy relationship with the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa.

 “It seems there is less of a willingness to come on and explain why you make the decisions than there was . . . 20 years ago,” she said. “I don’t know why that is specifically.”

Under the spell of messaging

Chris Waddell, acting director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communications, has some theories, foremost among them “the mania of media management.”
“The whole political situation has fallen under the spell of messaging and the importance of delivering messages and keeping a tight control on everything you say and do,” said Waddell, a former Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail and parliamentary bureau chief for CBC-TV.

“It’s more and more difficult to get people on the record …. to answer questions in anything other than a format that they control, that allows them to give short prepared answers that they’ve already decided to give, regardless of the question.”

Some of the onus also rests on journalists, who in an age of sound-bites and 24/7 cable and Internet news, can make already media-shy politicians nervous they will “take fairly innocuous statements and make them appear more significant than they really are,” he said.

“But overall I think there is a general trend and belief that politicians and other people in society don’t need to be open and available for questions of accountability.”

More than one way to cover a government

Tremonti said her show started being more specific last season about when they sought government comment and when they were turned down, partly in response to letters from listeners. They decided to make it a regular feature this season, to underscore the importance of accountability.

“Request Count” is notable for two other reasons: It’s unusual for news journalists (vs. columnists or bloggers with known agendas or viewpoints) to go public with their frustrations over access to government, as readers and listeners often don’t care. Plus it’s unusual for news organizations to be so transparent about who they want to interview. Most journalists keep that secret in case the guy down the road hasn’t already thought of it, too.

But Tremonti said that when you seek interviews in order to ask questions of accountability, it only makes sense – in terms that quest for accountabilty – to point out when interviews are refused.  

“There is more than one way to cover a government,” she said. “And letting listeners know when government officials are unable – or choose not  – to explain their decisions and beliefs, is part of that coverage.”

Aaron Brindle, senior producer of The Current, said the usual reason aides give for turning down interview requests is that the cabinet minister is “unavailable” or “travelling.”  Environment minister Jim Prentice had a more specific response when he was invited to talk about warming temperatures in the north on the Nov. 13 program with guest host David Suzuki. He agreed, but only if the interview were conducted face-to-face in Calgary on Thursday or Edmonton on Friday.

“That was a new one for me,” Brindle said. “In a weird way, it’s a more sophisticated response. It’s not an outright denial. It’s saying yes, but putting on conditions that are impossible to meet for a radio program based in Toronto.”

Tremonti and Brindle acknowledge the inherent logistical difficulties in getting anyone to appear on a morning news program, plus the volume of interview requests the government receives.

But Brindle said he suspects sometimes their requests just don’t fit in with the government’s communications agenda for that day or week.

“Although we pursue stories we feel are relevant to Canadians, our program isn’t always on the ministerial communications agenda,” he said.

For instance, Brindle noted that Van Loan, the public safety minister, was clearly interested in responding to a recent report on how to square prisoners’ rights with public safety and justice and discussing the government’s prison reform mandate.

But when The Current asked Van Loan for an interview after former U.S. secretary for homeland security, Michael Chertoff,  made a number of surprising comments about border security and Canada’s possible role in security threats to the United States, he was unavailable. Perhaps that wasn’t on Ottawa’s news agenda.

The Current is demanding for guests; it’s possible that newsmakers  – trained to deliver quotes as 10-second clips – simply prefer not to endure minutes (sometimes many minutes) of tough questions from Tremonti, a journalist with 30 years experience, including 5 years filing daily TV news stories from the Hill.

Possibly, given that some other news organizations say they’re not having the same problems as The Current. “We actually have decent access to cabinet ministers although they are nowhere near as loquacious as Liberals,” said Rob Russo, Ottawa bureau chief for The Canadian Press.

The all-too-common practice in Ottawa of speaking to print media on the condition they be identified only as “well-placed sources” or some other such euphemism obviously isn’t an option for a medium based on sound.

So does that mean The Current is being singled out, for say, the CBC’s perceived left-of-centre tilt or its demographics being outside the Tories’ majority-seeking target group? National Post columnist Don Martin recently raised that very issue in applauding Prentice’s decision  to turn down the interview “on a national current affairs show where the host would be an obvious antagonist.”

“Rightly or wrongly, federal Conservatives have an almost DNA-ingrained belief there’s a left-leaning bias in CBC reporting,” he wrote.

The Prime Minister’s Office cited the volume of interview requests made weekly to cabinet ministers, plus their workload—balancing departmental duties, travel, and House of Commons and constituency business –in defending to J-Source the number of interviews granted over slightly the past two months.

“Overall, I think that our MPs, our ministers in particular, have a pretty heavy workload,” said Sara MacIntyre, Harper’s associate press secretary.

Waddell said the Harper government has been more successful than past governments in controlling its message by clamping down on who is permitted to speak and to whom. But the tension between journalists seeking information and governments trying to manage is not new.

Velcro Lips, 1984

In 1984, when the Progressive Conservatives returned to power under Brian Mulroney after 21 years in opposition (not including the Joe Clark blip), the PMO forbade cabinet ministers and MPs from speaking to the media without prior approval from Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen. The media dubbed Nielsen “Velcro Lips” for the way he rode herd on the record 211 Tory MPs.
Reports at the time attributed the PMO’s approach to the long-standing PC Party belief that the media was biased toward the Liberals and that this contributed to the harsh treatment the Joe Clark government got in 1979-80. Reports also attributed this to Mulroney’s fears that his fragile coalition of Quebec nationalists (who went on to form the core of the Bloc Quebecois) and right-wing westerners could be harmed, if not shattered, if his western MPs in particular were quoted — as they had been for years — as opposing official bilingualism or complaining about catering to Quebec.
At the same time, much of the Parliamentary Press Gallery was undergoing a rapid evolution from issue-based reporting and analysis to “gotcha” journalism with an emphasis on sensational quotes, often out of context, that produced quick-hit stories and made stars out of both the print and broadcast reporters who did it.
The two trends were symbiotic, feeding on and reinforcing each’s distrust of the other.
While some Liberal governments may have appeared to be more forthcoming, answering questions after cabinet meetings and Question Period, “that doesn’t mean they said anything,” said Waddell.

“Standing in front of a mike and moving your lips doesn’t mean you are actually enlightening anyone.”

Lester Pearson banned scrums when he was prime minister from 1963 to 1968 and his successor, Pierre Trudeau, agreed in 1976 to hold a weekly news conference if reporters agreed not to scrum him. (they did; he didn’t).

While reporters wrote a lot about Trudeau’s love life, they also wrote a lot about his National Energy Program and efforts to patriate the Constitution with a Charter of Rights. Today, Waddell said, a lot of what passes for political coverage is really about personalities and conflicts.

A slippery slope

Waddell cited the “loss of expertise” among journalists, due both to staff reductions and decisions by news organizations to eliminate specialized beat positions, especially in Ottawa. A reporter who finds him or herself covering a Supreme Court decision one day, the collapse of a Candu reactor the next day and then the decision not to extend the military mission to Afghanistan has no time to read up on any of the issues or develop sources or expertise in those areas. That puts reporters at a disadvantage when dealing with politicians because “you don’t know whether they are telling you the truth.”

He said the long-term impact of avoiding accountability and explaining what’s going on is damaging because people will start to tune politicians out. If the public hears only managed messages, “the public will quickly decide none of this is important” and eventually stop voting.

Tremonti said it’s not just politicians sliding down the slippery slope away from accountability, but also senior appointed officials and people who wield power and influence because of their private corporate positions.

“The danger is that we disconnect from those people who make decisions,” she said. “It’s checks and balances. This is our society. We need checks and balances in our society.”

Leslie Shepherd has been a journalist for 30 years, in Canada, the United States and Europe, working for The Washington Post, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press. She was a reporter in Ottawa during the Trudeau and Mulroney governments. Most recently, she was deputy national editor of The Globe and Mail and spent three years as political editor.