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Why the Premier can't stand Craig Westcott

For this post, I will let the email messages speak for themselves. It begins with a note I sent yesterday to Elizabeth Matthews, the Director of Communications for Premier Danny Williams. Here it is:

Hi Elizabeth:

As you may know, I write a blog about the local media scene, hosted at www.thetelegram.com

I am looking at the latest edition of The Business Post and am wondering why it contains no government advertising. The paper has come a long way - it is widely read and talked about in the business community and they've now got Greg Locke doing photography so it looks fabulous.

I am not suggesting that all government ads intended for the general public should automatically appear in The Business Post. However, it is a good way to specifically target the business community with tenders, announcements from the industry department, and so on.

Is there a reason why government won't advertise in The Business Post?

Thanks for your time and attention.

Geoff Meeker

Fairly quickly, I received a brief reply from Matthews:

Hi Geoff. I cannot speak to where individual departments choose to advertise.

I then sent an email to Westcott, asking for his side of the story. I had a recollection of someone in the premier's office calling him a "serial critic" or something to that effect, and wanted to know the detail of it. Here is his reply:

Geoff, the "serial exaggerator" comment appeared, I believe, in MacLean's and was attributed to another young woman in the Premier's Office, whose name I forget. Meanwhile, I'll look for a couple of emails I've received from Elizabeth and forward them to you. It's worth noting that The Business Post publishes more often and prints more copies for distribution in Newfoundland than any other business publication. We also attend all the oil and mining shows nationally and some internationally. At the OTC last year, The Business Post was the only NL-related publication that did not contain a full page ad from the premier. We also didn't have any ads from the Department of Natural Resources. The Dependent, by contrast, contains, by my estimate, a good $12,000 to $15,000 a week in provincial government advertising, despite its exceedingly negative coverage of all things Canadian. Elizabeth refuses all requests for interviews from me. When I was at The Express and later the Dependent, she also phoned the editors there to put them on notice that the Premier's Office would not deal with me in any way.

As for Greg, I hope to purchase his services as much as I can afford to. He is a great photographer and certainly improved the look of our most recent edition.

Thanks,

Craig.

As promised, Westcott then sent me a string of emails, dating all the way back to December 2005, which reveal his failed attempts to get an interview with the premier and why the premier was not willing to respond. Each message is prefaced by a boldface line, which explains who sent the message and when.

December 5, 2005, Westcott to Matthews:

Subject: Interview request

Elizabeth:

I'd like to talk with the premier about Placentia-St. Mary's and the coming byelection. Can you arrange something between now and the end of Monday? I need about five minutes. It's for The Express.

Thanks,

Craig.

December 5, 2005, Matthews to Westcott:

Subject: Re: Interview request

Sorry Craig. The premier is not available.

em

February 9, 2006: Westcott to Matthews:

Subject: Interview request

Elizabeth:

Could I get an audience with his Holiness on the byelection and early retirement proposal? It's for The Express.

Thanks,

Craig.

February 9, 2006, Matthews to Westcott:

Subject: Re: Interview request

Sorry Craig. The interview will not happen. It is truly unfortunate that you did not grant us the same consideration before you wrote your article last week on Harbour Breton. A call to government could have resulted in a much more accurate and positive story.

February 9, 2006, Westcott to Matthews:

Subject: Re: Interview request

Elizabeth:

Shutting out the media because you don't like the message is old school, Elizabeth. It's positively Peckford-like. What's next, cutting off advertising? My views were fair comment. It's a good thing you guys are not in Toronto or Ottawa where columnists really haul the skin off the government.

Here's hoping you get over it,

Craig.

February 9, 2006, Matthews to Westcott:

Subject: Re: Interview request

Actually Craig, we accept criticism all the time. And we do not shut out the media because we do not like the message. Our government, and indeed the premier, has absolutely no problem dealing with critics - we accept differing opinions and views and we welcome constructive opposition and criticism. However, a constant barrage of critical commentary without any thought to the opposing argument is very difficult for me to accept. I have previously extended an offer to you, to call anytime to hear the Premier's perspective on any issue of the day. With the exception of the by-election, you have rarely if ever taken us up on at that offer. The premier himself has placed personal calls to you, in an effort to share his views and insights. He does not do this in an effort to have you write a glowing, positive article - he does so simply so that you can gain a better appreciation for some of the things we do as a government. However, you continue to attack government policy and initiatives and the premier personally, without giving us the benefit of sharing our perspective. I fully appreciate that you are paid to write your opinions and you have no obligation to gain government's perspective. However, there comes a point when the commentary becomes personal and unbalanced, and therefore, unfair. Furthermore, in response to your email we have never, ever indicated that we would cut off advertising. That is a completely unfounded and unfair statement. In the future, we will refrain from commenting for your stories.

Thank you for listening and I wish you all the best.

Elizabeth

February 27, 2006, Westcott to Matthews

Subject: Interview request

Elizabeth:

I would like to talk with the Premier about the Labrador Ventus wind farm proposal for a story I'm working on for The Express.

Thanks,

Craig.

February 27, 2006, Matthews to Westcott

Subject: Re: Interview request

Sorry Craig. The Premier is unavailable.

April 25, 2006, Westcott to Matthews

Subject: Interview request

Elizabeth:

Could I have a one on one with the Premier this week about the fishery in general and FPI in particular? It's for The Independent and The Navigator.

Thanks,

Craig.

April 25, 2006, Matthews to Westcott

Subject: Re: Interview request

Sorry Craig. As I have indicated previously, the premier will not be available for your interview requests. Thanks.

Elizabeth

May 31, 2006, Westcott to Matthews:

Subject: Interview request

Elizabeth:

I would like to interview the premier about Ocean Cusine and his suggestion last week that perhaps an industry co-op should buy it. I am in all day today and this evening, but will be out of town for a few days as of tomorrow. The story is for The Independent.

Thanks,

Craig.

May 31, 2006, Matthews to Westcott:

Subject: Re: Interview request

Hi Craig. As per previous correspondence, the premier is not available for your interview requests. Ryan is aware of this. Thanks.

Elizabeth

May 31, 2006, Westcott to Matthews:

Re: Interview request

Elizabeth:

I would like to interview the premier about the federal loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill project. He can reach me by cell phone this week at 709-689-****. The story is for The Independent.

Thanks,

Craig.

June 1, 2006, Matthews to Westcott:

Subject: Re: Interview request

Craig: As I have indicated quite clearly on a number of occasions in the past several weeks, the premier is not available for your interview requests. I feel compelled to point out that for two and a half years, you did not seek the premier out to gain his perspective on issues (despite the fact that the premier personally called you to offer himself up for a chat). During this time, you regularly did NOT attend news conferences or other media availabilities with the premier. The result has been intense criticism in your reporting. As I have said to you before, opposition and criticism of government is a healthy and necessary part of democracy. And we welcome that, especially from the media who play a critical role in informing the public on political happenings in the province. However, personal and malicious commentary on the premier is unwarranted and, more importantly, you have printed completely untrue information. For this reason, we feel it is counter productive to discuss issues of the day with you. I find it quite ironic that you only started to request interviews after we informed you of our decision to not grant them.

Elizabeth

June 6, 2006, Westcott to Matthews:

Subject: Interview request

Elizabeth:

Thanks for your reply. I'm just back at my desk after being out of town for five days. I accept the premier won't grant me interviews, however I have to make the request anyway in cases where his input is appropriate. It's up to you if he responds or not, I take no issue with that. However, I am disappointed that you characterized my coverage as malicious. I have been critical of the premier's handling of five specific issues: FPI Limited; the fishery generally; the depopulation of rural Newfoundland; cronyism in the public service; and the premier's claim that Stephen Harper promised financial backing for the Lower Churchill project. I will discuss briefly the merits of each of my stands on those issues below. But first let's address the nature of public commentary. I'm surprised that after having worked for the previous Liberal administration, and now nearly three years with this one, that you lack an understanding of how public commentary works. Most political columnists and commentators do not cover scrums and press conferences. For instance, you wouldn't see Bill Rowe or Russell Wangersky at the premier's scrums, or Jeffrey Simpson at the PM's escape attempts out the back door of Parliament. At least not usually. I cover more of those events than other commentators because I am also a working reporter, one of the rare beasts who wears both hats. You're right though in that I don't cover as many of those things as other reporters. The reason for that is simple. For the past few years, I've been writing for weekly and monthly publications. Scrums and press conferences are, for the most part, the territory of the daily press. Weeklies have different deadlines and different agendas. There would be little utility in covering and reporting on a press conference held on a Tuesday for a Sunday publication. However, for a commentary, the timelines are not as obstructive. One can still comment - and not report - on that Tuesday conference and the implications of it. Plus there is Hansard, the scrum tape played on CBC Radio and other sources to inform oneself in coming to an opinion. Again, the term malicious bothers me. Certainly, I have been critical. That is my job. As a former Liberal PR person, you know that I was even more critical of that administration than I am of the current one. Roger Grimes, at least, had enough professionalism and appreciation for the press's role to take my calls.

Now, very briefly on the five issues mentioned above:

* I think the premier has completely mishandled the FPI file and many people share that opinion. It raises eyebrows when a man who will stand up to ExxonMobil seems petrified of taking a hard stand with John Risley. It's baffling, and I've said so to the premier personally.

* On the fishery, the premier made a brave attempt last year to address many of the problems in the industry with the introduction of RMS. However, the measure was introduced clumsily and when it was rejected by fishermen, he appears to have turned his back on the fishery and only deigned again to face it after much recent negative commentary from the public and media alike.

* Rural Newfoundland: Where's the recovery plan?

* Cronyism: I admired Mr. Williams' promise to clean up the public service. But hiring his future son-in-law for a PR position that is supposedly removed from the purview of political selection was wrong. So was hiring a long-time politician for the important role of Chief Electoral Officer. The latter especially is an abrogation of the long held British parliamentary tradition of neutrality and professionalism in the senior ranks of the civil service.

* The PM's lower Churchill promise. I've yet to hear any tape or read any statement in which Harper promised financial backing for the project. The premier's statement looks like bullshit poker to me, and I suspect, to Harper.

I'm sorry for the length of this note, but let me conclude with this: I am a professional journalist. I take my responsibility seriously. If I was reckless, or vindictive, I certainly would have indulged the many people who have offered avenues of personal attack upon Mr. Williams. One man, whom the premier went out of his way to help before entering politics, tried to interest me in chasing a story that the premier had had an altercation with a police officer in Nova Scotia because of an incident involving his son. I told the person that it sounded like he was full of shit and that I had no interest in following it. A malicious journalist would have chased the foolish report down. A malicious person too would probably report on the fact the premier is surrounding himself with people like yourself with close personal ties to him and his family. A couple of editors, among other people, have suggested that I report on the fact that you once dated Danny's son and that Pat Bruce is his brother-in-law. To those silly and malicious suggestions I have always respond that both you and Pat are political staff and the premier has every right to select whomever he wants for such positions.

No doubt my severe criticism may seem personal sometimes. But it is impossible to avoid the link of personality and politics entirely. Politics is very much a popularity contest and strongly influenced by the personalities of the individual players. Hence the prevalent use of opinion polls. To ignore the personality aspect of it altogether would be negligent on my part as a political commentator.

So there it is. Sorry for the length of this note. But I felt a need to clear the air on a few points.

All the best,

Craig.

June 7, 2006, Matthews to Westcott:

Subject: Re: Interview request

Hi Craig:

First of all, I am very familiar with how public commentary works. Secondly, let me clarify my use of the term "malicious". Oxford defines malicious as "characterized by malice; intending or intended to do harm". Now indulge me as I list several excerpts from your work (again, bearing in mind that most of these were written by you without ever having the courtesy of calling the premier to discuss his viewpoint or perspective):

- "a small man"

- "cowardly and self-demeaning"

- "exposed Danny Williams as an immature, petty tyrant"

- "doing the dirty work for the likes of Risley and Rowe."

- "Danny Williams is just another rich guy looking after his rich friends."

- "That the premier is making a monkey out of the rest of us, is not too surprising"

- "Danny Williams and his minions have been duplicitous and cowardly"

- "nobody likes a bully, especially a vindictive one"

- "he'll squat you like a fly"

- "No doubt Williams wasn't the one who stood in the caucus room and gave the orders on how the caucus should vote. The premier after all, needs deniability. But some lieutenant surely did do the dirty work of herding together the PC vote to ensure passage of what we can only hope is the biggest particular government."

- "For leaders like that, only absolute power for themselves and abject loyalty will do"

- "But when you weaken it, as Williams is doing now, you open the door to corruption and other abuses"

- "I can see it now, a pin-striped figure cast in bronze, more than life-sized, about the height of a two story house with a dozen crouching cabinet ministers pressing their cast iron lips his metal butt"

- "But Williams political skin is as thin as an onion's and he is used to getting his ass kissed, insists on it too, I think"

- "some people prefer to stay at home and have their asses kissed"

- "That his minions on the government benches were made to vote for the disastrous idea while he voted against it to save face was beyond tawdry"

I would point out that this is a very small sampling of what I based the term "malicious" on. You can be the judge Craig.

Elizabeth

I am going to reserve comment on all this for now, and will offer some observations including an interview with Westcott over the next day or two.

In her reply to me, Matthews also responded to my series of posts about the stacking of callers to Open Line. I will revisit that subject in a future post as well.

Note: I do not feel that publishing the content of these emails is in any way a violation of privacy, as Matthews was fully aware that she was talking to a reporter and was on the record' throughout.

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Carolyn Colbourne
    October 28, 2010 - 11:46

    Yes I am a big believer in the press and how important it is in maintaining a healthy democracy but Westcott went way over the line into vindictivness, trying to gain respect as a reporter by going over the deep end- suggesting a mental illness caused by syllipus, or a chemical imbalance. I am a liberal and I am embrassed by the hiring if such an unprofessional self serving "journalist" CGE

  • Richard
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I particularly like the Ryan is aware of this line.

    Begs the question whether at that point Craig was writing for Ryan or Ryan writing for Elizabeth.

    I guess by counting the plethora of government ads in the Indy that week we could probably make a good guess.

    Where's George Orwell when you need him?