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News with a Disclaimer

There was an unreported ambulance shortage this week when almost every available emergency vehicle was rushed to the Winnipeg Free Press. What they found there was shocking.

Columnist Frances Russell was reportedly passed out cold in a faint on the floor. Columnist Bill Neville was being revived with a cold compress at his neck. Columnist Val Werier was complaining of feeling dizzy and disoriented. Columnist Gordon Sinclair was almost catatonic, staring into a mirror and mumbling something or other to himself (is that unusual?-ed).

The liberal press corps had read the terrible news on the front page.

Harper would get majority: new poll
Highest level of support for Conservatives in 20 years
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is so popular with Canadians that it would be swept back into power with a majority if an election was held now, a new poll has found.

After weeks of telling everyone that the Conservatives were alienating voters every single day, that the electorate was repelled by Stephen Harper, that Canada was champing at the bit to toss the extremists out....this.

A wave of cognitive dissonance swept the newsroom, felling the columnists as surely as Hurricane Katrina felled the trees of the bayou.

The prognosis was grave, but for one ray of hope that kept the liberal hope alive. The Parliamentary Press Gallery had engaged in a massive demo of disrespect for the Prime Minister.

A weak cheer escaped the throats of the Free Press writers.

Hurrah.... Hurrah.

24 or 30 members of the Press Gallery (published numbers varied) had literally turned their backs on P.M. Stephen Harper and walked out when he came over to answer questions about his announcement of more millions for aid to Darfur.Was it only one month ago when these intrepid journalists were stomping their feet and demanding that Harper rescind his ban on the press at the airport when the bodies of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan returned to Canada?

Then, the press claimed they had a right to film the grief of the families because, as journalists, they were the embodiment of the Public. They had the proxy of the citizenry of the country. They had to see the coffins; it was their jobs.

Now, the Parliamentary Press Gallery has decided that representing the public means NOT doing their jobs.

Go figure.

As best we can determine, only two reporters (plus some TV cameramen and news photographers) stayed to face Prime Minister Harper. One of them was Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star and the other, we believe, was Mike Blanchfield, CanWest News Service. The others just walked away. They were asked to put their names on a list if they wanted to ask Harper a question. They refused, deciding that Darfur was less important to Canadians than their quarrel with the Prime Minister.

The Free Press carried an editorial on the Press War on Harper. It started:

The feud between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the parliamentary press gallery has spun, not so much out control as out of proportion. Both sides should give their heads a shake.

What the paper didn't do was identify their own Ottawa reporter, Paul Samyn, as one of the Press Gallery gang that failed the public.

Samyn, who distinguished himself during the federal election campaign by reporting on Kreskin the Mentalist rather than the Income Trust Scandal, joined the other reporters who felt that earning their pay meant NOT REPORTING from Parliament Hill.

But who else?

While there were stories in all the papers and newscasts about the Press protest against Harper, there was something missing in every one of them. It's a textbook case of how the press reports on itself.

What was missing was one of the five W's----Who.

Not one of the stories named the reporters who walked out on the P.M. Why? Surely that's the most important element of the story.

Even CTV's Mike Duffy, host of a daily show on politics, prefers to play the yokel "Gaw-aw-aww-lly. Whay's Mister Harper actin' lahk that?" rather than present the facts. Not even he wants to expose the pack.

So who walked out and why is it important?

Because this isn't a game.

A national reporters showing disrespect for the elected leader of the government is news. If he's collecting a paycheque from the CBC, that's news. If he's representing the Winnipeg Free Press on Parliament Hill, that's news in Winnipeg.

Nobody elected the Parliamentary Press Gallery. All their pretences to represent the public are just that, pretences.

The Press Gallery members have recognized their claims to be doing this for the good of mankind ring hollow outside their own circle. Thursday, Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star (in her paper) and Kady O'Malley of the Hill Times (on CBC TV) tried a new tack.

The confrontation with Stephen Harper is all about accountability, they said. Not political accountability, but the accountability of the executive members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

You see, they're elected and all the reporters on Parliament Hill have to be assured that they're doing their job fairly.

We want the PPG to run the news conferences because if they do a bad job -- giving all the questions to the CBC, or English language or Toronto-based media, or men/women only, for example -- we can hold them accountable. (Susan Delacourt, email to Antonia Zerbisias)

The only way they can do that is to let the Press Gallery continue to organize press conferences and decide who gets to ask questions and in what order. If they screw up, then the members of the Press Gallery can throw them out of office.

That's why the reporters don't want to let Stephen Harper make that decision. The reporters want to hold their own accountable. See?

And, of course, there's that boogie man the Press Gallery manufactured to give them an excuse to attack Stephen Harper. The Press Gallery doesn't want to let him pick which reporters get to ask questions because, they say, WHAT IF...

"... there's a crisis. They'll only call upon journalists they expect softball questions from?" said Yves Malo, a TVA reporter and president of the press gallery (the third president in three months, but that's another story.)

There isn't a lick of evidence for this conjecture, but it provides the Press Gallery with a cover to justify anti-Conservative stories.

After the government introduced its Accountability Act, CBC reporter Keith Boag started his story for the National with some cheap shots at Harper over the dispute with the Press Gallery.

When the body of soldier Nichola Goddard's was brought back to Canada, Canwest reporter Mike Drolet's story was all about the ban on the press at the airport, even though he had to provide all the criticism of the government himself because he couldn't find a non-politician to say anything bad.

And now the Darfur story becomes a story about the press.

What self-important indulgence. Only this week it got worse.

Stephen Harper was in British Columbia on Thursday to announce he planned to make street racing a criminal offence. The Press Gallery showed up, and, you guessed it, turned the event into a story about the Press Gallery.

CBC carried clips from the Q&A.

Harper comments that "The Press Gallery will not allow journalists to ask questions."

A reporter off-camera bellows: "It's simply not true what you just said."

Calling the Prime Minister or President of a country a liar is what passes for journalism these days. It's the fastest way to become a hero to the Press Gallery.

Except that Harper was explaining fact, and it was the reporter who was lying. It's even on video.

In March, Harper announced his Accountability Act to the country. Harper and Treasury Board President John Baird were to meet with reporters in foyer of the House of Commons. That's when the Parliamentary Press Gallery launched its assault on the Prime Minister.

A line was drawn in the Parliamentary sand. List or line-up. Choose your Canada.

The Press Gallery decided who would be in line and what they would ask. They set up mikes and formed nice Canadian lines and waited.

The PMO then announced it would hold the press conference in another room.

Much wailing and knashing of teeth followed. Press Gallery reporters crowded into the smaller room and tried to form the requisite lines as per the plan. PMO communications officer Dimitri Soudas arrived and tried to make a list of who wanted to ask questions. The gallery members refused to sign up.

When the Prime Minister arrived, he took a question or two from the lines, then asked Tim Naumetz, who writes for Canwest and Time Canada, whether he had any questions. The transcript of what happened tells the story:

Harper: Tim, do you have a question?

Tim Naumetz: Yeah, I have a question on that. The section that allows--[gallery members interjected and refused to let Naumetz continue]

Naumetz: Oh, I'm sorry.

Julie Van Dusen: Yeah, that's what the lineup's about.

Harper: Go ahead, Tim. If you want a question, you can.

Van Dusen: Well, we've lined up here.

Harper: That's fine. I asked Tim to ask me a question. Go ahead, Tim, if you want. If he wants.

Van Dusen: So you're going to ignore the lineup that's been lining up for 15 minutes?

Harper: Tim, do you want to ask a question or not?

Naumetz: Well, I wasn't aware that there was a line.

Van Dusen: There is a line.

Harper: Go ahead, Julie. Ask your question.

The Prime Minister answered her question, then left the room, having watched the Parliamentary Press Gallery browbeat a reporter into silence.

Now pay attention to all the stories you'll read, hear and see about the "feud" between the Prime Minister and the press, and ask why they will never include this fact.

The stories will never tell you that the Parliamentary Press Gallery has already shouted down one reporter who tried to do his job and ask a question about an act of Parliament.

The stories will never tell you that the Parliamentary Press Gallery makes its own carefully controlled list of who gets to ask questions, and nobody knows how they make that list, or even who makes it up?

Why should the public trust the Parliamentary Press Gallery any more than the Prime Minister? At least the P.M. is accountable to voters. The PPG is a law to itself.

And if members are willing to lie about having forced a reporter into silence, what else are they willing to do? Fake an embarassing press release?

Oh, look, the Parliamentary Press Gallery just happened to distribute a fake press release to reporters two weeks ago. What an amazing coincidence.

The news release, on the Prime Minister's letterhead, said Harper was investigating high-ranking public servants for sex scandals, drug trafficking, prostitution and other illegal activities. The phoney release apparently came in by fax and the press gallery's chief of staff, Terry Guillon, said a staffer "accidentally forwarded the message to reporters."

Yeah, oops.

When the Toronto Star was carrying stories by columnist Rosie DiManno, who was embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan, they ended her stories with disclaimers explaining that her columns were subject to military censorship.

Maybe all stories by members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery should carry disclaimers until the spat with the P.M. is over. Something like

"The author of this report is currently in a titanic struggle with the government Canadians elected. Therefore the contents are in accordance with approved Press Gallery procedure and may not be true to all people. Whatever you do, DO NOT read blogs to correct or we're screwed."

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