See no media, hear no media

I thought I’d share the audio of a strange moment at this weekend’s Liberal policy convention in Montreal. After giving probably the best speech I’ve ever seen him give on Saturday, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau declined to face reporters for the typical post-convention press conference.

This was highly unusual so when we spotted Trudeau sitting up front at the convention floor a few of us decided to try to scrum him. He wouldn’t face us and for a couple awkward moments just sat there acting as if we didn’t exist. We’ve dubbed this “the Sun News treatment” as he had done it to their reporters a couple times before.

Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen recaps the whole thing here.

I’ve asked some TV friends to upload the video but in the meantime here’s the audio:

The person stammering out questions is me. Trudeau is conversing with former Liberal Party of Canada president Mike Crawley. Around the 0:50 mark CBC producer Chris Rands asks a few questions about what colour Trudeau will paint his nursery. Trudeau actually answers Rands (he’s deciding between brown and green) before going back to ignoring us. For those scratching your heads about this: no, it is not normal for Hill reporters to ask such softball questions to a politician. This is Rands’ schtick, he regularly tosses aloof, non-political questions at politicians in the hopes that they’ll respond and he can get a clip out of it.

Later that day Trudeau went on the talk show Tout le monde en parl and made a controversial joke about the violent situation in Ukraine. His tendency to make gaffes has some of us wondering how much Trudeau’s handlers will be trying to keep him away from reporters from here on out.

Hopefully this weekend was an aberration rather than the start of a trend. In the end we never did get that press conference. Trudeau ducked out discretely without reporters noticing so we didn’t have a chance to scrum him again.

Senator Patrick Brazeau – Reporter?

Could Senator Patrick Brazeau make history as the first sitting senator to also be a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery? More to the point, should he be able to?

Let’s assume Brazeau does manage to jump the procedural hurdles. He has been taken on as a freelancer by one of Canada’s two Frank Magazines. As a freelancer he needs one other outlet to write him a letter of reference. He’s hinted recently he has that second letter but hasn’t identified the source.

The Parliamentary Press Gallery executive will meet this Wednesday to decide whether Brazeau should be let in. This possibility has made a few of my colleagues in the PPG very angry.

In a scrum last week Canadian Press reporter Steve Rennie openly mocked Brazeau, asking him whether he hoped to sit in Mike Duffy’s old seat, his thoughts on the inverted pyramid style of reporting, and so on. Another reporter told me he may propose an amendment to the PPG’s constitution at the next annual meeting to ban sitting senators from admittance. A non-reporter friend argued Brazeau should be refused solely on the grounds he has been charged with sexual assault.

The core question is one that’s dogging many organizations: how do you define who is a reporter and who isn’t?

The PPG’s solution to this is, in my opinion, simple and elegant. In short, to qualify your principle occupation has to be journalism (see the full requirements at the end of this post). Yes, this bans most bloggers. It also lets in controversial foreign news organizations (background: last year Chinese state news agency Xinhua was accused of spying on the Dalai Lama. As then-PPG vice president, I was the only member of the executive that voted to strip Xinhua of permanent membership, largely because they refused to answer questions about the allegations.)

But for the most part the system works surprisingly well. Considering gallery members have the freedom to wander Parliament, some checks on who gets in are needed. Currently the gallery is full of reporters, camera people and photographers while partisan operatives are excluded.

But of course, Patrick Brazeau is a sitting politician so how can he be allowed in?

Normally Brazeau would be excluded since being a senator is his principle occupation. But in this weird, unprecedented case, Brazeau has been stripped of his salary and office and even banned from the Senate chamber. He’s still technically a senator, but it’s no longer his livelihood.

Yes, he could be seen as a partisan. But the gallery has no rules against this. The gallery includes everyone from Sun News’s hyper-conservative Brian Lilley to the union outlet Straight Goods News. (Fun fact: press gallery founder Thomas White later became a Conservative minister.)

Yes, he’s up for charges of sexual assault. There’s nothing in the PPG constitution banning criminals from entering the gallery. I would argue this is a good thing. The RCMP still conducts background checks on members and is tasked with stopping any real security threat.

So yes, Brazeau could potentially become a press gallery member. While some people are angry, I can’t get too worked up about this. Putting up a barrier to someone reporting on government should not be done lightly. By trying to exclude Brazeau we risk also including others who should be let in.

Also, hey, maybe he’ll turn out to be a good reporter.

One final note: Because of Brazeau’s unique situation, I believe he could still act as a reporter even if he does not get admitted to the PPG. Brazeau is still a senator and still has access to most of Parliament. The biggest perk of being a gallery member is access (other perks include scrum transcriptions and parking). Brazeau already has access. He could still hang around the scrums and question Parliamentarians without being officially dubbed a reporter. We’ll find out Wednesday if it comes to that.

ADDENDUM: Here’s the full definition of who qualifies for press gallery membership from the PPG constitution:

Active membership in the Corporation shall be open only to journalists, photographers, camerapersons, soundpersons, and other professionals whose principal occupation is reporting, interpreting, or editing parliamentary or federal government news, and who are assigned to Ottawa on a continuing basis by one or more newspapers, radio or television stations or systems, major recognized news services or magazines which regularly publish or broadcast news of Canadian Parliament and Government affairs and who require the use of Gallery facilities to fulfil their functions.

Media organizations must adhere to “generally accepted journalistic principles and practices.”

A Brief History of Prorogation

If you find yourself at a really lame party this weekend where everyone is asking “what the hell is going on in Ottawa right now,” here’s a handy primer so you can look both smart and horrifically nerdy.

We now know the Harper government is proroguing Parliament, which means they’re basically shutting everything down and starting fresh in the fall with a new agenda. The question is whether this is a sleazy move to run away from the Senate controversy.

(Spoiler: it’s not, but that’s a reasonable misunderstanding.)

Here’s how prorogation came to be a bad word: In late 2008 the Harper government was on the brink of being brought down and replaced by a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Quebecois coalition government lead by Stephan Dion in a series of events that will keep alternate-reality fiction writers busy for years.

Harper saved his government when he convinced the Governor General to prorogue/shut down Parliament until early 2009. A combination of the Conservatives giving in to demands and the Liberals losing their nerve meant the coalition government never came to pass. (Which is too bad from a reporter point of view because covering those three parties trying to work together would have been crazy fun.)

So a year later Harper prorogues again, and this time it completely blows up in his face. Harper said the reason for prorogation was so that Canadians could enjoy the Vancouver Olympics. The opposition said it was to avoid criticism over the Afghan detainee controversy.

This put the Conservatives on uncharacteristically poor footing. While they usually reduce issues down to simple messages (think “Jobs, growth and long-term prosperity”) to repeat ad nauseum, they were now stuck defending an obscure procedure few were familiar with. Worse, the opposition had a devastatingly simple attack line: the government is shutting down Parliament to run away from criticism.

In his book Harperland, Lawrence Martin writes that Harper himself was skeptical of proroguing in 2009, but was persuaded by his advisers to use it since it worked so well the first time. Whether this is true or just Harper staffers trying to mythologize their boss’s instincts, it was clearly a major misstep.

The thing is, prorogation is pretty routine. It’s only the way it was used in 2008 and 2009 that was so unusual (though certainly not unprecedented. Even Sir John A. MacDonald shut down Parliament to avoid some, er, unpleasantness.)

We’ve known this has been coming for months. The legislative agenda had already dried up in the spring as the government made a final push to pass bills before the summer break. This means plans for prorogation were in the work before Senate expenses became front-page news.

So in short: prorogation is a tool that can and has been used by governments to run away from trouble. But usually it’s a routine procedure and that’s true in this case. While it does give the Conservatives the added benefit of not recalling the Senate for a while, I suspect the air of scandal will be there, waiting, whenever they return.

The Minister of Swag

I had some fun with this story about Peter MacKay’s collected gifts during his time as Defence minister. I still can’t believe he got an autographed Joe DiMaggio baseball.

In looking through the conflict of interest database I couldn’t help but check out Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who ended up having quite an extensive gift list. Here are the gifts Baird has accepted just since the 2011 election:

- A Mikimoto picture from His Excellency Norihiro Okuda, ambassador of Japan. (June, 2013)

- Montblanc cufflinks from Dr. Guido Westerwelle, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Germany. (May, 2013)

- A box of Cohiba cigars from Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuban minister of foreign affairs. (February, 2013)

- A gift basket containing champaigne, wine and chocolate from United Arab Emirates ambassador Mohammed Saif Hilal Al Shihi. (December, 2012)

- An iPad from the United Arab Emirates’ government at a forum in Abu Dhabi (weirdly, this is the second time the UAE gave Baird an iPad. I guess they bought in bulk). (November, 2012)

- A Cashsecret from Laurent Fabius, France’s minister of foreign affairs (I had no idea what a Cashsecret was but judging from pictures it appears to be some sort of cashmere blanket thing that can fold into a pillow. Or maybe it’s just the pillow and the blanket part is separate. The blanket might be more of a rug, or maybe a sash. This is not my area of expertise). (October, 2012)

- Cutlery from Adnan Mansour, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Lebanon (Lebanon is probably one of those who give out apples at Halloween). (August, 2012)

- A Dunhill wallet from the Honorary Consul of the Kingdom of Morocco in Hong Kong. (July, 2012)

- Cufflinks and a Cartier pen from Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah of Brunei. (July, 2012)

- A Graf von Faber-Castell organizer (your guess is as good as mine) from the Luxembourg minister of foreign affairs. (June, 2012)

- A tablecloth (seriously, a tablecloth?) from Japan’s minister of foreign affairs. (March, 2012)

- Two framed pictures (he doesn’t say of what, sadly) from Burma’s minister of foreign affairs.

- A Christmas gift basket containing a bottle of champagne, two bottles of wine and a book from the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Canada (what’s up with the UAE and Christmas baskets?). (December, 2011)

- A gold plated plate (I swear that’s verbatim) of the 805th anniversary of the Great Mongolian Empire (capitalization also verbatim) from Mongolia’s minister for mineral resources and energy. (December, 2011)

- A 64 GB Applie iPad from the government of the United Arab Emirates. Baird donated the iPad to the department of Foreign Affairs. (November, 2011)

- A glass block with a city of Kuwait model inside from the Prime Minister of, you guessed it, Kuwait. During the same trip Baird also received a replica of a historical Kuwaiti fishing boat. (November, 2011)

- A “silver Celapa Malay traditional ornamental container embrossed with Brunei traditional motive” from Brunai’s minister of foreign affairs. (September, 2011)

The list keeps going (and going) but I’ve only got so much time. The moral of the story appears to be that if you’re into wine, chocolate and iPads get yourself to the United Arab Emirates. That said, sometimes patrons can be over-generous, particularly if they’re royalty. Ministers have to return gifts to the Canadian treasury if they’re valued at over $1,000.

In March of 2012 United Arab Emirates minister of foreign affairs Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan gave MacKay a painting by artist Najat Makki. In September of that year Nahyan gave MacKay a hand-knotted wool rug.

In both cases the gifts were deemed too valuable and were turned over to the government.

On June 4 of this year Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain gave MacKay a William & Son clock during a visit to Ottawa. This also was handed over to the treasury.

It’s no wonder there were so many rumours that Jason Kenney was rumoured to want the foreign affairs job so badly.

Window to an alternate reality

In this incredible video Openfile founder Wilf Dinnick discusses how his website can beat newspapers at their own game, months after the site had already shut down.

Throughout the video, Dinnick drops nuggets of wisdom such as “Journalists do not work for pay, they work for passion” which is a thing people say when they’re trying not to pay journalists much.

But what’s utterly bizarre is that throughout the video, which it seems was filmed in late January, Dinnick never once lets on that Openfile had shut down four months earlier and still owes freelancers thousands of dollars. It feels like the interview was recorded in another world where the sky is orange and Openfile is thriving, and then it somehow made its way into our reality.

The interviewer, Randall Craig, apparently didn’t do the in-depth research of checking to see whether his guest’s website was still operational and keeps making cringe-inducing statements like “five years down the road, Openfile hopefully won’t be a closed file.”

Asked about it on Twitter, Craig said on February 24: “We conducted the interview last month. Sadly, we weren’t aware of the Sept date. Openfile had such promise – very unfortunate.”

Openfile sparked an interesting debate in it’s two-and-a-half year life. Many of us said the business model would never work, while just one year ago J-Source named Dinnick their Canadian newsperson of the year. In the months since Openfile was supposedly put on pause, Dinnick has continued to insist the site would return in a different form.

On January 10 Dinnick tweeted that paying off the freelancer debts was “all being wrapped up now,” though he’s been making similar promises for months. As recently as February 20 Dinnick claimed Openfile would not be gone for good and was just “down for a bit and was planned.”

I’m skeptical Dinnick will get Openfile off the ground again, but if he does it will bare no resemblance to its former self. Openfile was conceived as a “ground up” news site where readers pitch the stories they want to read. For reasons I’m not going to get into here, I think that’s a terrible model. But from what I’ve pieced together from Dinnick’s statements over the months, his new vision for Openfile seems to be as a cheap provider of custom content for other media companies.

Custom content is the industry buzzterm for content that isn’t quite advertorial but also not quite straight news. Here’s how it would work: Let’s say Postmedia goes to a bunch of real estate companies and says they’ve got this big insert coming out on buying a new home that you’ll want to advertise in. So the companies pony up the cash and the paper then goes to Openfile to write the stories around the ads. Rather than straight ad copy (“Why Greg Smith is the best Realtor!”) that no one wants to read, the stories are more like “5 things to look out for when buying your first condo.”

Of course companies have already been doing this for years (the condo example is actually the first and last custom content story I had to write years ago for a former employer) but as circulations decline they’re leaning more heavily on custom content now. The Toronto Star recently threw a lot of resources into a new in-house custom content division. From what I can tell, Openfile’s pitch is that it can create this content cheaper than the big companies because it doesn’t pay vacation, pensions, etc.

It’s a far cry from the lofty ideals of the original Openfile. The real shame here is that a lot of enthusiastic and talented people bought into the idea of Openfile and ended up getting screwed. I wonder what must be going through their heads as they watch Dinnick being interviewed as a visionary businessman.

UPDATE: The Grid staff writer David Topping, the same guy who compiled the list of Openfile’s freelance debts, says the producer of the Dinnick interview confirmed to him it was recorded on January 21, 2013.

UPDATE #2: Craig tells Halifax-based Frank Magazine his interview with Dinnick was a “massive fail.” He also tells Frank “we got snookered” before adding that there was no way he could have known about Openfile’s situation since Dinnick didn’t volunteer the info so “not snookered exactly.” If nothing else, this ordeal has perfectly illustrated what’s wrong with the ‘talking with great minds’ industry that has sprung up to capitalize on the popularity of TED talks.

Ezra and Me

Ezra face

My good friend Ezra Levant over at Sun News responded to my previous blog post on his show by denouncing not just me but the entire “Paul McLeod wing of the Media Party.” Here’s the video. On behalf of the wing, we are deeply hurt.

To be honest, I didn’t watch the whole thing and I’m not going to go spend too much time on this. But I did want to debunk one particularly egregious claim in Levant’s alleged outing of David Suzuki as an environymphomaniac.

Levant seizes on an email passage about arranging some students to meet Suzuki either “by having him step outside of the penthouse or enabling them to join the group in the sanctified air.” Here’s Ezra’s take on the “sheer grossness” of this at around the 10-minute mark of that video:

“Send these teenage girls, 17, 18, 19 years old, to Suzuki’s hotel room? At night? What dean would send teenage girls to a man’s hotel room at night?” …

“Isn’t it funny how both the Suzuki Foundation, and the college, didn’t deny that at all did they? They didn’t comment about the nighttime hotel room visit at all. They just said that I misinterpreted things. Really? What possible other interpretation can there be?

Yes, what possible other interpretation is there? Well, here’s one. It turns out the “penthouse” is the nickname for the top floor of John Abbott College’s new $45-million, five-story Science and Health Technologies Building. In fact the opening of the building, which is where the college trains nurses, ambulance technicians and pharmaceutical technicians, was timed to correspond to Suzuki’s visit.

Actually the building sounds pretty nice. Apparently the top floor has “an expansive view of Lac St. Louis and the college grounds.”

If you read the email that Ezra himself quotes, you can see there were two meetings with students – one in the morning and one in the evening. It even mentions how students were selected for the meetings. The criteria was not sexy, underage coeds. The criteria was science students.

Ta da! A meeting of science students and faculty in a school building becomes, in Ezra’s reports, a creepy sex offering of young girls to Suzuki’s private hotel. Cue uncomfortable mental images.

If it’s not clear already, Ezra isn’t trying to report a story. He’s trying to embarrass David Suzuki, a longtime target of Sun News. On behalf of the Paul McLeod wing of the Media Party, colour us shocked.

How to Manufacture a Story: David Suzuki Edition

What’s the over/under on an upcoming settlement between Sun News and environmentalist David Suzuki? One million? Maybe two?

I ask because I’d imagine Suzuki is about ready to unleash all his lawyerly hounds after Sun’s Ezra Levant called him a “dirty old man” who makes “bizarre and sexist requests.”

I’m inclined to stay out of this one. I also find the cult of David Suzuki kind of nauseating and Ezra, well, there are better life pursuits than hacking through his spin (I happen to be paid to hack through other people’s spin).

But Ezra and others are now saying the reason other reporters aren’t leaping on the story is because Suzuki is protected by the left-wing “media party.” Ezra makes this sort of claim a lot, and this seems as good an example as any for debunking it.

The thing with Ezra is is that much of the time his scoops disappear into thin air when you examine them too closely. So here’s my argument about why my socialist, media party hive-mind brothers and I might choose not to follow the Suzuki sex scandal.

The key with Ezra is you have to look through what he’s saying for what he can prove.

What he’s saying: As part of his rider for a speaking engagement at a small college, Suzuki demanded attractive young women follow him around dressed in sexy outfits. These women would then be invited up to his private Penthouse (presumably for some hot, carbon-neutral hanky panky).

What he can prove: Suzuki’s assistant requested he be followed around by female body guards.

That’s actually it. The rest is all in Ezra’s imagination and clever phrasing. The “rider”? Requesting the bodyguards be pretty? Made up by Ezra. There’s no sign that Suzuki requested the women be dressed any way at all.

So why have bodyguards? Apparently so he can “travel from one venue to another without being accosted too many times along the way.”

Ok, but why female body guards? I assume because he wanted to avoid the optics of the kind, old environmentalist being guarded by big, intimidating men. I assume this because that’s what the emails actually say: “No seriously, I believe it is his way of being discrete and less intimidating.”

This seems to be backed up in the correspondence we see about the bodyguard’s attire. The consideration seems not to be making them sexy, but making them appear not like bodyguards: “Please be certain that the women are nicely dressed, we don’t want them in evening gowns, but definitely NOT Police Tech uniforms.”

Keep in mind the emails about outfits were between school staff, not Suzuki’s people. There’s no evidence Suzuki’s assistant requested the girls be pretty, only some school staff fussing about the appearance of the people who will be following around their expensive guest speaker.

As for the penthouse, you have to torque this quote pretty hard to make it scandalous:

“In terms of acknowledging their contribution after the tours are completed, we will need to gather them together at the end to either give them some brief time with Suzuki (which I will try to make happen, either by having him step out of the penthouse or enabling them to join the group in the sanctified air).”

So this is a group of students (it doesn’t seem to be the bodyguard girls) getting a chance to either talk to him outside or with another group of people indoors. Hardly a private invitation to David Suzuki’s sex den. The only offensive thing about this statement seems to be the use of the gag-inducing term “sanctified air.”

The total cost of $40,000 does seem insanely high for a David Suzuki speech but hey, the college gets to decide how it spends its own money.

So where’s the sex scandal? All I see is a somewhat odd request for female bodyguards accompanied with a plausible explanation.

Ezra is a talented spin-man. I once watched him put together a case that the Liberal Party of Canada was behind Anonymous based on literally nothing. If he has real evidence that Suzuki is creepily asking for sexy college escorts then he’d have a story. But all I see so far is another one of his smoke and mirror routines.

UPDATE: My old coworker David Rodenhiser points out Suzuki spoke to a sold-out crowd of 1,600 at John Abbott College and his speech was live-streamed to about 14,000 more students. So his speaking fee worked out to about $2 per student.

UPDATE #2: Commenter Jay Watts points out that Suzuki was the keynote speaker at a fundraising gala that night. According to this faculty association memo the dinner was a hefty $650 per plate. That means just 64 attendees would have paid off the entire cost of bringing Suzuki into town. Of course, the dinner itself would have costs but it still seems pretty likely the college made money off of Suzuki’s visit.