The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Revealed: the Parliamentary Press Gallery's Anybody-but-Harper Entente Cordial

It was in the middle of the race to elect a new leader for the Liberal Party of Canada, and Yves Malo, the president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery could hardly restrain his joy.

"We are very happy," Malo, a reporter with the French news network TVA, told the reporter for the Halifax Chronicle Herald. "I think that it's good news that the one who may be the next prime minister won't hold a list."

In fact, he said, the press gallery had "received similar assurances from NDP leader Jack Layton, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe and interim Liberal leader Bill Graham."

Maybe it was because he was speaking to a fellow member of the press gallery ( reporter Stephen Maher ) or maybe he just didn't think many people would read the story in Halifax, but Malo was quite open about making common cause with the Opposition.

"Mr. Malo said the Conservative government's approach to media management flies in the face of Canadian political tradition, while the Bloc, Liberals and NDP are calling for a return to business as usual," wrote Maher last September.

In the past week we've seen just how close this entente cordial has grown. Six days ago, syndicated radio talk-show host Charles Adler spoke with the Liberal's Natural Resources critic Mark Holland, who dropped a political bombshell.

Stephane Dion, he said, planned to impose federal restrictions on the Alberta oil sands. A Dion government would decide when and how much development could take place, and only if it met the Liberal's policy to meet Kyoto targets.

Adler admits he's an entertainer and not a reporter, so it was only the next day on the Dave Rutherford radio show that Holland's words were clarified beyond doubt.

Asked directly if a Dion government would nationalize oil companies, Holland said the Liberals would "work with them collaboratively," but "of course, if they refuse to work with us ... there will be consequences."

But the day after Holland appeared on Adler's show, no mainstream televison or newspaper carried a story about his comments.

The day after he appeared on Rutherford's show, and after his comments were raised in the House of Commons, no coverage.

Or the day after that.

Or the day after that. On Monday, there was a brief mention in the National Post's editorial, but nowhere in its news pages.

Late in the evening, Canadian Press carried a story about Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach responding to Holland's comments, and saying there would be "dire economic consequences" if oil sands development was slowed to curb CO2 emissions. Holland was quoted saying Stelmach and the Conservatives were fear mongering. A Google News search shows the story was run in, count 'em, one place---CTV's website.

On Tuesday, the National Post got around to doing a story on Holland's threat---in its business pages.

On Wednesday, with the blogosphere afire and Adler replaying Holland's comments for the second day in a row, CTV's Mike Duffy broke the MSM blackout at last. His guests?

* Holland, who attacked the Conservatives for distorting what he said.
* Alberta's provincial Liberal leader who said the environment trumps politics.
* And a clip of Dion who was as unintelligible as ever.

No mention of Rutherford or "consequences."

Now, imagine if Environment Minister John Baird announced that in order to meet Canada's commitments to the Kyoto accord the Conservatives were going to take control of the auto plants in Ontario and decide how many cars would be built, what models, and in what months...

Would that be front page news?

How long would it take for the Globe and Mail and CBC and even CTV to plaster Baird's threat across its news pages? A week? Or a minute?

" Unfortunately, the press gallery has taken the view they are going to be the Opposition to the government," Stephen Harper said last May. Given the cozy entente between the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the Opposition parties, the Prime Minister is looking more prophetic by the second.

And how much of a leap is it to see a deliberate boycott of news that could hurt the Liberal Party in an expected election?

It's beyond doubt that the CBC, the Globe and Mail, TVA, CTV and the rest of the mainstream media have a double standard when it comes to what's news. When the Liberals circulated a two-year old letter by Stephen Harper on Kyoto, the MSM rushed to get the details out.

Who leaked the letter?
Would you believe some Liberal named Mark Holland?

Or how about Radio-Canada's scoop by Guy Gendron three weeks ago about a "secret" Conservative government agreement with the U.S. to ramp up the development of -get this-- the Alberta oil sands. It turns out the meeting where this alleged deal was cooked up, was arranged by the Liberal government when Stephane Dion was environment minister, and took place ONE DAY after the election that turfed the Liberals and installed the Conservatives. And the minutes have been on the internet for months.

Ahhh, facts. Who needs 'em? Certainly not CBC French, not when you can run an "expose" designed to damage the Conservatives just as Parliament resumes.

The Parlimentary Press Gallery decided to become adversaries of the Conservatives almost a year ago. The alleged reason was the PMO's requirement that they put their names on a list of reporters wishing to ask questions.

The Prime Minister might play favorites, said PPG president Yves Malo. He might only pick reporters with softball questions. Harper was threatening the freedom of the press. Harper's staff "made it very clear they were taking their cue from the White House," Malo told an American reporter. "They were always telling us how things were done in Washington. The first time we resisted we were called 'liberals.' Now, we're called 'liberal ideologues.'"

So last May Malo got the PPG to boycott Harper's press conferences. Harper responded by not holding news conferences in Ottawa.

Oh, he still held news conferences. In fact, the week the boycott was announced, Harper had four news conferences outside of Ottawa, according to Canadian Press, which was boycotting him. He took questions from 11 reporters in Toronto, 14 in Calgary, 11 in St. John's and 17 in Vancouver. Nobody complained that Harper refused to answer their questions. But to the PPG, that didn't matter.

They tried to get the local reporters to join the boycott. They lobbied the editors of all the major newspapers in Canada to support the boycott. They complained that Harper gave television interviews "which allow those being interviewed to transmit their message unhindered."

Some of their antics were facical. Carley Fortune of Canadian University Press wrote of a Harper news conference in Victoria, B.C.(Press Freedom is public freedom, Martlet Online, Sept. 6, 2006)

" I sat beside two press gallery reporters during Harper's speech at the Empress. Their news organizations had forbidden them from asking questions because of the controversy back in Ottawa. I watched one of the reporters seek out members of the local media to see if anybody would ask the questions she had for Harper."

But most were shameful.

* CBC's Julie Van Dusen broke past security guards and hammered on the door of the Prime Minister's office disrupting a private meeting of cancer-stricken children with the Canadian Cancer Society giving daffodils to Stephen Harper.

CBC's Terry Milewski called Harper a liar ("with respect") at a news conference in Vancouver and falsely denied that the PPG in Ottawa had shouted down a reporter who wanted to ask the PM a question.

* Marie-Paul Rouleau from Radio-Canada (about 113 or the 415 PPG members are CBC employees) swore at Stephen Harper's press secretary at a photo-op in Vietnam.

* Marty Mudie, a cameraman with TVA, got into a scuffle with security guards and a PMO official during another photo-op, this in Ottawa. (The Parliamentary Press Gallery executive says they reviewed videotape of the Mudie incident "frame by frame" and determined he was a victim. No videotape has been made public. In the age of YouTube, there's more video of the gunman on the Grassy Knoll than of Mudie in the PMO.)

The PPG boycott crumbled after four months ( ).

Canwest, CTV, Reuters, and now Radio-Canada (!!!!) have notified the PMO they will sign up for news conferences.

The Canadian Press, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, CBC, TVA and Le Devoir are defiantly staying off the list.

The PPG was humiliated. Nobody cared about their silly boycott.

The only reporters not talking to the Prime Minister were the ones paid to live in Ottawa and talk to the Prime Minister. Their vaunted role of gatekeepers of special knowledge was blown to smithereens. They were exposed as overpaid, underworked whiners.

But veteran reporters and political insiders knew what to expect from the PPG. Even before the boycott cracked they predicted the Parliamentary Press Gallery would get back at Harper the only way they can, by slanting their coverage.

The CBC's Larry Zolf wrote that "Harper's treatment of the media is that of an ingrate." The media made Harper said Zolf. They also made Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney and eventually made their parties suffer at the polls. "A similar fate awaits Harper" (CBC News Viewpoint March 28, 2006)

Peter Donolo, former communications director to PM Jean Chretien, concurred. Over time, he told the Hill Times, irritated reporters will stop giving Harper the benefit of the doubt in their coverage. (The Hill Times, May 29th, 2006)

After the PPG had to eat crow, National Post columnist Jim Ivison saw their mood hardening.

"The hostile mood at a recent press gallery meeting to discuss the dispute suggests any mistake by the Conservatives in an election will see Harper become the victim of summary justice." (National Post, November 17, 2006)
The PPG have another incentive to take their War on Harper to a new level. Self-preservation.

Reporters are notorious for their sensitivity to scrutiny. And becoming adversaries has brought them under new spotlights.

Conservative back bencher Scott Reid asked for a report on how many press gallery members got contracts from government in the past four years.

"It's no one's business how they make ends meet." blubbered Yves Malo.

" The whole thing clearly seems orchestrated - possibly someone's effort to cast doubt on the independence of Ottawa journalists; possibly an effort to link journalists with the previous Liberal administration; possibly simple mischief-making by a government that has a very testy relationship with the Ottawa press corps." , Winnipeg Free Press editor Bob Cox pontificated on his "blog."

Still, the results to Reid's request were certainly eye-opening. It turns out the Globe and Mail's columnist Jeffrey Simpson collected $2,400 from the Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for a couple of speeches. Lawrence Martin, also a writer for the Globe, pocketed $2,500 from the Department of Justice for his talents as a speaker. And Martin and Christine St. Pierre of Radio-Canada both cashed cheques, he for $4000 and she for $1,700, for being a panelists at the Canada School of Public Service. Nice pocket change if you can get it.

Simpson, BTW, said he couldn't be bought for a lousy couple of grand. "It doesn't influence me in any way, shape or form," he told Canwest News.

Oh, and Winnipeg Free Press Ottawa reporter Paul Samyn was only worth a bargain basement $535 to the Canada School of Public Service.

"It's the same as if Paul was paid to lead a course at the University of Winnipeg on public relations or politics. I have talked many times to government departments and agencies. Just last week I spent a morning with army public relations people from western Canada. They gave me a cup of coffee. I always refuse payment for these engagements - except for small tokens such as a bottle of wine or a free lunch" said Bob Cox in attempting some damage control.

Somehow Cox forgot to discuss the strange relationship Samyn had with the Liberal Party, that saw the Winnipeg Free Press obtain leaks of government announcements the day before the rest of the Winnipeg media did, so the broadsheet could plaster the details on the front page of their Friday paper the same day of the official announcement.

What quid pro quo was attached to that little deal, Cox doesn't say. Nobody has forgotten how Samyn wrote about Kreskin the mentalist during the last election camapign, instead of chasing the Income Trust scandal

He did, however, have a parting piece of opinion.

"Parliamentary press gallery rules do not allow journalists to use their membership for their own benefit. This is intended to prevent people from masquerading as journalists while looking for government work - someone in the press gallery trying to win a consulting contract, or get information or influence to help a bid on government work. "

Obviously, Cox had no idea that the reason Scott Reid asked for the information was a column in 2004 by Don Martin in the National Post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004
OTTAWA - Being a journalist on Parliament Hill is supposed to be a job, not a job application.

But you'd never know it from the exodus of senior national press-gallery reporters defecting to the dark side, pulling down serious coin to serve as flacks on the federal government's payroll.

This one-way flow of talent has been going on ever since someone decided those hired to manipulate and slant the facts for partisan purposes are worth considerably more than those paid to ferret out the news for public consumption.

If, as seems likely, most of [them] knew about their career change before their media resignation, any pretense of professional neutrality was clearly sacrificed on the altar of a paycheque-boosting conflict of interest.

Four senior reporters have fled Ottawa newsrooms in the last month to deliver spin over substance for six-figure salaries in ministerial offices, joining another two who quit earlier to join the Paul Martin administration.

Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief Drew Fagan was the most recent to depart the news biz to become senior economic adviser in the department of Foreign Affairs.

Susan Murray, the distinctive parliamentary voice of CBC radio for 28 years, recently took the communications director's job for her "friend," Public Works Minister Scott Brison.

My former office colleague, Ian Jack, quit last month to become the flack for Industry Minister David Emerson, a ministry he covered closely for the Financial Post.

Campbell Morrison, a freelancer and columnist with two New Brunswick papers, quit to head up communications for Native Affairs Minister Andy Scott of Fredericton, but not before churning out breathless columns quoting Scott's "big promotion" while waxing on about the new Minister's new office, his chairing of a Cabinet committee and the start of the Minister's five-week national tour to learn about his new job.

You would think Bob "You can't buy me with a bottle of wine" Cox would be a little bit suspicious about reporters who go from the Parliamentary Press Gallery straight to government jobs without even a pretense of a cooling off period.

The PPG consists of reporters who would crucify any civil servant, lobbyist, or defeated politician who quit his job only to appear at a government desk the next day. But when they do it, it's taboo to ask questions about the alleged impartiality of the reporter in the days, weeks and months before he started his sparkly new job.

Imagine how more unspeakable it is to point out that some of the PPG have more than a financial bond with the Liberals. You know what they say blood is thicker than water.

So when we learn that the Globe's Jeffrey (" You can't buy me for a lousy two grand ") Simpson has a son who works for the Liberals, we're supposed to say "But he's a professional."

And when we learn that the Toronto Star's Susan Delacourt has a brother who worked for Liberal leadership candidate Joe Volpe before jumping to B.C. MP Sukh Dhaliwal, we're supposed to say "At least she doesn't write stories in her pyjamas."

But, now that we've seen how easy it was for the Liberals to manipulate CP ( we have to ask whether reporters and columnists with more than a passing non-monetary professional relationship to politicians should have to be flagged by a disclaimer.

If the public knew that a writer has a blood relative working for the Liberals, they might better understand when an anonymous "source" shows up in the writer's stories, or the writer is the recipient of a "leaked" report.

Or even why the writer chooses to report on one story while pretending a much larger story is not there.

Yves Malo brags that the Parliamentary Press Gallery has a common goal with all the Opposition parties.
The only thing standing in their way is Stephen Harper.

There's nothing suspicious about that, is there?

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