Ontario’s newly minted Progressive Conservative leader will not bring journalists with him on the campaign trail this spring, a rare move experts and critics say suggests the Tories are keen to keep the unpredictable populist politician out of the hot seat as he takes on two more seasoned rivals.
Doug Ford confirmed Thursday he will not have a media bus following him as he criss-crosses the province ahead of the June election, an accommodation traditionally offered by Ontario’s party leaders to facilitate coverage while they hold multiple daily events in different cities.
Ford’s campaign team has said his events will be broadcast online and his itinerary will be released for media interested in covering them in person.
“You guys are more than welcome to come to every event that’s posted,” Ford, a former Toronto city councillor, told reporters when asked about his decision, though he would not say what prompted it.
“I didn’t think there was any law about having media on the bus,” he added.
Ford said he would “love to” take questions from media daily throughout the campaign “as long as you guys can make it,” though he acknowledged that had not occurred during at least one of his recent rallies.
The Tory leader also said he would release his platform in a week or two, but would not say whether it would be fully costed as he previously promised.
Experts say the decision to scrap the media bus suggests a campaign strategy that centres on limiting questions and preventing Ford – a brash politician whose candid remarks often make headlines – from publicly going off-script.
And while this approach may prove effective politically, it’s concerning for democracy, they say.
“He is attempting to bypass the accountability function of the free press by limiting access to his campaign. This will not prevent coverage, but it alters the degree of access and creates a different, more opaque degree of transparency in the campaign,” said Tim Abray, a former journalist and current teaching fellow in political science at Queen’s University. “This should not be blown off as insignificant.”
The governing Liberals, meanwhile, accused Ford of “ducking voters and hiding from media scrutiny.”
“Doug Ford is afraid that the more Ontario sees of him and his plan for our province, the less there is to like. That’s why his campaign is ducking leaders’ debates, refusing to commit to releasing a fully costed platform and now ... refusing to provide a media bus,” Liberal campaign co-chair and former deputy premier Deb Matthews said in a statement.
“Not once in more than 60 years of modern campaigning history has a major political party in Ontario refused to provide media dedicated transport and routine access during an election. It is an unprecedented effort to hide Ford, conceal Conservative policies and steer their plan for Ontario away from public scrutiny.”
Political parties have already done away with media buses in some Western provinces, but that has not been the case in Ontario, where leaders have deployed them – as well as chartered flights to more remote communities – in all recent elections. News outlets pay thousands of dollars to the parties to reserve a seat and cover the costs of meals and other expenses.
Both Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said they would provide travel accommodations for media during the campaign, with Horwath saying journalists would be invited to share her campaign bus.
It’s not new for politicians to try to control the narrative around their campaign by restricting media access in various ways, said Tamara Small, a political science professor at the University of Guelph.
The federal Conservatives did so under Stephen Harper by imposing a cap of five questions at news conferences, a rule that prompted pushback from journalists, she said.
More recently, the federal Liberals have successfully peppered newspapers with photos taken by the prime minister’s own photographer – a move the Ford camp may try to replicate if fewer news organizations send staff photographers, she said.
“The narrative is that you’re not going to get that photo that’s unattractive,” Small said. “You’re going to get the photo where the lighting is perfect and the right people are in the background and ... it tells the story that they want to tell.”
While Ford, nonetheless, needs media attention to grow his profile and attract new votes, he can get it in a much more controlled setting by doing one-on-one interviews with local media or forcing journalists to quote his tweets as U.S. President Donald Trump has done, she said.
“One of the things that makes Doug Ford very attractive to people is his ability to sort of speak off the cuff and all that kind of stuff, but that is also the stuff...that could become problematic,” she said.
The Tories may also be trying to shift the focus from their leader onto other issues such as their policies, as the federal Liberals did in the 1980s in the campaign for a then-unpopular Pierre Elliott Trudeau, said Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen’s University.
“It’ll be interesting to see if Doug Ford maintains that script and doesn’t do as many photo ops as the other leaders,” he said. “The reason why you do that, of course, is to focus on the policy and avoid any kind of problems with Ford going off-script.”
In any case, Ford’s decision to scrap the media bus is a “shot across the bow to the media,” but the issue is unlikely to ruffle voters, said Rose.
“Voters don’t care about that and in fact it might play well to Doug Ford’s base that he is not playing nice with the media,” he said. “The U.S. wave of populism that has sort of washed over Ontario since his election may be evidence of that.”