When he defiantly returned to reporting on Quebec’s biker gang wars after being shot six times in the back in 2000, Michel Auger became a hero for Canadian journalists.
But when he retired from the Journal de Montreal on Monday, the 62-year-old veteran reporter didn’t blame the three bullets that remain lodged in his back as his reason for quitting; he blamed PR flacks instead
“It was easier 30 years ago. It was easier to do crime reporting than it is today,” Auger said, pointing out that spin-doctors in the RCMP now largely control what makes it into the newspaper.
Auger’s consternation is familiar for any reporter: Within our public institutions, news releases are crafted and released by PR flacks and then access to officials is barred or tightly controlled, questions are cherry picked or ignored and calls go unreturned to prevent reporters from deviating from the official text.
But while we reflexively scorn these people as being the gatekeepers of truth, dig deeper and you will find they are merely following orders delivered from on high.
In Canada, those orders are coming from the very top, and a proclamation culture that asserts officialdom over the public’s right to know, and that believes reporters should be remade into government repeaters, is starting to take root.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Whitehorse earlier this month, an L-shaped barricade was set up for journalists to stand in — like cattle. There, they awaited his arrival and welcoming by Premier Dennis Fentie.
Harper arrived, gripped Fentie’s hand and smirked for the cameras.
Yet no questions were asked of him, other than a taunt from a protester, who also was fenced in.
Flacks made it explicitly clear Harper wouldn’t answer questions.
And as he walked into the Canada Games Centre behind Fentie, another flunky approached reporters to tell them that, unlike the public, they couldn’t follow Harper and Fentie into the building.
Photographers, of course, were allowed, he said.
It took a few minutes for the reporters to figure out that this was a baseless assertion designed to keep them at bay. Eventually, they trickled inside.
Later that day, a news conference was set up at the High Country Inn. And then out came the list.
United States president George W. Bush’s PR flacks invented this sort of question list, and has successfully used it to cow the US media into asking softball questions at White House news conferences.
Break that unwritten code, and your name gets skipped, and your question about US soldiers torturing Iraqis remains unasked.
Canadian journalists on Parliament Hill have been boycotting the list since Harper rolled it out.
As a result, off-the-cuff remarks from Harper are few and far between, and are usually culled from official statements his office issues or from proclamations he makes in speeches.
And he’s just fine with that.
The Yukon isn’t immune from the trickle down of Harper’s proclamation culture.
During a recent “mining tour” of the Minto copper mine, organized by industry and government, Yukon reporters struggled to do their jobs.
Led around the mine site in vans, journalists were constantly rushed by officials, as if hurricane Katrina loomed on the horizon.
Questions for officials had to wait or went unasked in the hurry.
And then, suddenly, the rush ended.
Fentie sat at a table covered in white cloth, machinery buzzing away behind him, a hard hat on his head, and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Selkirk First Nation.
As he spoke to the microphones he sounded as if he believed they were connected not to the hands of reporters, but to a massive public address system to broadcast his words.
The “mining tour” had finally revealed itself for what it truly was: a Fentie proclamation and pro-government photo op.
Like Harper, Fentie considers reporters nothing more than his repeaters.
With an election looming, stay tuned for more of Fentie’s imperial proclamations. (TQ)