Media access is an essential service,so why did the NDP limit access for months…until Horgans election call? The backstory to this, below.
There will be plenty to say about Horgan breaking the CASA agreement with the Greens just to try and get re-elected before the proverbial economic/site c/ unemployment shitshow next year, but I’ve got a little backstory for you I’ve been working on since last week.
When Covid 19 restrictions began last March, it made sense to limit interactions between all of us during the initial pandemonium. We didn’t know what we were dealing with and frankly, it was the smart thing to do. Essential service designations were given to industries and jobs the public depends on, and those people continued working while the rest of us either didn’t, or worked remotely.
Here in BC, the government began issuing pressers with this requirement, that reporters were only allowed to call in:
This may have made sense initially, but access to officials that is not inherently limited, is something that must be assured…particularly in a pandemic, because the press is the only thing standing between the public and government accountability.
Or one would think. But this arrangement continued on throughout the spring, and summer. I began seeing comments online about the lack of in person access, along with various reporters tweeting about “tech issues”, questions getting dropped, and even of not being able to get a question asked at all. There is a huge difference between in person press scrums and highly controlled call ins. Everything was being screened through the communications director or press secretaries, one question and one follow up allowed. That comms person controls everything including access whether they admit it or not. That IS how it works and why some reporters never get a question in.
I couldn’t understand why, when government says it is safe for the rest of us to be conducting business and carrying on masked and distanced in our lives, why they still maintained it was oddly not safe to have reporters in person. And I couldn’t understand why the press didn’t start pushing back, particularly when the ill conceived back to school plan emerged, cases were beginning to rise and Bonnie Henry changed distancing protocols from 2 metres to 1 metre in school and workplaces to make it all work. It didn’t make sense that this wasn’t being pushed back on.
I kept waiting, thinking that surely now the press would be allowed back so reporters could be in person to question officials…but no, that didn’t happen. Government continued allowing call in pressers only and often short ones.
When it was clear that Horgan was thinking of an election and he started doing campaign like appearances, I started looking at the BC government Flickr account to see how these were being managed.
And what a surprise I found.
Press conferences outside with ample space for press, personal appearances with and without masks and clearly if all of these things can occur, there is no reason for press not to be in person at announcements and Covid updates:
So, I started asking questions. Of government and of reporters.
Sept 17th: I contacted Jen Holmwood, Deputy Communications Director and Press Secretary for Premier John Horgan:
Sept 18th: She replies:
Oh, that’s interesting. They worked in cooperation with the press gallery? So reporters who are getting dropped, not getting calls in and subject to tech issues…agreed to this? I needed more info.
I immediately replied asking for clarification, but as of this post Jen has not responded. And clearly from the Govt Flickr account showing outside pressers with extensive room for press, it has been possible but they chose not to:
But now, I needed to find out who agreed to this and why, because governments around the world have used Covid to limit access not only to journalists in person, but also have interfered or limited Freedom of Information requests which are essential to holding all governments to account. In fact, this is being tracked and documented :
I started with Richard Zussman, president of the Legislative Press Gallery, and emailed him this question below on Sept 18th after receiving the reply from Horgans Communications director:
I did receive an off the record response and we agreed it was not for attribution but background only, and we went back and forth before I asked for a statement on the record from the Legislative Press Gallery Executive, which I finally received late on Sept. 19th:
I have to say, I was more than a bit surprised that at a time when journalists and press organizations around the world are writing and protesting the limitations put on them by governments far more nefarious than ours during Covid, most of our legislative press gallery gave up in person access so easily. I get ‘feeling concerned. We are all concerned. But we all have to learn to live with this and reporters should be first in line. And this government used to rightfully scream at ” Premier Photo-op” but seems to now be following in her footsteps.
As someone who has always worked hard to investigate in depth stories that I often broke and scooped other journo’s on, it left me feeling deeply disappointed , saddened and probably even more cynical.
But the story doesn’t end there. Because after a weekend spent pursuing the statements above – all parties involved knowing this post was coming – guess what magically happened today? This:
Sigh. I would like to think I had something to do with this sudden change of heart on Horgans part.
But really, it’s likely just pure opportunism on his part.
Of course it was always safe for reporters to be in person, distanced and masked. The fact that reporters didn’t ask why its safe for the premier to do photo ops with many people but Bonnie Henry and Dix cant have reporters question them in person, is something they have to reflect on,and deserves a bigger lens than this blog can give. It directly impacts their credibility.
But… it gets even crazier. Because now other people are noticing this sudden difference and questions are being asked.
And I’m just going to leave this right here for y’all to think about:
Wow. Let me tell you all why this has me so worried. One, they have set a precedent for relinquishing/limiting access. Imagine how a more right leaning government might manipulate that more than Horgan already has.
And two: this puts the press gallery executive on the hotplate now as to why they would withhold all access if Bob Mackin didn’t agree to the rule? Were they worried he might scoop on a bigger story?
I can’t wrap my head around this.
Jack Webster would be rolling in his grave right now and rightfully so. This is a mockery of everything journalists have fought for.
At a time when public trust is at a low because of abrupt changes in public policy and covid guidelines that are at odds with other health standards and organizations… and when announcements are being made by the dozens in the 2 days prior to the election call…we need a fully operational press and one willing to go beyond a controlled presser. The public depends on it.
I’m going to finish with a quote from an article from J-source, that was written 7 years ago. At the time I was still a media commentator and a top political columnist at the now defunct 24Hours Vancouver, and the former BC Liberal government avoided reporters like the plague. I think its time for a reminder of why press access, and a free press, is so important, particularly during Covid 19, when questionable changes to law have been made that will still be here long after this government is gone.
“…The big fear is that media doesn’t perform its job of holding government accountable, and instead parrots an official narrative,” said Candis Callison, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia. “A reporter’s job is to make every effort to hold public officials accountable, to act as a surrogate for the public.
“It behooves public officials to make themselves available. Unfortunately, sometimes there is a fear of being held accountable to the press. Gaps are emerging between the well-crafted statement and the off-the-cuff remark. Yet our democracy rests on the press being able to perform this function.”
“Journalists, in an ideal world, are a stand-in for the public. We’re supposed to be asking questions the public wants answered from those in power. That’s why people should be concerned