Harper’s media misanthropy

PM’s distrust of media suspicious, possibly a ‘deal breaker’ for next election

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to journalists upon his arrival at a military airport in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, July 15, 2007.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to journalists upon his arrival at a military airport in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, July 15, 2007.
Credit: 
AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez
Alex Schwenger, ArtSci ’10
Alex Schwenger, ArtSci ’10

Stephen Harper is a political genius. As much as it may hurt me to say so, his political strategy is brilliant. Like any good chess master, he has control over the board and is playing the game with the utmost skill. What I don’t get, though, is how such an intelligent man could make such a big mistake.

Two days prior to his 2007 throne speech, in which he highlighted how the Conservative party had strengthened Canada’s “commitment to democracy,” documents were obtained by several newspapers highlighting his government’s plan to create a government-controlled media briefing centre that would potentially replace the independent National Press Theatre. Unlike the current National Press Theatre, which moderates press conferences by executive members, the new “dedicated press availability faculty” would be run by Mr. Harper’s political staff, who are already known for their infamously rocky relationship with journalists. In addition, the high level of secrecy surrounding the project and Mr. Harper’s quick retraction when the story broke, despite his previously high level of commitment to the project, has only added to the speculation that something sinister might have been going on. Because, let’s face it—doesn’t a government that can control what gets covered and who’s asking the questions sound just a little bit undemocratic?

Freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of modern liberal democracy and without it, society would be at the whim of government propaganda. Mr. Harper’s government claims the new media centre would have “put in place robust physical and information security measures to protect the Prime Minster and Cabinet.” Because, let’s face it— doesn’t a government that can control what gets covered and who’s asking the questions sound just a little bit undemocratic?

To me, this just sounds like a further example of Mr. Harper’s micromanagement. Since his election he has limited press galleries’ access to certain events and politicians, barred journalists from even being near the site of cabinet meetings, prevented the media from covering the repatriation of Canadian soldiers killed in the line of duty and decreed that he will only take questions from pre-approved and thereby friendly journalists during news conferences. When some journalists protested these moves by walking out of a press conference in May 2006, Mr. Harper declared that he would no longer be giving national press conferences. It appears he has since reconsidered that remark.

If his government is doing as well as he likes to claim, then what is he trying to hide? It seems that Stephen Harper just doesn’t like the media. From his right wing perspective the media is essentially a liberal, if not socialist, institution. According to journalist Larry Zolf, he even credits the media’s portrayal of him as an “extremist Bush style right-winger” with his 2004 election loss. What Mr. Harper is forgetting is that it was also that same media that, in the lead-up to his election victory in 2006, praised him for being moderate and progressive, and portrayed him as a viable replacement for Paul Martin.

In relationships, we all have our deal breakers—those little quirks about other people that turn you off completely. Maybe you’ve just met this great new person and you’re hitting it off; the chemistry’s great and they seem perfect. But then you find out that she chews with her mouth open and uses baby talk in everyday conversation or that he’s a terrible dancer and that’s it, deal’s over. Well, it’s the third date and instead of wooing, Mr. Harper is showing his true colours. The question is, though, especially with an election on everyone’s mind, do you like what you see?

For me, “Project Shoebox,” as it was nicknamed, isn’t an example of Mr. Harper and I getting off on the wrong foot. It’s a deal breaker, because I want a Prime Minister who will promote democracy and its institutions, like freedom of speech and the press—not suppress them.

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