Patrick Gossage was press secretary to Pierre Trudeau and is chairman of Media Profile
"Hey! Hey! We have respect for journalists in this country," Justin Trudeau shouted at a Montreal news conference last month when supporters tried to shout down a reporter's question. "They ask tough questions and they're supposed to. Okay?"
Justin's regime will be press-friendly. The Harper regime treated most press as enemies. Journalists were cut off, as was the normal flow of government information. With little "meat" from government, national news became dominated by scraps, scandals, probing for scandals, and fights with everyone from veterans to the Supreme Court.
Andrew MacDougall, former prime minister Stephen Harper's long-serving director of communications, said it all after his departure: "There isn't much goodwill left between the press and the Conservative government; eight years of trench warfare has left a battlefield full of bad blood and blown relationships."
The most impressive sign of better relations with reporters came the day after the election, when, to the Press Gallery's surprise, reporters were invited to a "media availability" in the National Press Theatre, the locale for major national media conferences virtually unused for a decade by the sitting prime minister.
"It's a pleasure to be here in the National Press Theatre," Mr. Trudeau said. "I think it's important to underline the important role that the media fills in public discourse and public life, and I look forward to continuing to engage with you all in the coming days, months and years."
Now the word to cabinet is out, too: be available for media even if you have little to say in the early days. So it was that after the first cabinet meeting ministers came down smiling, three on three. In the following days, ministers like John McCallum – who has to try and keep the government's promise to bring in 25,000 refugees by the New Year – was on all political TV shows and being interviewed by print journalists.
As for the future of regular prime ministerial media conferences, we'll see. Justin Trudeau would know that in 1976, as a trade-off to ending long-running, often dangerous scrums in the halls of Parliament, his father had the idea of weekly news conferences. Justin Trudeau may tire of being chased around by cameramen and reporters and revert to this more disciplined strategy.
One hopes that "openness and transparency" two of Justin Trudeau's watchwords will extend to allowing senior civil servants to brief reporters on background – a constant feature of his father's era and that of his successors.
These briefings were critical sources of information for print journalists and serious commentators and have been sorely missing in the last decade. The first good sign is is that the muzzles put on government scientists by the previous government are being taken off.
A real flow of real information from real decision makers to the public through a better-informed media will undoubtedly increase public engagement in Ottawa politics. The Ottawa narrative had become the dreary story of partisan strife, cover-up and fudged policy. Some veteran scribes managed to inject seasoned comment, but that was rare. With ministers seldom available, the TV playlist featured the robot-like blathering of lower-level parliamentary secretaries, massaged by sometimes ill-informed partisan panelists and "experts".
A more accessible and civil approach to journalists will not turn them into cheerleaders for the Liberal's ambitious plans. They will remain skeptical. The government's popular promises will be picked away at and Ottawa media will "hold the government accountable" as many have said. The tagline the CBC's suave Chris Hall put on CBC Radio's The House said it all: "Putting the honeymoon to the test"!
However, with social media, the Trudeau government has a not-so-secret weapon that almost deploys itself and ensures a level of mass exposure less dependent on traditional media.
It's a new era indeed for mass political communications. The "because it's 2015" line from his Rideau Hall media conference has had millions of hits on the Internet and social media. Mr. Trudeau's own Facebook postings regularly win tens of thousands of "likes." And consider the flood of selfies with Mr. Trudeau and phone photos that reached tens of thousands more during the campaign. This kind of mass amplification of the image of the young attractive leader and his family will continue.
Moreover, content aside, the Ottawa media is not just journalists – it is cameramen and photographers. Both Trudeaus were, and are, naturals. Cameras loved Pierre, and they love Justin. The Globe and Mail's public editor did a thorough review of the paper's coverage during the campaign in both articles and pictures. No surprise, the sunny, happy Justin Trudeau earned 43 photos to 37 of Thomas Mulcair and 24 for Stephen Harper.
Mr. Trudeau knows in his DNA that the fourth estate and their camera people are worthy of civil treatment, close-in contact, and a degree of respect, care and feeding that they have not enjoyed for many years. As I used to tell my PMO colleagues, if we don't throw the media regular bones, they will start chewing on the table legs.