Normally, I like to write about what goes on in front of the cameras — the cabinet ministers who make the announcements, the policy changes that get introduced, or the historic moments that make covering politics so interesting.
This piece is going to be different. I’m going to shine a light on something you may know nothing about because it always happens behind the cameras.
The Progressive Conservatives have, since the election campaign, required reporters covering their events to follow some fairly strict rules. At news conferences, the party places crowd-control stanchions between the cameras and whoever the featured speaker was. The space has since increased so much that one minister noted the other day, “You’re all so far away.” That’s right. Because that’s what the PC staffers who set up these news conferences have demanded.
After the politician in question had finished his or her announcement, the media would ask follow-up questions. But the Tories added a new wrinkle that I’d never seen in 35 years of covering Queen’s Park: the PCs insisted that, instead of reporters asking their questions from wherever they stood, they ask them via a single microphone held by a party official. It turned out to be a surprisingly effective way of ensuring that only a small number of questions were asked and that only those who could get the attention of the microphone holder asked them.
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Last week, when Premier Doug Ford and municipal affairs minister Steve Clark announced their plan to reduce the size of Toronto city council, Toronto Sun columnist (and former PC candidate) Sue-Ann Levy began trying to ask a question. She was unaware of the new protocol and seemed surprised that Ford and Clark had ignored her. After she attempted a third time, I informed her of the new rules. By then, however, the line behind the “official microphone” had become too long, and Levy missed out.
The Tories have also taken another unprecedented step: they now end their news conferences by having a group of half a dozen twentysomethings clap, hoot, and holler on cue, which gives the politician making the announcement cover to exit stage right.
For months, reporters seemed powerless to do anything about this, mostly because — despite what you may think — most journalists actually believe in civility. They also believe in doing their jobs, which is why they try energetically to ask questions of politicians who often don’t want to answer.
But something changed Wednesday.
Community and social services minister Lisa MacLeod announced that the government would kill the basic income pilot program — something the party said during the campaign would be allowed to run its course. As the news conference ended, the claque did its customary trained-seal thing, drowning out reporters’ questions with applause.
This time, however, several reporters fought back. Some admonished the party for its bush-league tactics, arguing that news conferences were supposed to be events where journalists could try to get answers out of politicians — not where partisan hacks could engage in frat-house behaviour designed to subvert that process.
For the first time, the twentysomethings actually looked embarrassed.
Let’s be clear about this: I’m not blaming them. They’re no doubt just following orders from the premier’s communications people, who seem to think that using wild applause to cover politicians’ escapes is a clever tactic.
But perhaps the tactic’s usefulness has ended. Thursday morning, environment minister Rod Phillips and Attorney General Caroline Mulroney announced that Ontario would challenge the federal government’s carbon-pricing plans in court. And for the first time, reporters refused to line up behind the Tory staffer holding the microphone; instead, they returned to their former practice of simply asking questions from where they stood. To their credit, the cabinet ministers answered their questions.
At the end of the question time, there was no applause, nor any hooting and hollering. Someone simply said, “The ministers have to get to question period.” Then the two politicians left the podium — and that was that. The reporters’ questions stopped. Civility had returned.
I suspect some of you reading this will be tempted to say, “You arrogant media want everything on your terms; one government finally has the moxie to fight back against your insisting on having everything your way, and you cry over it.”
Let me suggest that you consider this in a different way. Rather than viewing journalists as “enemies of the people” — as the current American president does — consider them part of the system of democracy that represents you. Those journalists are your proxies in those news conferences. They ask the questions you want answers to. And they ask some you wouldn’t have thought to ask but that ought to be asked anyway. That’s their job.
Shouting them down or allowing a government-appointed microphone-holder to decide who gets to ask questions and who doesn’t is not what these events are supposed to be about. They’re supposed to be opportunities for the government to communicate with citizens. They’re also supposed to be opportunities for the fourth estate to ask important follow-up questions.
I don’t know whether yesterday was an anomaly. The premier’s office may come up with a new technique to control who asks what questions and how many. The cheering section may return.
I hope not, though. What happens behind the camera may not be as important as what happens in front of it. But it’s part of what those events are supposed to be about — namely, informing Ontarians of what their government is doing.