In the summer of 1989, a squeakily new cub reporter sat in The Telegram newsroom. He checked his notepad, lit a cigarette and picked up the phone.
The call was answered by a receptionist who swiftly put the call through … to a cabinet minister.
The two had a conversation for about 15 minutes, whereupon they both said thanks and disconnected. The reporter checked his notes, rewound his tape, lit another cigarette and began to write.
Two things in this brief story are pure anachorisms, things that simply would not — could not — happen in today’s newsroom.
First, it’s doubtful you can find an office in the country where it is possible to smoke at your desk.
Second, and perhaps more disturbing, is the fact that today no reporter would ever be put through to the minister so easily. Connected to the department’s PR specialist, yes. The minister? Directly? Not likely, especially if it wasn’t on a topic the minister wanted to talk about.
Gradually over the last 20-odd years, the relationships have changed. Reporters no longer have the minister’s cell number or know the receptionists by name.
And that’s just the way the game is played these days.
This week, we saw further evidence of what has fuelled this change.
According to The Canadian Press, an email, dated July 4 and distributed among Ottawa media outlets, shows an official in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office asked ministerial staff across the government to draw up lists of troublesome bureaucrats and “enemy stakeholders.”
The list was to be inserted into transition notes prepared for new ministers following this week’s cabinet shuffle. The documents contained useful pointers for the greenhorn ministers, with handy reference sections on “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders” or “What to avoid: pet bureaucratic projects.” An earlier version apparently even offered guidance on “Bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer.”
The fact such a list may or may not exist isn’t surprising given what we’ve seen over the years — the methodical manipulation of access to information and control of decision-making amongst the federal Tories.
Political cartoonists have fun depicting Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the puppeteer and his cabinet as powerless finger puppets. It’s amusing, but it’s not news.
It’s not a secret he runs a tight ship, that there is a distinct with-us-or-against-us attitude or that little or no comment is made without careful scrutiny and approval by the Prime Minister’s Office.
There’s a similar feel in this province.
Most reporters here will be able to tell you how much harder it is to get a minister to comment on a story without, instead, being offered a polished statement, carefully crafted to follow PC policy directives, rather than an interview with the minister.
No, none of this is much of a surprise.
It’s just the way the game is played these days, each revelation showing how the threads of power and information are being gathered into single nodes — the PMO or the premier’s office.
What is a surprise — and a disturbing one — is how a story about cabinet ministers having an enemies list came and went with so little public outrage.
It may be naive to think that elected officials should do what’s in the best interests of the country or the province, rather than simply trotting out the pet policies of their own political party. But to see such blatant evidence of it should stick in the craw of all voters. The fact it hasn’t — that’s the worrying thing.