The week in media ethics at The Globe and Mail

By David Akin
September 30th, 2012

A couple of years ago, shortly after becoming Sun Media’s National Bureau Chief, I stood in front of Rideau Hall along with a couple of dozen other reporters hopeful of being picked by the PMO press handlers in order that I might put one — just one — question to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about an issue that had made front pages in our chain and that we had been writing about for nearly a week. The issue for us was the use of taxpayer funds to help a theatre festival in Toronto stage a sympathetic portrait of one of the Toronto 18, the would-be terrorists who plotted to blow up a chunk of downtown Toronto. Almost no other news organization was picking up on that story except for theatre critics who took issue with our coverage of the issue. (A blog post at The Torontoist contains a chronological accounting of our coverage of that issue and the fallout that seems pretty accurate to me.)

The big issue for The Globe and Mail‘s reporter that morning outside Rideau Hall was the government’s decision to make the long-form census questionnaire voluntary instead of mandatory. Reporter Steven Chase wanted to ask the prime minister about this issue.

The PMO was letting us put only four questions to Harper day, two in French, two in English. Chase, I and others huddled to see if there was some consensus among us reporters about the topics we should bring up in our two English-langage question. There was no consensus and when I was picked for one of the English questions and I asked him about the theatre festival. Neither I nor any of three other interlocutors that morning asked about the census.

Chase wrote a story for his readers about how the prime minister didn’t answer a question on the census.  It was titled “Why Harper wasn’t asked about census” Meanwhile, I wrote a story for my readers about an issue we’d be covering for a week at that point.

Which brings us to Saturday’s Globe and Mail.

ON A6 of my print edition, reporter Campbell Clark reports on a meeting  Harper and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had in New York City. I, too, reported on that story for my chain and, though we went about reporting on that meeting in a different way, the main angle for both our stories was similar: that Canada would not be drawing “red lines” around Iran’s nuclear program that Iran must not cross if it wants to avoid a war. This meeting was the final one of two days in New York City during which Harper met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Henry Kissinger, Haiti President Michael Martelly, and received an award and made a speech at a ceremony put on by the Appeal of Conscience of Foundation. All through these events – and despite repeated requests from the several Canadian reporters in New York covering these events — Harper took no questions from reporters about any of these activities.

This last fact, Clark noted in his story on A6 of my edition of The Globe and Mail, writing ”Mr. Harper did not take questions from reporters, so he did not detail his views on the issue.” 

And yet, before I got to page A6 of my edition of The Globe and Mail, I went past A3 where Globe reporter Patrick White details his interview that very same day with Harper.  Indeed, White’s third paragraph lets us know that Iran, Netanyahu were probably top of Harper’s mind until he met White:

“Stephen Harper paced into the room looking the part of the serious statesman. He was a few hours removed from meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran’s nuclear program. But soon the 53-year-old politician’s mind is racing back to John G. Althouse Middle School in Etobicoke. He is 13 years old. A grin — a real bring, not the stage managed one — stretches across his face and remains there for the entire interview.”

Never mind this almost hilariously overwritten setup, the entire interview appears to be about hockey and, specifically, the Summit Series of 1972. Unless there’s more of the interview to come,  nowhere does White ask Harper the questions that Clark, a few pages later, appears to be interested in and so “he [still] did not detail his views on the issue.” But we do know that Harper thinks the 72 summit series was important. In fact, the answers White elicited from Harper appear to be nearly identical to the information he would provide in a speech that night in Toronto.

Neither White nor a Globe and Mail editor explain why Harper does not “detail his views” more fully on the Iran issue during their apparently “exclusive” interview with Harper.

This comes, mind you, at the end of a week in which Globe editors have been doing a lot of explaining about the way their newspaper goes about the business of serving its readers.

Those three issues are really issues between the Globe and its readers. But that Patrick White interview with Harper a few hours after he refused to answer any questions from Canadian reporters in New York? Well, I wonder if Steven Chase or another Globe reporter will enlighten us with another story entitled perhaps “Why we didn’t ask Harper about Iran and Netanyahu”.


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