Elizabeth Renzetti

You won’t believe what the press just did: their jobs on the public’s behalf

The Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

(Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

The Conservative government in Ottawa has decided it should fundraise based on its loathing of the national press, and you have to give credit where it’s due: Finally, someone has found a way to make money from journalism.

Relations between Stephen Harper’s government and the media, never exactly cordial, have reached Liz-and-Dick levels of acrimony. This week’s snit-fest began when broadcast outlets refused to film the Prime Minister’s speech to caucus if reporters weren’t allowed to cover it. The clear worry was that one of these rogue journalists might actually, horrors, ask a question of the person who leads the country’s governing party just prior to a speech laying out that government’s agenda.

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As a result, a fundraising e-mail went out to the faithful from the Conservative Party’s director of political operations, Fred DeLorey. “Friend,” it began, “You won’t believe what the Press Gallery just did in Ottawa.” The answer to that rhetorical question was not “Drink all the booze” or “Eat all the tostadas,” as you might suspect when journalists are involved. It was “Try to do their jobs and inform the public about the workings of its elected federal government.” As the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor wrote, the Conservative Party “fundraises by exploiting the fantasy that the press gallery is a den of Commies intent on misinforming Canadians about triumphs of the Harper government.”

This war on information, and the reporters who are meant to convey it, is not by any means restricted to Ottawa, although our Prime Minister has a particularly strong aversion to being questioned, most recently considering a ban on a reporter who’d thrown an unscheduled question at him. The war is happening here, and in the United States and Britain, and information is not winning. Obviously, things are much worse for journalists in parts of the world where losing life and limb is more worrying than not having a telephone call returned.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford also shows unrelenting disdain for the media. When a reporter recently asked a legitimate question – “Are you under investigation by Toronto police?” – Mr. Ford shouted, “Subways! Subways! Subways!” in response. This might be an amusing answer if he were a character in a Lewis Carroll story, but he’s not. He’s running (sort of) Canada’s largest city.

Mr. Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, prefer to reach out directly to voters through their weekly radio show. This is how politicians like to operate these days: the one-way megaphones of Twitter and YouTube, which are convenient for spreading a message undiluted by analysis or context and untainted by pesky follow-up questions.

In the United States, Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of transparency, the buzzword of the day. His officials are maestros at social media, while at the same time maintaining a stranglehold on information and a thuggish disregard for the liberty of the press. They snoop on reporters and prosecute whistleblowers with zeal, even setting up the Stasi-ish “Insider Threat Program” so that government workers can squeal on colleagues who might just spring a leak.

“The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” veteran journalist Leonard Downie wrote in a recent report for the Committee to Protect Journalists. New York Times investigative reporter James Risen is facing jail for his refusal to testify at the trial of a former Central Intelligence Agency contact. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote about Mr. Risen’s case this week: “As the Obama administration has engaged in a historic crackdown on leakers, reporters have found it harder and harder to do their jobs.”

In the U.K., the press will soon face government regulation as punishment for the phone-hacking scandal. Politicians swear they would never abuse the regulations as a way to muzzle the press. Of course they wouldn’t. Did I mention that the British Prime Minister has just called for an investigation into The Guardian newspaper’s revelations about government surveillance, provided to it by Edward Snowden? Or that the British government sent men to The Guardian’s offices to smash the hard drives containing Snowden’s encrypted materials? “You’ve had your fun,” one high-level official told the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger. “Now we want the stuff back.”

Should you care? If you can read the latest press release on an official party website, or receive valuable information such as “wheels up to Brussels” on Twitter, does it matter that reporters are being stonewalled? I’d say that it does. Journalists are meant, in part, to act as proxy citizens – to ask the question you’d ask if you were lucky enough to buttonhole the prime minister, premier or mayor on the street. They’re meant to find the meat behind the message.

This week, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault issued a report lamenting the deterioration of the Access to Information system – a crucial method for citizens, and reporters, to hold politicians to account and have questions answered. She was writing specifically about that crisis, but her words stand for a wider and more threatening problem: “When the access system falters, not only is Canadians’ participation in government thwarted but ultimately, the health of Canadian democracy is at stake.”

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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