The media mandate

In the long-ago days of 2011, Canadians were asked to cast their ballots in a federal election. At stake was the topic top-of-mind to voters, whether the media strategy of Stephen Harper’s government was acceptable.

Never mind “Jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts” or, if you prefer, “a sea of (economic) troubles lapping at our shores.” Never mind the contempt the executive had for Parliament. Never mind what sort of attendance in Parliament is appropriate for a federal party leader.

The question put to voters was whether ignoring the media was acceptable. According to one Ottawa reporter, the answer, from nearly six million Canadians, was the media strategy was eh-okay.

This was an interesting assertion coming from the Sun’s Ottawa bureau chief, David Akin. He dropped this idea in the middle of a conversation about a skull-cracking good piece by VICE’s Justin Ling on the absurd lengths the Prime Minister’s Office will go to not answer questions. 

Ling details how media are corralled and generally not allowed to participate at any event involving the prime minister. No questions are to be asked, and no answers should ever be expected. It’s bullshit, Ling says, and he’s right. It is bullshit.

Anyhow, in steps Akin with the idea voters were asked, basically, whether it was okay for the prime minister to go on ignoring reporters. “Don’t forget…5.8 (million) Canadians voted in 2011 for (Harper’s) way of doing things,” he said. “All (the prime minister) got asked in week one was why we couldn’t ask more questions. So, yeah, you could argue he won the mandate!”

He went on: “I just think if media wants change, we have to demonstrate to voters why.”

(Click through any of those links to see the full back-and-forth between various parties.)

It’s quite fairly said in pundit circles the public generally doesn’t care about spats between reporters and government PR weenies. But, to suggest voters actually cast a ballot with this in mind is b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

His further assertion journalists need to make the case to the public that we should be able to ask questions is just—I’m not even sure how to be nice about this. It’s simply dumb

The job of the press isn’t to shill for votes, or to make the case for the most basic access to politicians. The job of the press is to report on those in power, not make the case for a slice of their strawberry-power pie.

The media shouldn’t be convincing the public that their government needs to be reported on. The media’s job is to hold politicians accountable. If politicians aren’t willing to play along with that principle out of divine benevolence, they need to be shown that not being accountable has a price. 

How do you do that? You make the people denying you access look vindictive and small. A government department avoids answering your questions, and instead feeds you a meaningless word salad? Write a line like: “The department wouldn’t answer simple, direct questions.” Then leave out the talking points.

And there’s the idea of a photo-op boycott. It’s been tried before, but it didn’t hold. The press has been beaten back repeatedly by this government and has never been able to regain any ground. The reasons are numerous, but it mostly comes down to the culture of news outlets. 

A sustained boycott could turn the tables on the PMO, but that will never be possible because many outlets would never agree to a boycott for fear of getting scooped by someone who wasn’t playing along. (This idea was well covered in a discussion between Paul McLeod, of BuzzFeed, and Jesse Brown on an episode of CANADALAND.)

The ability of the press to push back against the pols has been destroyed by the short-sightedness of that night’s news or the next morning’s paper. The problem isn’t that the citizenry support the government’s media blockade, the problem is the media are too cowed to demand better. 

This mystical thinking by Akin, that the media needs a mandate from the people, is part of the problem. 

The press has the power, we just choose not to use it.