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Press Gallery agrees to go on PM's list

[PoliticsWatch posted 5:45 p.m. September 5, 2006]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper  

OTTAWA  —  Members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery voted Tuesday to suspend their boycott of submitting their names to staffers who run Prime Minister Stephen Harper's press conferences.  

However, the ceasefire in the ongoing battle with the PMO is only temporary. 

An amendment to suspend the boycott for just 30 days narrowly passed by two votes. 

Since April, the PM has not been asked questions at press conferences on Parliament Hill because reporters refused to submit their names to one of Harper's press aides before press conferences. 

The PM's aide would pick and choose from the list of names which reporters asked questions at press conferences. Critics of the protocol accused the PMO of cherry picking certain reporters and bypassing others. 

Reporters stopped complying with the new press conference rules initiated since the January election after voting unanimously in favour of boycotting the list in April. 

All reporters, technicians and producers who are accredited with the Press Gallery were given the opportunity to attend and vote at Tuesday's meeting. 

The meeting revealed that like the Liberal caucus, the PMO has succeeded in exposing divisions within the Gallery. 

The amended motion to temporarily suspend the boycott passed with 58 Gallery members supporting it, but there are still 20 members who want to stand by the Gallery's unanimous vote in April and not submit their names to Harper's staff. 

One Hill reporter who voted against ending the boycott told PoliticsWatch she was "disgusted" and "amazed" by Tuesday's meeting.

"The Gallery has played right into Harper's hands," she said, adding there
are "reservations about the principled and long-term dangers of what's now
under way."

Many journalists who spoke against ending the boycott during the two-hour meeting are concerned that agreeing to the PMO's rules is slippery slope that will open the door to further restrictions from the Tory government or similar vetting from opposition parties and other groups who hold press conferences on the Hill. 

The Press Gallery's boycott fell apart last month after CanWest News informed the PMO that it was going to ignore the ban and put the names of its reporters on the PM's list. CanWest's Ottawa bureau is citing pressure from the editors of its 11 newspapers across the country.

The same day CanWest told the PMO it would submit names on the list, the  PM made a statement on softwood lumber on Parliament Hill and did not take questions. However, he later granted an exclusive phone interview with CanWest. 

CanWest breaking the ban aside, a large number of reporters said during the meeting the boycott was not working.  

A number of problems were aired, such as cable news channels, networks and larger newspapers bypassing the boycott by having exclusive interviews with the PM. As well, the ban did not apply off of the Hill. Some organizations kept the ban in place for reporters travelling with the PM, but many had reporters ask questions out of town. 

"Here we are the one group of people whose primary purpose in life is to ask the prime minister questions and we were not asking him questions," one Hill veteran who voted to end the boycott told PoliticsWatch after the meeting. 

"It was getting ridiculous. Huge issues of the day were floating around and we were all standing around and not asking the hard questions -- or rather not asking any questions period."

The Gallery is suspending the boycott for 30 days as an act of "good faith" in hopes of developing a press conference protocol with the PMO. 

Members will meet again next month and it is not clear whether a majority of  Gallery members would support a permanent suspension of the ban. There was also a discussion during the meeting of possibly sanctioning reporters and outlets that violated any future ban. 

________

As an accredited news organization with the Parliamentary Press Gallery, PoliticsWatch has one vote in the Gallery and voted in favour of the motion to suspend the boycott. PoliticsWatch also voted against the amendment that placed the 30-day time limit on the suspension.  

At this time, PoliticsWatch has taken the editorial decision to no longer support a boycott because it has had the unintended consequence of benefiting larger news organizations. 

Although all reporters from these organizations honoured the boycott at press conferences on the Hill, many were granted and accepted exclusive interviews with the PM. 

Smaller organizations, such as PoliticsWatch, are thus left in a competitive disadvantage. 

Our readers have a right to know and we have an obligation to ask.  

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