Lessons Learned: Stephen Harper’s “War On The Media”

“Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” ~Mark Twain

What Twain meant was you shouldn’t get into emotionally-heated battles with journalists (like print reporters in his day who actually bought barrels of ink to print newspapers). Respectful, mature debate is alright. Outright battles are a horrible idea and a major reputational risk. What he was saying is that if you get into a real tussle with a reporter, you may win the short-term battle — but you will definitely lose the long-term war. They have pages upon pages to fill every day for readers — and the ink to print those words. You do not have that reach. Therefore, their “voice” is much louder than yours. There will be a price to pay eventually for your aggression, even if it takes years.

TORONTO OUT HARPER CAMPAIGN 2004---06/29/04---Reporters shout questions as Conservative leader Stephen Harper breaks out of a scrum on the airplane as he leaves Calgary for Ottawa a day after Election Day, June 29 , 2004. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star) sjr DIGITAL IMAGE
(Photo Credit: Steve Russell, Toronto Star)

Here in Canada, the Stephen Harper Conservative government was defeated by the Justin Trudeau-led Liberals. There were many complex reasons for that — but their infamously poor relationship with the media didn’t help — and there are some major lessons to be learned for first time politicians here. If you’re reading this and you’re not Canadian or not involved in politics, don’t exit out. There are applicable lessons to be learned here regardless of nationality — and it’s very applicable to anyone who deals with the media. The media is the media.

The Harper government’s unique approach to the media over the past decade in Canada is a case study, in my opinion, of what not to do in political media relations. It picked a fight with the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa in a big way — the people who “buy ink by the barrel” — by trying to freeze them out and limit their access to everyone from politicians to bureaucrats. Hell, there have even been books written about it.

The Conservative media strategy was to bypass the Parliament Hill media experts and go directly to the “local” media where they’d find reporters that may be less experienced and would be more likely to be flattered and enthused to be speaking to a Cabinet Minister. They’d get fewer tough questions and have a higher probability of executing their main talking points without challenge.

For example, I was at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Sudbury as the Senior Producer in 2007 when my phone rang. It was a communications officer for the Conservative Finance Minister. A budget was coming and they wanted to know if we wanted the Finance Minister on our Morning Show. Now, I have a lot of friends in Ottawa and I knew they were being frozen out. I knew the Conservative play. So, I said no. I told them we have our experts in Ottawa and they should call them. I knew it was a symbolic stand. 99% of the local media would take the opportunity.

The Conservatives took a “protect the quarterback” approach. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was rarely available to the national media. In fact, if you Google image search “Stephen Harper media scrum” as I did looking for images for this column, it’s shocking to see how few images there are of Harper doing media scrums over a decade — compared with similar searches for other leaders.

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It was a vicious relationship — the worst I have ever seen in both the media and now in media relations. Instead of itemizing it here in detail, I will point you to several excellent stories on the subject in the Globe and MailToronto Star, Maclean’s Magazine and a fantastic overview by Ira Basen on Rabble.ca that is definitely worth reading for some context:

The Ottawa press corps, the Prime Minister declared, was dominated by ‘left-wing ideologues’ who were determined to stop him from getting his message out. The Gallery’s decision to boycott his press conferences clearly played right into his hand. ‘I’ve got more control now,’ he boasted, ‘I’m free to pick my interviews when and where I want to have them.’”

This went on for years. And, the Ottawa media covered the fact that the media couldn’t get open access to Canada’s key elected leaders. That, unto itself, reflected a perception of secrecy to the voting public. And, it all came to a head during this most recent election campaign where the control over the media tightened — and many didn’t take it quietly. They limited the questions allowed. They vetted questions first and then picked. The disdain Conservatives felt for the media was put in full view for everyone. Vice Reporter Justin Ling’s account of attempting to cover the Prime Minister was documented in great clarity — including his battle with campaign communications chief Kory Teneycke — someone who had a tumultuous relationship with the Ottawa Hill media, to put it mildly. Teneycke often referred to them as the “lame-stream media”. For the Stephen Harper campaign to put someone in charge of communications who, so very clearly, had little respect for the media and poor relations, was — at best — a horrible decision, and — at worst — a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

It got so bad on the campaign trail that Conservative party volunteers, seeing how their party was treating the media, started aggressively heckling journalists during media scrums, drowning them out. The party didn’t do much to stop the abuse. One incident that got much media exposure was when a supporter called a reporter a “lying piece of shit” — an incident caught on camera:

I will say this about the Parliamentary reporters who covered the campaign. They were fair. They weren’t vindictive (despite what one could argue was just cause to hit back hard). They were honest in their reporting and that’s all that was needed. A government plagued by scandal — one could argue they were done before they started the campaign.

But, suffice to say, the Conservatives didn’t have many friends in the press gallery — and, in media relations, it can be a game of inches where having good media relations can help you out when times get tough. Sometimes it simply means getting the benefit of the doubt during a tough interview. They had not many media friends at a time when they really could have used a few of them. And the lack of openness and transparency with the media seemed to incite special interest groups that had questions they wanted answered. Again, it created a shroud and perception of secrecy.

So, here’s the thing: the Conservatives lost. But, about 100 of their Members of Parliament survived — many of whom have never had to deal with the media outside a position of governing power. Now they will be the official opposition. And, it’s a much different game in opposition. Reporters have memories. They remember how difficult it was to get interviews and information from these people — who will now be pining hard for media time and access. There is broken trust that needs to be rebuilt over time.

Meantime, the new Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau who up until recently was the leader of the 3rd party in Parliament. He was often very available to the media as most in opposition are while trying to get a message out. In fact, during the campaign, some of his own supporters started to shout down reporters when Trudeau interjected to defend the media:

And, on his very first day as Prime Minister-designate, Justin Trudeau held a media availability for the Parliamentary media. That may sound routine but it was not because the former Prime Minister stopped doing them in Ottawa for the most part. It was something not lost on the reporters.

And, in that news conference, Trudeau addressed the elephant in the room and put the issue of media relations up front and centre saying the following:

“‘I’m very happy to be here to be able to demonstrate my commitment to offer, in the coming days, an open and transparent government with people,’ he said. ‘I think it’s important to underline the important role the media fills in public discourse and public life. And I look forward to continuing to engage with you all in the coming days, weeks, months and years.’”

This needs to be said. I have seen politicians run a campaign based on transparency and access only to tighten up those controls dramatically upon being elected. It’s natural for there to be a slight tightening of communications when governing. So, as they say — time will tell. I know many in the media have high hopes. But, realistically, there’s really nowhere to go but up at this point after the past decade of media relations. Mr Trudeau (like everyone) gets the benefit of the doubt until he loses it on his own.

As for the Conservative political survivors, don’t worry — you will be back on the air in no time. It’s just how the game is played. Media need opposing voices and they often need them fast. However, it will be more a marriage of convenience. Journalists won’t soon forget how they were treated and locked out. But, you’ll get your airtime and your ink.

Finally, my advice to the new politicians in the Liberal government (and any government anywhere for that matter) is heeding this cautionary tale from the Conservatives and absorb some of this general counsel:

  • Journalists aren’t your enemies and they’re not your friends. They have a job to do. Their job is to ask tough questions. And, your job is to answer them as best you can. Don’t take it personally.
  • They’re not stenographers. They’re not there to report everything you say. They ask questions. You give answers. They choose what to use.
  • Be prepared for interviews. Know your facts. Know what you want to get across. Spend some time getting ready. Be professional. Don’t “wing it”.
  • Speak with passion. Don’t just memorize talking points. Internalize those key points and understand them. Be a good interview guest by humanizing your main points with real stories about real people.
  • Understand the media’s tight deadlines. Journalism today is a speed game. Taking all day to get back to a reporter is as bad as refusing.
  • You won’t like some of what they report. How you respond to those moments will determine how the media will view you and treat you.

It’s simple. Respect the role of journalists. Freeze out reporters at your own risk because one day you’ll be seeking re-election or you’ll need them for something else — and you may want to have, at a minimum, a respectful working relationship so you can get your ideas out.

Remember, they have all the ink and you’re going to need it at some point.

More recommended blog posts:

30 Ways To Piss Off A Reporter

Does “Off The Record” Exist?

How To Prepare For a Public Relations Crisis

The New Politician’s Guide To Not Getting Killed By Reporters

There Is Life After Journalism

The “Badger” Is Back!

There’s Much To Learn In The Political Matrix