Tue, May 30, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Canadian prime minister battling to restrain press


What if you gave a news conference and just about everyone left?

That was the situation facing Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week after about two dozen political reporters protested his new media relations plan by walking out.

Since the election of his minority Conservative government in January, Harper and his staff have repeatedly tried to change how Canada's news outlets deal with its prime minister. Harper's office is vetting minor government announcements, members of his Cabinet have generally been off limits to reporters, and cameras have been blocked from covering the return of Canadian soldiers' remains from Afghanistan.

The issue that prompted last week's walkout was who picks the reporters who get to ask Harper questions. For decades, informal news conferences in the lobby of the House of Commons -- known as scrums, after the rugby play where players pile atop one another -- have been uncontrolled. In formal news conferences in Ottawa, held in a theater that is operated by the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, a credentialing organization, journalists are selected by a member of the gallery's executive committee, which is elected by reporters, to ask questions, more or less on the principle of first come, first served.

Now, Harper's office wants reporters with questions to put their names on a list and let members of his media relations staff pick and choose.

The issue has been simmering for weeks, but last Tuesday, when officials from Harper's staff asked reporters to sign up before an informal news conference in the House of Commons lobby, about two dozen left. The handful of reporters who stayed did not submit their names and were told that Harper would not take their questions. Relations between the press and recent prime ministers have not always been smooth. Patrick Gossage, press secretary for former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, said that the government had provoked a similar protest when it considered moving news conferences from the Parliamentary Press Gallery's theater to a more photogenic government-controlled location. That plan was swiftly dropped.

Gossage said that Harper's move was just the latest in attempts by prime ministers to introduce Washington-style control over reporters.

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