Criticism can be handled in a number of ways if you’re a politician. You can deal with it head-on and defend yourself, although that might end up just empowering your opponents. You can ignore it, although it’s doubtful the media, or the opposition, will let you get away with that. You can undercut the sources of criticism and make it more difficult for others to point out any problems, although that’s not exactly great for democracy, but, hey, it just might work.
As its title suggests, author and journalist Mark Bourrie’s new book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, argues that Canada’s PM has chosen the last option.
He’s accomplished this through various means.
First, Bourrie explains, was the move to centralize more and more operations and messaging out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Staffers for cabinet ministers can’t so much as schedule a friendly photo-op without first clearing it with the Centre, as the PMO is called.
This centralization has spread into the bureaucracy, too, where government workers are warned against ever interacting with reporters. This has famously manifested itself in, among other ways, the “muzzling” of government scientists, who are nearly impossible to interview, not because they are unwilling to talk to the media, but because handlers are instructed to keep them quiet. The reason, Bourrie writes, is that many of the scientists’ research raises uncomfortable questions about the Conservative government’s environmental policies, and it’s much easier to cut those questions off at the source rather than be forced to answer them.
At the same time, journalists’ ability to combat this crackdown has drastically been weakened in what Bourrie calls a “perfect media storm.” Declining advertising revenue coupled with dramatic changes in technology have led many media outlets to downsize, or completely shutter, their parliamentary bureaus. Where once newspapers such as The Windsor Star or the Montreal Gazette had reporters based in Ottawa writing for a specific audience back home, these days most journalists are writing for a general, national audience. That makes it much easier for the Centre to keep to a single, consistent message. There even have been times when the Centre has tried to bypass the “filter” of journalists and deliver the message itself. Government advertising has skyrocketed during Stephen Harper’s time in power, with ads for the “Economic Action Plan” airing during the Stanley Cup playoffs and millions being spent on commercials touting benefits for veterans, while veterans themselves complain of office closings.
The federal government even produces a weekly series called 24 Seven, posted on Harper’s YouTube channel, which is basically an infomercial disguised as a professional news segment. Haven’t heard of the series? That’s little surprise. Although it’s financed by taxpayers, since its debut a year ago, the videos have received relatively few views. (As of Wednesday, the most recent video had been watched 1,446 times.)
Yet, as Bourrie demonstrates, this isn’t some new nefarious scheme cooked up by the Prime Minister and his advisers; Harper follows in the tradition of such prime ministers as Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau, who both sought to centralize much of the decision-making powers in their own offices. The Access to Information system, in which journalists, academics and any other citizen can request government documents for a $5 processing fee, was broken nearly from the moment it was introduced in 1983. It’s now routine for pages and pages of ATIPed documents to be blacked out. In one comical example, even the name of British Prime Minister David Cameron was redacted from documents regarding an official visit, just because his name was considered “personal information.”
While Bourrie’s historical perspective is useful, he misses the chance to place Canada’s experience in an international scope. Many of the same restrictions seen in Canada are part of a worldwide trend. In the United States, for instance, President Barack Obama has held far fewer press conferences than his immediate predecessors (although still far more than Harper ever has) and has cracked down harder on anyone in government leaking information to the public.
So what does it all matter? Is this all just the griping of the “media elite” who cover Parliament, or is something more at stake?
Some of the book’s most valuable sections illustrate how the kind of control applied to the media and the public sphere is being applied to policy-making – think the dismantling of the long-gun registry, cancelling the long-form census, or ignoring declining crime rates when crafting new justice legislation. If you are determined to pass certain kinds of laws, then suppressing the flow of information about how effective the laws are will make them more difficult to criticize.
There’s also the question of democracy. According to one study cited by Bourrie, cities that lost their parliamentary reporters saw voter turnout decline even faster than cities that never had a correspondent in the first place. With no one to write about how the government is addressing issues important to them, fewer voters bothered casting a ballot. And with voter turnout down nearly 20 percentage points across the board over the past 50 years, that’s something that should concern us all.
Chris Hannay is The Globe and Mail’s digital politics editor.Report Typo/Error