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'Control freak' Stephen Harper versus 'pack journalism'

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters at Red Cross headquarters in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2010.

CHRIS WATTIE

Right-wing radio host Dave Rutherford has accused reporters who cover the Prime Minister and Parliament Hill of personally disliking Stephen Harper and ganging up on him when asking questions.

"Inside the world of the Ottawa press gallery" was the topic of his Calgary-based broadcast Thursday morning, inspired by Mr. Harper's news conference last week after the mini-cabinet shuffle in which some questions were raised about the fairness of who got to ask what of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Rutherford, like some other right-wing commentators in Canada, believes Parliament Hill journalists are politically left-leaning and out to get the Conservative government. Thursday, he mocked the gallery, saying it characterizes Mr. Harper as a "controller," and "a control freak" for not answering reporters' questions.

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And he invited Sun Media bureau chief David Akin, who is based in Ottawa, to debate the topic. Mr. Akin held his own, defending gallery members against charges of bias. It was fun to listen to.

"Now listen, you guys are not all a bunch of objective news guys up there," Mr. Rutherford asserted. "You've all got your own axes and biases to grind. And when questions are asked I sense often times there's a lot of personal questions, personal combativeness with the Prime Minister who many of you guys do not like."

Mr. Rutherford suggested that was the reason why the Prime Minister doesn't seem to spend a lot of time with the national media.

Not the case, said Mr. Akin. In fact, he told Mr. Rutherford (in a nice way) that he was "full of it."

"Sorry about that," said Mr. Akin, explaining that journalists deliberately ask tough and aggressive questions to challenge the Prime Minister. But it goes with the territory, he explained: all political leaders - "no matter what stripe" - are subject to that same scrutiny and grilling.

The problem, he added, is that opposition leaders' press conferences are not as widely publicized (or shown on live television as often) as ones featuring the Prime Minister.

The talk-radio segment comes on the heels of The Globe and Mail's report on the post-shuffle press conference last Friday. Mr. Harper had not taken questions from reporters for 30 days; when he finally did, he only allowed four questions - two from English media and two from French media.

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"Faced with limited opportunity to quiz the Prime Minister, journalists talked among themselves to see who would ask Mr. Harper questions," The Globe's Steven Chase wrote.

And the reporters decided that one of their two English questions should be on the controversy over the government's decision to scrap the compulsory long-form census. At that time, the Prime Minister had not responded to the issue.

The reporters signed the list as they are required to do by the PMO to be able to ask questions. But the census question never got asked; the reporters who had planned to ask it were never called upon by the PMO despite being first and second on the list.

Mr. Rutherford believes this is "pack journalism" in action.

"They have a conflab among themselves … and decide who is going to ask the best question … You? You? You, You?" Mr. Rutherford charged. "And they come up some unanimity on THE question, which to me looks more and more like pack journalism all the time."

Mr. Akin set him straight, explaining when there are only two questions to be asked the reasonable way to proceed is for reporters' to get together.

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"It seems to be the most effective tool we have," Mr. Akin said, suggesting the Prime Minister might want to take more questions at his press conferences.

Nevertheless, the Sun bureau chief concluded by saying Mr. Harper is one of the "best politicians" he has seen in dealing with the press.

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