POLITICS

Chilly media relations are a fact of life in politics, but beware the ban

09/30/2014 03:40 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
It was apparently the word "slut" that broke the camel's back and triggered the Liberal ban of Sun News.

Having been badgered for years by Sun — over honour killings, the gun registry, marijuana, abortion and the citizenship status of Canadians involved in terrorism — Justin Trudeau's team had largely been ignoring Canada's largest newspaper chain in favour of other outlets.

Fair enough, and par for the course. There's no rule in politics that says you have to go out of your way to accommodate outlets who aren't favourable to your policy positions. Governments have done it from time immemorial.

But you still have to deal with them.

Thanks to five minutes of bad amateur psychology that was watched by a small audience, and a follow-up opinion piece, Justin Trudeau apparently felt he had the cover to turn the page on the Sun papers.

This wasn't a result for which anyone should have been cheering.

Yes, Ezra Levant's rant was crude, utterly bizarre and completely out of line. Apologizing was the right thing to do. These kinds of rants usually say more about the author than the subject. It would have been far better to shrug it off, especially if no other outlet was following suit. This is where the Liberals had it easy, as few in the Ottawa press gallery pay Sun Media any mind.

They don't pay attention to Sun for a number of reasons, in my view: They're tabloid, their editorial position is right of centre and they're run by a former director of communications to a Conservative prime minister. That said, the Sun bureau isn't a one-way political street; indeed, the Sun bureau features a former director of communications to Stéphane Dion, the estimable Mark Dunn, who is a total pro. Indeed, all of the Sun reporters I dealt with on the Hill were professionals.

Freeze vs. ban

If the current Prime Minister's Office took the decision to ban every outlet whose opinion columnists or editorial departments had offered a somewhat deranged take on the prime minister, there would be almost no-one left to talk to in Ottawa.

Did media organizations make me angry during my time in the PMO? All of the time. Did I ever want to "ban" an organization? Other than some creepy state-sponsored media, no.

Did I freeze certain reporters out and/or limit our dealings with them? Absolutely.

A director of communications doesn't have very many tools over the press, but access is one of them. For example, if I was upset with a reporter or an outlet, I might still provide comment, but not go the extra step of providing additional background. Exclusives would find another home until relations improved.

I can guarantee you that every news outlet in Ottawa has felt this kind of chill, from both Liberal and Conservative governments. That said, these were opaque arrangements, and usually time-limited. An outright, publicly declared ban would never work.

First, this Conservative PMO would never get away with banning a news organization. Even if an organization had printed bizarre ramblings about the state of the prime minister's marriage, or a column that called the prime minister's eyes "sociopathic" — both of which have happened — a ban would have led to an unholy outcry from reporters.

Instead of being mute, as they have through the Trudeau matter, the Canadian Association of Journalists would have been issuing dozens of press releases championing "freedom of the press."

Second, banning an organization for their editorial views is short-sighted, and usually leads to more harm than gain. Being mad at Ezra Levant is one thing; taking it out on the millions of Canadians who read Sun papers is another. To win an election, Justin Trudeau will have to reach these voters.

Yes, a free press means that extreme opinion writers like Michael Harris or Heather Mallick — or Ezra Levant — can take their swings at the prime minister or opposition leader of the day. Sometimes they'll misfire, and that will lead to heated exchanges between press offices and newsrooms, often with an escalation up the editorial chain.

But a ban on reporters because of editorial positions doesn't belong in Canada, under any regime, under any circumstance.

To their credit, a number of Ottawa journalists did decry the Trudeau ban of Sun media. But they were a distinct minority, the majority being conspicuous in their silence. The others would have done well to speak up. Principles are only principles if they're inconvenient every once in a while.

For their part, Team Trudeau should feel free to ignore Ezra Levant and engage with the reporting side of Team Sun. They might not always like their questions, but if they have the courage of their policy conviction, they shouldn't mind answering them.

And instead of complaining about it, they should do what any competent political organization does when faced with outrageous media coverage: fundraise!

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.