A little piece of political theatre played itself out earlier this week, when it appeared the Prime Minister’s Office was going to ban a CTV cameraman from travelling on the prime minister’s current trip to Malaysia.
The cameraman in question was Dave Ellis, who had the temerity to ask Prime Minister Stephen Harper a question about charges being laid against Dean Del Mastro, the Conservative MP for Peterborough and a regular attack dog for the Tories during question period in the House of Commons.
Ellis asked the question after consulting with his bosses at CTV, and after Harper had steadfastly refused to take questions for two days.
So, at the very end of a stage-managed photo-op with businessmen in New York City, Ellis threw out what should not have been a particularly difficult question for Harper:
“Any comment today, sir, about Dean Del Mastro being charged?”
Harper didn’t answer the question and the photo-op ended.
But the story didn’t.
CTV says they were informed that Ellis would not be allowed to travel on the prime minister’s plane, a decision that was later rescinded when CTV called the PMO’s bluff and sent the cameraman to the airport anyway.
Journalists pay up front to defray the costs of travelling with the prime minister, and Ellis had already been approved for the trip.
Other media outlets backed CTV’s move — but there will come a point when they have to do more.
Harper’s government already sets itself apart from other democratic nations in limiting journalists to the bare minimum of questions, and in going as far as to pick the reporters who will be allowed to ask questions — often as few as five — in advance.
Eventually, reporters and their respective media outlets will have to get together and decide how far they are willing to be corralled and restricted — when Harper was in St. John’s during the last election, the media were downright kenneled away from the action.
The Ellis case would have been the perfect opportunity; the trip to Malaysia is the ultimate photo-op. It was described by the PMO in a news release like this: “As part of his bilateral visit to Malaysia, Prime Minister Harper will meet with Najib Razak, prime minister of Malaysia, to discuss ways of further promoting trade and security co-operation. Canada and Malaysia have a long history of close and friendly bilateral relations that encompass a full range of political, economic, trade, social and cultural ties.”
It’s the perfect kind of non-news event where Canadian journalists could have banded together and said “enough” and just walked off the plane en masse, refusing to cover the event. Eventually, something like that will have to happen, because, right now, the media control has reached the point of the ridiculous.
This time, the PMO backed down — complete with this now-regular wording: “9 a.m. — Prime Minister Stephen Harper will depart for Malaysia. Photo opportunity only (cameras and photographers only).”
And that has its own ironies.