Premier 'cuts off' Cochrane

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What you didn't see on the news last night

Premier Danny Williams lashed out at David Cochrane yesterday, accusing CBC's senior political reporter of getting his facts wrong.

He then instructed his staff to cut Cochrane off from further media contact.

The event was witnessed by several reporters, as well as communications staff for the Liberals and NDP. However, CBC chose not to reference the event on the news last night, apparently to avoid inflaming the situation any further.

Williams had just been through a heated session in the House of Assembly, where the opposition had grilled him on the Andy Wells fundraiser.

Cochrane had broken the story the night before on CBC Radio and Here & Now, revealing that businesses were being approached to raise funds to pay Andy Wells legal bill. On Thursday, the story was fleshed out the fundraiser was a tribute dinner for the former mayor but the core of the story didn't change.

The dinner was still intended to raise money to pay Andy Wells's legal bills.

When Cochrane attempted to question the premier in the scrum yesterday, Williams reiterated that there was nothing wrong with thanking someone with a dinner for 30 years of public service. He chided Cochrane for getting his facts wrong, and abruptly walked away, before being called back by another reporter for an unrelated question. Shortly after, the premier pointed at Cochrane and said to his communications director: "Make sure he gets cuts off."

In other words, no more interviews for this journalist.

I spoke to a reporter from another news outlet who witnessed the incident, as well as a communications person with one of the opposition parties, and received confirmation that this is what happened. Interestingly, the reporter declined to be interviewed on the record, for fear of pissing off the premier and losing their access as well.

I contacted David Cochrane, who wouldn't comment. However, I did speak to Peter Gullage, the person who runs the newsroom at CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. He also confirmed my understanding of the incident, and was willing to say a few words about it.

"Is the premier upset with the facts, is he upset with the fact that this has been made public, or is he upset with the continuum of coverage about his government?" Gullage said. "(Is he upset) about the inquiry, the way people talk about the inquiry, the language that Gomery used to talk about the inquiry? Is the Andy Wells story one thing that has upset him after all those other things?"

Gullage said the premier's staff had stated just the day before that they were "deeply disappointed" that Here & Now had not covered some recent "premier-positive" events.

"If this was high school, the premier would have our recess money taken and we'd be stuffed in our locker," Gullage continued. "But it's not a schoolyard. It's a democratic society, and the press has a role. That means looking at the government with a critical eye. They can poke the critical eye with a stick, but that's the way it is in a democracy. It's not our job to promote the government, it's our job to cover government policy and uncover things that go on inside the palace."

Gullage said this is not an unexpected development; that the premier has been showing increasing agitation about the way CBC covers the Williams Government.

"It all changed when we started doing stories about fire safety and sprinklers in hospitals. Government was telling private home care operators to put in sprinklers, but they knew and had known for years that they had a problem in their own institutions but weren't doing anything about it. And it feels to me like that's when it started to change Cochrane has had his run-ins with premiers and governments before. He's had his run-ins with Tobin. He's had run-ins with Grimes. There are run-ins. This one feels different it feels a little more personal but Cochrane is a big boy."

The premier is perfectly within his right to deny access to certain reporters, but that doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do. I've seen politicians try this before most recently, Brian Tobin but it usually just indicates that the reporters are doing their job.

In the scrum yesterday, Williams lashed out at Cochrane for getting his facts wrong. He said the fundraising dinner was just that a bunch of friends getting together for dinner. He sidestepped Cochrane's questions about the $10,000 to $15,000 that organizers were hoping to raise for Andy Wells.

I just heard, whilst writing this, that the Andy Wells fundraising dinner has been cancelled. According to the CBC Radio Morning Show, organizer Kevin Breen said the "controversy surrounding the event had distorted it."

This was not just another "dinner", as Breen and Williams have said. There was no registered charity or political party involved. There would be no tax-deductible receipts for the $100 tickets. The money would have gone into the pocket of Andy Wells, in contravention of regulations which places a limit of $200 on such gifts.

Cochrane had his facts right. The spin changed, but the story didn't.

You simply cannot manipulate media outcomes by barring access to certain reporters. It doesn't work. The media always gets the last word.

In the early days of any government, there is usually a honeymoon with the media. But inevitably, mistrust sets in and politicians draw battle lines, as the media reveals government mishaps and mistakes.

Try though they might, however, the politicians never win.

Political parties and their leaders come and go, but the media always remains.

And they get to write the obituary.

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  • Doug
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Geoff - this is truly shocking to me. I can't imagine what Williams must be thinking. A friend of mine made the comment the other day in reference to the Cameron Inquiry that we don't seem to have leaders anymore who can stand up and say: This or that policy is not working, let's change it. People are afraid to have frank discussions about what works and what does not. The Cameron Inquiry could easily be a study in the failure of Democracy. We have lost our way when it comes to civic debate. Everyone is trying to not offend their political masters and Williams seems to relish the idea of being a master. Perhaps the CBC should cut him off. Actually, by limiting access of their senior political reporter to the premier, they may accomplish that anyway! What a bone-headed decision. Williams should apologize.