Binkley - Gag rule backfires


The spotlight is on the news media

Crime in London with News of the World

Harper's gag rule that backfires in Ottawa

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The hasty termination of the News of the World in England has swung the spotlight onto the role of the news media. The timing couldn’t be better.

Payments to cops and hacking phones don’t sound like what real journalists would be doing in the first place. However, the issue that is far bigger than the tabloid’s fate is the media’s fascination with so-called celebrity news.

Whether it’s the kind of silliness that graces the front pages of the rags available in grocery store checkout lines and too many special sections of daily newspapers to the alleged reality shows that have made television barely worth watching, most media seem to have embraced this mindless gruel with gusto.

When I started in journalism 40 years ago, I looked forward to reading newspapers and magazines to keep to date on events around the world or the latest discoveries and inventions. Nowadays, I usually end up flipping through them occasionally finding something worth reading at least part of.

News websites suffer with the same fascination with the cult of the personality — offering megadoses of pointless prose on basically uninteresting people who are believed to be attention getters because they’re considered public figures — athletes, entertainers, business leaders, politicians or others of that ilk. Mostly they’re boring narcissists.

Open, unfettered sources of news are vital to a free society. But I fear that too many publishers and other decision makers embrace celebrity reporting because it fills pages far cheaper than reporting on the tough issues we face from climate change to homelessness to feeding 9 billion people in a couple of decades.

It takes time for journalists to learn enough to fully appreciate the scope of these challenges. Getting to the bottom of them can annoy a lot of advertisers and decision makers. So, the media takes the easy way out. Hopefully, few follow the News of the World’s law-breaking approach to gathering news.

However, inane celebrity news isn’t the only threat facing journalism, especially in Canada. Since they came to power, the Harper Conservatives have worked away at gaining a stranglehold on what the media can learn about federal activities.

I used to think it was just paranoia and trying to hold together a disparate group of MPs in a minority government. But there’s more to it than just being control freaks.

Having covered the Trudeau, Mulroney and Chretien governments, I’ve never seen a bunch like the Harper crowd that dodges a real engagement with the news media. And they have several prominent ex journalists in their caucus, who’ve forgotten what they used to preach.

Tom Korski, a Parliamentary Press Gallery colleague, analyzed the Harper government’s approach to the media in a June 27 column in the Hill Times. His conclusion is that Conservative insiders believe they can’t get a fair hearing in the media because it’s dominated by its political enemies. So it’s time for a brawl with media.

The Press Gallery comes in for special abuse from Guy Giorno, former top aide to Harper, who attacked the media in a speech in Ottawa after the May 2 election. Giorno made it sound like the Gallery was a monolithic gang out to control what issues Canadians heard about.

As Korski discovered with basic journalistic digging is that Giorno has a big issue with a small gaggle of columnists.

There are 450 Gallery members, about half of whom are writers and radio and television correspondents.

Many of us have seen several governments come and go and know that another one will come along some day. What we mainly do is report on what the politicians or the groups that come to lobby them say is important. We try to explain it so the readers who don’t live in Ottawa and have other things to do than live and breathe federal policies, can understand what the fuss is about.

This is where the Harper government falls down big time. It has so restricted its ministers, MPs and the bureaucracy from talking about issues that it largely has no influence over what journalists report.

For example, I mostly write for specialized publications that want a lot more information than the glib quotes that come in most government press releases. So I have to contact government departments and agencies for more details.

Usually I have several days before my story is due so I can wait for the answer. That’s because my query and the proposed response has to be approved by the prime minister’s handlers, who usually know nothing about the matter.

Most reporters are hours from their deadline. As a result, they turn to the opposition parties, lobby groups, academics and other experts for comment and explanation. The government’s message tends to get lost or diluted in the process.

Back in the Trudeau and Mulroney years, I could phone the department and get an interview the same day with the official involved in the issue. Ministers and MPs were more than happy to answer questions from reporters.

That’s virtually impossible with the Harper government.

The Giornos in Harperland should deal with that issue instead of making up a fight over a bias that doesn’t exist.

Add new comment