For a young reporter, as I was once, there were few better assignments than a leader's bus during an Ontario or federal election. You felt like you were making an important contribution to the democratic process: watching every move, listening to every word of a person aspiring to high political office. You were holding them to account and attempting to faithfully and critically report on their promises.
On top of that, you got a matchless tour of your province or nation. In my mind's eye, I can still see the farm fields of southwestern Ontario flying by on Premier David Peterson bus in the 1987 election. In the 1997 federal vote, I followed Reform Party Leader Preston Manning on a day that started in St. John's and ended in Vancouver, with stops in Montreal and Yorkton, Sask. along the way.
It is not only a great adventure but also an overtime bonanza. The 1990 Ontario election bought me a trip to Thailand. 1995 helped pay for my wedding.
Voters care little for how much fun we had or how much money we made. Nor should they. What matters is whether a media bus is relevant, necessary or even feasible in the modern world of campaigning. The dire economics of the news media have already dramatically shrunken the numbers of organizations that can afford to pay the high cost of putting reporters on buses.
Now we have Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford scrapping the concept of a media bus altogether for his campaign. The move has elicited criticism that it is a tactic to duck reporters. There have also been comments that better reporting can be done when journalists avoid the buses and work independently.
The leaders bus is important, even crucial. But it should always be considered only an element of election coverage.
Both are true. Following a political leader day after day, listening to the same stump speech over and over again, and working in close contact with political operatives does indeed create a kind of bubble, with symptoms of the Stockholm Syndrome. But it is also a crucible for the aspiring leader. Tough questions are still asked. When controversy arises elsewhere in the campaign, reporters have relatively ready access to the leader.
Things get tense at times in the bubble. During the 2000 campaign of Alliance Leader Stockwell Day, he once stormed out of a news conference complaining of unfair coverage after I posed a question he did not like.
The leaders bus is important, even crucial. But it should always be considered only an element of election coverage. Independent reporting on issues and candidates must always be part of the picture. Increasingly, doing both has become an unaffordable luxury.
I doubt the Ford campaign considered any of these journalistic arguments in deciding to park the bus.
I left reporting three years ago, and now as a communications consultant I usually advise clients to be open to responding to news media questions, reasoning that it is always best to tell your story your way rather than leaving it to others. The exception is when we decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, that it is a no-win situation.
I suspect that this is the calculus of the Ford people. They are already cutting news conferences short, concluding that reporters are hostile and no good can come from lengthy sparring sessions. They would also like to minimize Ford's tendency to lose his cool and shoot his mouth off, as when he called a Toronto Star reporter a "little bitch" during the 2014 mayoral campaign.
It is a front-runner's tactic to minimize risk. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.
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Mike Harris, a hard-rock conservative if ever there was one, rarely evaded reporters. He knew who he was, knew his supporters and was unafraid to speak his mind, even if the questions were tough and opponents were rioting on the front lawn of Queen's Park. He won two Ontario elections. As a side note: the food on his media bus was legendary for its excellence.
Ford has all the polls in his favour, but election day is less than two months away. An image of evasiveness could erode his advantage and feed an opposition narrative that he has something to hide. He might wish to take a lesson from Mike Harris.
Sean Mallen is a Toronto-based communications consultant and the former Queen's Park Correspondent and Host/Producer of Focus Ontario on Global TV.
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