Skip to main content

This photo was taken and distributed by the Prime Minister's Office on Aug. 19. It's taken from the deck of the Canadian submarine HMCS Corner Brook when Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited it to showcase Canada's military capabilities in the Far North. News media were not allowed to take pictures of Mr. Harper aboard the military vessel but the PMO photographer was permitted to do so.Photographer: Jason Ransom

Minutes after Stephen Harper finished his now-famous rendition of With a Little Help from My Friends , the Prime Minister's Office e-mailed Canadian media an arresting close-up shot of what it described as the gala piano performance.

Only it wasn't.

The picture, which featured Mr. Harper framed by dazzling theatre lights, was actually snapped by a PMO photographer at a private rehearsal hours before the Oct. 3 evening concert.

The shot - used by media outlets including The Globe and Mail's website - is cited by photojournalists who cover Mr. Harper when they discuss what they see as recent PMO efforts to exert more influence over images of the Conservative Prime Minister.

Since the spring, the PMO has effectively set up its own picture service, e-mailing photos to Canadian media almost daily in an effort to find a market for publicity shots of Mr. Harper's activities. It's a service that ultimately competes with the work of photojournalists, but one, they argue, that should not be relied upon as a record of events.

The mislabelled Harper picture is evidence of that, photojournalists say.

"That's why you rely on independent journalists to gather news," said Graeme Roy, The Canadian Press's director of news photography.

Contacted about the photo, the Prime Minister's Office acknowledged that it erred in distributing a rehearsal picture that was captioned as the gala performance and said it should have sent out a correction. "We strive to make no errors on stuff that we put out. Unfortunately, sometimes, we're human and we do make a mistake," PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall said.

Photojournalists say that while they don't begrudge the PMO for distributing pictures - the Obama White House has a Web page dedicated to the same end - they're concerned about instances in which they are losing access to Mr. Harper and then being asked to accept the Conservative government's own photographic record of an event as a substitute.

Although that is not the case with the gala performance, where The Canadian Press was on hand to snap its own shots, it is what happened during Mr. Harper's August trip to the Arctic. There, the Prime Minister's Office publicized that he and cabinet ministers ate seal meat, but didn't let journalists witness the meal.

After Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's headline-grabbing consumption of seal heart last May, dining on this slightly fishy-tasting flesh has become a de rigueur gesture of respect toward Inuit people. Ms. Jean's meal, however, was consumed in full view of reporters and their cameras.

Not in Mr. Harper's case. His personal photographer was the only one to record the snack, even though close to two dozen journalists had travelled north with his entourage. The resulting PMO "handout" picture, distributed to media and widely published, showed the Prime Minister and colleagues reaching for pieces of seal as proof they ate the meat.

"There were no journalists present to verify that this in fact took place," Mr. Roy noted.

The national news service filed a complaint with the PMO after his Arctic visit, stemming from incidents on the trip as well as other difficulties in covering Mr. Harper.

"We don't feel that we are getting the access we need in order to tell the story of the Prime Minister properly," Mr. Roy said. He said he remains hopeful that ensuing discussions with the PMO will bear fruit and lead to changes.

The Prime Minister's Office says the Iqaluit seal-meat picture was left to the PMO photographer because most journalists were heading to another event and officials didn't think it would be fair to invite only those who stayed behind.

Mr. MacDougall, the deputy PMO press secretary, said the government tries its best to minimize the number of pictures it releases that are based on events that photojournalists haven't witnessed.

He said the recent practice of e-mailing out pictures is intended to supplement the supply of images available for media as well as bloggers. "There are a lot of smaller publications that don't have access to photographers ... or what the Prime Minister is doing."

Mr. MacDougall said the Tories try to ensure their photo distribution only duplicates the pictures that photojournalists are taking rather than offering exclusive images. Any exceptions are "not by design."

Pictures are, of course, key for politicians. "They are literally what we see first about them," said Christopher Dornan, director of the Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs at Carleton University.

"A bad image to a politician is at best unhelpful. It detracts from the message; it sets you back - it's something you have to either ignore and ride out, or respond to, or answer for," he said. "Plus, everyone has an ego, and who would be happy about looking bad on camera for the country to see?"

Reuters photojournalist Andy Clark, who served as official photographer to prime minister Brian Mulroney, happened to be in the Arctic chronicling a military exercise this August when Mr. Harper's northern tour joined the operation.

"I had a problem with that trip. I felt that we were purposely pushed around," Mr. Clark said. "I just felt they were going out of their way [so]that we would get just the pictures they wanted us to get."

He described how rubber dinghies carrying photographers and a TV crew were shuttled out of sight so they couldn't take pictures of Mr. Harper disembarking a warship to enter a smaller boat.

"We were ordered immediately to the opposite side of the ship so we couldn't photograph the Prime Minister coming down the gangplank into his boat," Mr. Clark said. "I guess they were afraid he might stumble, I don't know."

The same thing happened when Mr. Harper left this small boat to climb aboard the submarine HMCS Corner Brook: The media were kept out of the line of sight so they couldn't capture him climbing a ladder onto the vessel.

And, finally, news media were also denied a place atop the submarine HMCS Corner Brook, where PMO photographer Jason Ransom ultimately captured an arresting wide-angle shot of Mr. Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay. This picture was widely published in newspapers and on websites.

The PMO's Mr. MacDougall said that while his office tried the best it could to get media access to the sub despite security rules, some places end up being off limits. "Jason was able to be there and he took a great shot so we put it out."

Asked about the positioning of media dinghies during the sub visit, he only said: "Photographers and cameramen took incredible pictures and video during the Prime Minister's Arctic trip. Photojournalists and camera operators are always welcome to attend our photo opportunities."

A senior Conservative strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the PMO's photo distribution represents a natural evolution of political communication. "The world has changed since the days of Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney," the strategist said. "People in 2009 want video and images. Look at the evolution of media websites. Images and video spark interest and drive website visits," the Tory said.

"Text - be it through traditional speeches [or]news releases - is not enough in 2009."