Stephen Harper added a new twist to the ongoing Senate scandal this week when he revealed to a Halifax radio host that Nigel Wright’s departure wasn’t exactly voluntary.
Until now, the prime minister’s line has been that his former chief of staff resigned when it was revealed he wrote a personal cheque to Sen. Mike Duffy.
That story has changed.
“As you know I had a chief of staff who made an inappropriate payment to Mr. Duffy,” Harper told Maritime Morning’s Jordi Morgan. “He was dismissed.”
So, Wright was fired? Is this a big deal? Probably not. After all, many people receive less-than-subtle instructions before stepping down voluntarily: “I’ll expect your resignation letter on my desk in the morning.”
But it does represent a new active narrative for the prime minister. Wright didn’t fall on his sword, Harper is saying. He was told to leave. The prime minister clearly wants to promote his no-nonsense approach to the whole affair. I told Duffy to pay back expenses. I showed Wright the door.
What’s more interesting about Monday’s media appearance is how it reinforces Harper’s renewed attempt to skirt around what he and his followers call the “Ottawa media elite.”
One tactic is to give preference to local media when he’s on the road — the presumption being that regional journalists will throw more softballs than the hardcore Ottawa crowd.
Monday’s rare radio interview was actually recorded on Friday, and was one of three across the country. The host, Jordi Morgan, is to be commended for disclosing that the opportunity came with conditions. Morgan had to agree to ask about the throne speech and the new trade deal with Europe. In exchange, he could ask one question about the Senate.
Morgan is lucky. Far too often these days, no one gets to ask any questions. When a videojournalist blurted out a question at a New York photo-op recently, the prime minister’s staff threatened to kick him out of an upcoming travel pool. They later backed down. (Imagine a U.S. journalist being sanctioned for blurting out a question to the president.)
Harper also refused to let reporters into the traditional pre-throne speech address to caucus. In response, all major news outlets decided to pull their cameras from the speech. Their point: media coverage is a package deal.
Harper’s own Twitter account spammed social media with highlights of his speech, spewing out 38 tweets in 12 minutes. And Conservatives organized a grassroots smear campaign against the media, scolding them for ganging up on Harper and not doing their job.
What is this supposed to achieve? Contrary to extreme right-wing pundits, there is enough media competition in this country to keep the news honest. And the media are, after all, just as beholden to voters as politicians are. If a news organization gets enough complaints, or if followers defect in droves to other sources, the only solution is to give the public what it wants.
To declare war on the media, as the Conservatives increasingly want to do, is self-destructive.
Christopher Waddell, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, told The Canadian Press this month he finds the Conservatives’ anti-media tactics puzzling, given that Harper is quite capable of answering questions with ease and aplomb.
“His unwillingness to engage in all of that ends up hurting his cause, not helping his cause,” Waddell said.
“The impression that’s created is that they’re not interested in explaining themselves, they’re not interested in being open. They’re not interested in the questions and answers and the debate that is part of a democracy.”
If you think the media is biased, imagine the alternative: party-
controlled messaging straight to the people. A couple of Asian nations come to mind.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email: email@example.com.