Back in the Depression years, the eminent Winnipeg Free Press reporter Grant Dexter, whose work was detested by R.B. Bennett, was washing his hands in the men's room at the Rideau Club. From the prime ministerial cabin came a flushing sound and out stepped Bennett.
"Well, Dexter," he bellowed with others present, "What falsehoods have you been disseminating today?"
The embarrassed scribe tried to defend himself but as recounted in Allan Levine's book, Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media, the Tory prime minister kept at him. "Doubtless you've done your quota. You can't tell me that you were not actuated by malice."
Bennett frequently was at war with the press gallery. He never adhered to Mark Twain's dictum, "Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel." He was not one to go the padlocked jaws route of some politicians, such as U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles. "No comment," Mr. Dulles once told a prying reporter. "And that's off the record."
While lavatory spats are hardly the norm, Bennett's relations with the media can hardly be termed unusual. The majority have followed the same pattern. The rapport is initially favourable but inevitably dissolves into acrimony. No one should be surprised if this is the case with the fourth estate and Justin Trudeau.
The Ottawa press gallery dinner, marking the 150th anniversary of the gallery, was held Saturday night. For the first time in a decade, a prime minister showed up. Mr. Trudeau brought along almost his entire cabinet, spoke to the digitalized throng, did a skit with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and a good time was had by almost all.
While Mr. Trudeau was well received, interim Tory leader Rona Ambrose was the show-stopper, delivering a string of pointed one-liners – many of them at the expense of her former Conservative boss. We got it all wrong on him, she explained. "Stephen Harper actually loved humanity. It was just people he couldn't stand."
The Trudeaus made good use of self-deprecating humour. Dinged for hiring nannies on the public dime, Sophie made light, pleading for more support staff to lay out her yoga mat as well as for accompanying musicians for whenever she feels like breaking into song.
The Prime Minister thanked her for giving him children for use as political "props."
They were obvious digs at how picayune we in the media can be. Several prime ministers have discovered our knack for this.
In one campaign, John Turner got filmed giving a couple of women friendly pats on the posterior. It became a national sensation. The media labelled his campaign plane Derri-Air. Brian Mulroney tried getting along with the media but got in trouble over such weighty affairs of state as the platoon of Gucci loafers adorning his allegedly two-acre wardrobe chamber.
On his anti-social calendar, Mackenzie King described the press gallery dinner as his most unpleasant outing of the year. Jean Chrétien's folksy charm worked for a while with the press but he fumed at Shawinigate coverage. Pierre Trudeau soured on gallery dinners after one in which a bevy of half-smashed scribes pelted his table with buns.
Inevitably, prime ministers determine, though often it is their own folly that is the cause, that the media are biased against them. Justin Trudeau may be even more apt to feel set upon than his father. In Pierre Trudeau's era, the press was more liberal. Today, the fellow who runs the great mass of print media in the country is an avowed conservative, Postmedia's Paul Godfrey. Though not the force it used to be, print still factors heavily in the national discussion and never have conservatives been in control of more major newspapers.
Postmedia is in dire financial straits, however, and big chunks of the empire could soon be sold off to interests more friendly to the Trudeau team.
It would help, but don't count on any lasting harmony. What history tells us is that in relations between the press and the prime ministers, hostilities are the hallmark.