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July 2, 2010

Harper manipulates media

Scott Stockdale

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A July 1st Toronto Star letter to the editor, by Dimitri N. Soudas, Director of Communications, Office of the Prime Minister, is entitled "No role in keeping media away - Re Harper helps Hu keep critics away, June 25" (Toronto Star), but this may not be the whole story. My attempt to gain access to Prime Minister Harper, at the G20, Saturday, June 26, indicates that there is a lot more to it than Mr. Soudas is letting on.

The Star's June 25 article asserts that Chinese President Hu Jintao specifically requested the exclusion of two media outlets, during press coverage of his June 24th visit to Ottawa and, Prime Minister Harper assisted him by ensuring his request was fulfilled.

In his letter to the editor Mr. Soudas states: “The Prime Minister's Office played no role whatsoever in keeping any media outlet away for the Chinese president's visit. Media opportunities were covered by a reporter's “pool” - a common practice.”

Indeed, while this may be a common practice, it's not the whole story, by any means.

After applying for, and receiving, media accreditation to cover the G20, on behalf of the online magazine, the Canadian Charger, I went to the media centre at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), armed with a notepad and pen and a question or two – one in particular that I thought the Canadian taxpayers want, and deserve, an answer to.

I was on my way to one of the media events when I was stopped by Slyvain Gagne, Pool Co-coordinator, who informed me that I must have a pool pass to be eligible to attend most of the G20 leaders' events.

Naively, I showed him my press pass, and he proceeded to explain that this only allowed me to attend the plenary session of the G8 Summit in Huntsville - which was the opening of the second session of the G8 that morning - the G20 family photo op, and the final press conference of the G20, to be held the next day, Sunday June 27, at 5:00 pm, at the Toronto Convention Centre.

I was shocked because this was not the conception of democracy I had grown up with and still thought was true, in Canada.

“You mean to tell me that they say: 'I want this fellow but not this one?' '' I asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Gagne replied.

Over the course of a brief conversation that followed, I asked him that same question twice more – because I didn't believe what I was hearing – and each time the answer was the same.

In response to further questions, Mr. Gagne explained that I must have a pool pass from the delegation (Prime Minister's delegation) in order to attend the bilateral meetings between leaders, scheduled for that day. He also said that all the leaders select their press pools this way.

In order to be prepared for future events, I asked Mr. Gagne how I could get into the press pool.

He replied that Canada only had a certain number of openings in the press pool; and that I had to contact the people at the press gallery in Ottawa, if I wanted to get into the pool.

The next day, Sunday, June 27th, I arrived at what was supposed to be the final press conference, only to find that Mr. Harper would speak at 5 pm, followed by U.S. President Barack Obama, at 5:30 p.m.

Upon entering the conference room, I quickly learned that only reporters in the pool were allowed to ask questions of the leaders; and those who got the privilege of asking their elected representatives a question, were pre-selected by the Prime Minister's delegation.

Near the end of the press conference, a photographer, who I assumed was part of the pool, told me that one or more members of the Prime Minister's delegation, had come around to get the topics the designated reporters would be asking questions about. In response to my question, he said they didn't take the actual questions, just the topics.

Meanwhile, in his July 1 letter to the editor, Mr. Soudas said: “The Prime Minister's office did not determine which reporters would be in the press pool. This was done independently by the Parliamentary Press Gallery, of which the Toronto Star is a member.”

Of course, I wondered how a reporter gets accepted into the pool and how far he or she can go in putting pressure on the Prime Minister to answer difficult questions, before being excluded from future pools.

Still in disbelief, a few days later, I was discussing these issues with an acquaintance who had previously told me he has worked at the Toronto Star for many years, though not in the editorial department.

He said he has friends, some of whom are reporters or freelancers, and they've told him that once a reporter gets kicked out of the press pool, the Star gets rid of them.

“Why?” I asked, because I thought it was good reporting to ask tough questions of our elected officials, in order to hold them accountable for their actions.

“Because they're (reporters kicked out of the press pool) not of any use to them anymore,” he said.

He also told me that his reporter and freelancer friends told him that the reporters in the pool distribute pictures and names of other reporters and freelancers, to their colleagues in the pool, whom some pool reporters consider undesirable, for whatever reasons, in order to make the new reporters entry into the pool more difficult.

I thought about what he said and realized that although this type of conduct was disagreeable, it made sense in the interests of those who were doing it.

Firstly, being part of the pool is a valuable asset to the newspaper, as it gives it direct access to the Prime Minister. Without this access, numerous other reporters and wannabe reporters could do the job, without the stigma of having been kicked out of the pool; and they may even be admitted to the pool someday.

Secondly, being in the pool makes a reporter a valuable asset to his or her employer, as well as giving him or her considerable prestige. As Mr. Gagne said, there are only a certain number of reporters allowed into the pool, so if a new one gets in, someone's job would most likely be in jeopardy.

The question I would like to have asked Mr. Harper, which no other reporter asked, was: “Why did Canada spend $1.1 billion dollars on security for this G20 Summit, while at the two previous G20's, London spent $30 million and Pittsburgh spent $18 million on security. Moreover, French President Sarkozy said France will spend one tenth as much on security as Canada when it's their turn to hold a G20 Summit next year.

The Canadian public is entitled to an answer, but who's going to ask the question?

Photo by Miriam Kim: On Sunday, 27th of June, 2010, at the Metro Convention Center, Obama smiled as he was asked two questions by a reporter. He said, "Please, stick to just one question."

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