Let’s stop the cha­rade

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc

It’s an al­most ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence: “11:45 a.m. – Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper will greet Arseniy Yat­senyuk, Prime Min­is­ter of Ukraine. Will­son House, Chelsea, Que­bec. - Photo op­por­tu­nity only (cam­eras and pho­tog­ra­phers only).”

Prime Min­is­ter Harper meets with some­one or greets sol­diers or sailors, shows up at a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant or a bridge: pho­tog­ra­phers and cam­era op­er­a­tors are ex­pected to be there to cap­ture the mo­ment.

What’s not so well known is that, should any­one have the temer­ity to ac­tu­ally ask a ques­tion of His Ex­cel­lence, they may ac­tu­ally be re­moved from the event by se­cu­rity. The prime min­is­ter of Canada, it seems, does not like to an­swer ques­tions. So he doesn’t.

In fact, Harper doesn’t even seem to like hav­ing his photo taken, un­less he con­trols the im­age. The taxpayers pay some­one to pro­duce ac­cept­able pic­tures: “CHELSEA, QC — Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper and Arseniy Yat­senyuk, Prime Min­is­ter of Ukraine, shake hands af­ter an­nounc­ing the con­clu­sion of ne­go­ti­a­tions to­ward the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agree­ment dur­ing a sign­ing cer­e­mony at Will­son House. PMO photo by Deb Ran­som.” (I’ve writ­ten about that be­fore.)

Some­times, when it’s an in­ter­na­tional event, the prime min­is­ter might tol­er­ate two - that’s two - ques­tions. Re­porters get to­gether ahead of time to de­ter­mine what is­sue is wor­thy of the pre­cious scrap of an­swers. It’s some­thing that media from other coun­tries com­ment on when they run into the at-most-two-ques­tion pol­icy - they find it laugh­able, re­ally.

Here’s jour­nal­ist Justin Ling in Vice mag­a­zine: he got to ask one of the two ques­tions at a rare event fea­tur­ing Harper and the Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter. “One of the Aus­tralian jour­nal­ists leaned over to me: ‘Hey, mate, is it nor­mal for you guys to only get two ques­tions?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘We nor­mally don't get any.’ He be­gan laugh­ing. Then re­al­ized I wasn't jok­ing. Then he stopped laugh­ing.”

It’s hard to imag­ine that the prime min­is­ter is afraid of the media or of an­swer­ing ques­tions; more likely, as with the head of many long-in-the-teeth ad­min­is­tra­tions, he sim­ply doesn’t haven’t any re­spect for them. That hap­pens.

In the be­gin­ning, po­lit­i­cal par­ties and new gov­ern­ments need the press. Ask some­one about the fed­eral Lib­er­als and they might still raise the Ad­Scam scan­dal - the media ex­posed Ad­Scam, and Harper ben­e­fited. He ben­e­fited, and he was avail­able to talk.

Now, though, the shoe’s on the other foot: hard ques­tions are a pain in the neck and are po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing to the Harper brand.

So, we have a prime min­is­ter who doesn’t an­swer ques­tions.

Fair enough. Harper doesn’t have to an­swer ques­tions if he doesn’t want to. (Fact is, he doesn’t even an­swer that many in the House of Com­mons.

Of­ten, other min­is­ters an­swer for him. In the last ses­sion, he was only in the House of Com­mons for 35 per cent of the ques­tion pe­ri­ods; in April and May 2015, that was six ques­tion pe­ri­ods, ac­cord­ing to the Ot­tawa Citizen.

He has at­tended fewer and fewer ques­tion pe­ri­ods with each year of his ad­min­is­tra­tion.)

But the media doesn’t have to keep up the cha­rade, ei­ther. Be­cause this has been go­ing on for months - the photo-ops and the caveat that no ques­tions can be asked. We should stop. We should stop com­pletely. There is ab­so­lutely no value in a pho­to­graph or dig­i­tal video of the prime min­is­ter in yet another suit shak­ing yet another hand. It is com­pletely hol­low ma­te­rial, de­void of news con­tent. Us­ing the photos and video un­der the cur­rent cir­cum­stances is de­ceit­ful.

The na­tional media should sim­ply stop at­tend­ing, pop up one reg­u­lar file photo of Harper if they have to have an im­age for their story and ex­plain that they didn’t at­tend the event be­cause the prime min­is­ter was re­fus­ing all ques­tions.

I feel like I have to stress this. If Stephen Harper doesn’t want to an­swer ques­tions, that’s ab­so­lutely his per­og­a­tive. But the media has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­plain ex­actly what kind of road­blocks there are to cov­er­ing is­sues in this coun­try.

The fed­eral Con­ser­va­tives want to con­tinue to po­si­tion Harper as a states­man. The media shouldn’t con­tinue to help main­tain that im­age, es­pe­cially if the prime min­is­ter is ac­tu­ally the equiv­a­lent of a straw man, al­beit one that’s adept at shak­ing hands and smil­ing for the cam­eras.


Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper shakes hands with Ukrainian Prime Min­is­ter Arseniy Yat­senyuk fol­low­ing a joint press con­fer­ence in this file photo from Satur­day, March 22, 2014.

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