Governments in totalitarian countries have state media. In democracies, the idea is that news media can’t be tied to the government’s agenda, simply to avoid controls on what the public can know.
Presumably Canada’s prime minister would be fine with those terms. But the picture went a little fuzzy this week.
The fray now appears resolved. But early yesterday the Prime Minister’s Office had been set to bar CTV journalist Dave Ellis from accompanying other media on a trip Stephen Harper is taking to Malaysia to discuss trade at a leaders summit.
It all began last week when Ellis, covering an event in New York, asked Harper an impromptu question following news that charges had been laid against former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro. Apparently reporters and photographers at the event had been instructed earlier that no questions were allowed at this photo-op.
CTV said the PMO initially barred Ellis, who had been accredited to join the Malaysia trip as a cameraman. Canada’s other major TV networks supported CTV’s decision that they would be in charge of their personnel decisions, not the PMO.
The PMO has since backed away from the looming standoff, saying no accredited media outlet would be barred.
That’s good. It would be better if the issue had never arisen. Most Canadians like to think their leaders are able to think on their feet. Being able to provide thoughtful answers in a pinch isn’t just limited to brushes with the media. They need to tap into that skill when answering questions or facing dilemmas pitched to them by other world leaders.
Answering questions is a muscle they should want to exercise.
Certainly avoiding questions, or even entertaining a notion about who gets to ask them and when, is a slippery slope.
This might seem like a small instance of political office getting heavy-handed in calling the shots, but the principle of an unfettered media needs to be upheld, or we risk gradually losing sight of transparent government.