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Bob Wakeham: You should’ve held a news conference, premier

As you can imagine, I attended more than my share of press conferences throughout a long tenure in the journalistic trenches, and also acted as the producer of such media gatherings on countless occasions.

So I’ve seen first hand how the press conference format can be abused by self-serving politicians who manage to convince news bosses to take up the valuable and limited time of reporters and news crews by sending them scurrying up to Confederation Building for a question-and-answer session that could have been easily handled through a simple press release.

Invariably, it does not pay dividends, for either the news agencies or the public, and the result is sometimes patently painful and useless.     

 

PREMIER SALLY SLICK ANNOUNCED TODAY THAT EASTERN DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME BEGINS AT MIDNIGHT.

SLICK TOLD A PACKED NEWS CONFERENCE THAT IT IS CRUCIAL THAT PEOPLE IN THE PROVINCE TURN THEIR CLOCKS BACK ONE HOUR, PREFERABLY AT BEDTIME, AND BEFORE ANY NOCTURNAL DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION.           

MEANWHILE, OPPOSITION LEADER ED EXPEDIENCE HELD HIS OWN NEWS CONFERENCE TO SAY PREMIER SLICK SHOULD HAVE MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT ON DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME EARLIER IN THE WEEK.

“IT WOULD HAVE GIVEN THE PEOPLE OF THE PROVINCE TIME TO DIGEST THE INFORMATION, AND PREPARE THEMSELVES FOR THE CHANGE IN SLEEPTIME, AND OTHER NIGHTTIME ACTIVITIES,” HE TOLD A HORDE OF REPORTERS IN THE MEDIA BRIEFING ROOM.

  

My pronounced exaggeration aside, I can recall many a fruitless press conference, with one example in particular coming to mind: it was a day in the mid ’80s, and Premier Brian Peckford’s press secretary informed the various news agencies that a significant press conference would take place that afternoon, and it was not to be missed; the promotion was incredibly misleading and overblown.

Shockingly, in my view, the press conference format was dramatically circumvented recently by Premier Dwight Ball when he decided that a $500-a-plate Liberal fundraiser was the proper time and place to announce there would be a judicial inquiry into the Muskrat Falls fiasco.

Turns out Peckford must have had a free hour in his agenda that day, and told the reporters and camera crews who eventually gathered in the cabinet room — that’s where government press conferences were held until someone realized it was the 20th century and that a press briefing room might be a more suitable place to hold these sorts of events — that he wanted to give all of us a chance to ask questions on any subject under the sun. He had nothing in particular to announce.

It was kind of a piss-off, although some of the private radio stations always in search of a 30-second clip on just about anything took full advantage (I swear to you I would hear the occasional reporter back in those days approach an MHA, especially a motor-mouth like Steve Neary, with the profound and probing question: “Give us a clip, will ya, Steve?”)

Anyway, I decided my own mini-protest of this example of self-aggrandizement would amount to being uncharacteristically quiet, until the premier finally wondered: “Wakeham, you haven’t asked anything. Come on now, what would you like to know?”

“Premier,” I said, sounding as serious as I possibly could, “would you mind telling us please: what is life?”

Never short of a retort, Peckford responded: “Would someone kindly supply an answer for Henry David Thoreau?”

All of this is by way of suggesting that although they’ve often been unashamedly exploited and over-used, the press conference, on occasion, can be a valuable and largely effective way for reporters to not just gather information on behalf of the public, but to ask pertinent questions and put government and opposition leaders on the hot seat of accountability.

Shockingly, in my view, the press conference format was dramatically circumvented recently by Premier Dwight Ball when he decided that a $500-a-plate Liberal fundraiser was the proper time and place to announce there would be a judicial inquiry into the Muskrat Falls fiasco.

I guess one could sarcastically suggest that perhaps it was the appropriate audience for such a revelation: after all, it was Newfoundland’s answer to Richie Rich — Danny Williams — who was the architect of Muskrat Falls, and it was in front of a crowd of the well-heeled that Ball made his announcement; neither Williams nor $500-a-plate diners will have to worry about electrical rates or the financial repercussions of the Muskrat Falls boondoggle.

But the Muskrat Falls horror show is about the long-term impact it will have on people struggling even now from paycheque to paycheque, the “unwashed,” as it’s so crudely put at times.

And that’s why a press conference, with people representing the rank and file — the media — should have taken place with Ball, Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady and Nalcor head Stan Marshall.

Instead, Ball chose to make this consequential announcement in front of a select partisan audience of well-off Liberal arse-kissers, followed by an ad lib media “scrum” — not the best avenue for questions about an inquiry into arguably the most dramatic screw-up in recent Newfoundland history.  

Once again, disdain was shown for the people of the province.

The same sort of disdain that was on display when Muskrat Falls was first hatched.          

          

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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