Spinsanity

Ottawa often seems to exist in its own world with its own deeply stupid rules. My friend Tim Bousquet has a great anecdote of this at the footnotes section at the end of this post at his site, the Halifax Examiner.

Mike Karanicolas, a freedom of information advocate who does great stuff with the Centre for Law and Democracy (example of their work here), had invited Tim to participate in an “open discussion” with some federal Treasury Board staffers about open government. Here’s how it went down:

But when we got around to a woman—and I’m sorry, I didn’t catch her name—who worked at the Treasury Board, she asked who I worked for and left the room to make a phone call.

When she came back, she said that with a journalist in the room, the Treasury Board employees were not authorized to speak without a government media professional in the room. That’s right—a session on open government could not proceed without a media minder present because the discussion might go off the government’s talking points.

Ever see the movie Cube? It’s maybe the best Canadian sci-fi film ever made. A group of unrelated people all wake up in this giant maze of cube rooms, some of which contain murderous booby-traps. They have no idea how they got there or why. They grapple with the question of who would build this thing and for what purpose, but the answer seems to be that no one is in charge. The cube just exists, contrary to all sense or reason, and so it must be kept going.

This is basically how I feel about the communications wing of the federal government. Even when they’re actively working against their own interests they can’t help themselves. It’s not uncommon for reporters to try to get information on a story that the government wants to promote, yet the story gets buried because PR staff can’t get out of their own way to answer the reporter’s questions.

Here’s another example from this week. The discovery of one of the lost Franklin Expedition ships is a textbook story that the government wants to celebrate. On Tuesday they held a technical briefing for journalists that featured senior officials from the Navy, Coast Guard, Arctic Research Foundation, Parks Canada and other groups. I was a great opportunity for reporters to get clips of officials beaming with pride about their discovery.

Except the whole thing was off the record. There’s no logical reason for this other than that tech briefings are traditionally off the record so that staffers can give blunt answers without being quoted. They’re usually followed by press conferences with politicians or senior officials who speak for the department. But in this case, these were the senior officials.

At least one reporter argued with the comms staff beforehand to no avail. He was told rules are rules and the event was off the record. Only at the very end of the event when a reporter raised the issue did Parks Canada vice president Andrew Campbell say sure, of course you can quote us. The guys on stage thought it was a normal press conference, they had no idea comms people were going around saying they couldn’t be quoted.
This caused a bunch of grief for reporters, particularly on the TV side, who hadn’t recorded the whole thing. And in TV and radio if you can’t get good clips your story won’t be featured as prominently. There’s no logic to the cult of PR anymore. It just runs on its own steam now, even if the person practicing it is only hurting themselves.

Who calls the shots at Sun News?

This week Sun News ran a deeply racist story that accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of pandering to terrorists because he visited a mosque in his riding. The story was a vehicle to let a Sun personality and the Prime Minister’s Office tee off against Trudeau. Worse, it’s clearly written for people who equate Islam with terrorism.

This blog post isn’t about the story, though. Jonathan Kay at the National Post already did a solid job showing why it’s bullshit. Glen McGregor at the Ottawa Citizen writes about how federal cabinet ministers are getting involved in the smear.

No, this post is to give a bit of insight into how Sun works. To be sure, Sun is openly pro-Conservative and the organization has its true believers. For example Ottawa reporter Daniel Proussalidis has openly told people one of the reasons he’s in journalism is he was inspired by the words of Stephen Harper (For more examples, turn on Sun TV at any given time. I’m not trying to pick on Proussalidis, who for the record seems like a really nice guy.)

Then it’s got people like, say, David Akin who are there not for ideological reasons but because they’re reporters and Sun is the one who happens to be paying them. Jessica Hume, who wrote the Trudeau mosque story, is in this camp. To the best of my knowledge she really is a reporter, not a partisan.

So how does she end up writing a hatchet job like the mosque story? My understanding is that for Sun reporters it’s not uncommon for these assignments to come right from the top. I haven’t spoken to Hume about this piece so I’m admittedly speculating here, but it’s not uncommon that one of the network’s many talking heads like Ezra Levant comes up with a political attack and then some poor Sun reporter gets assigned to cover it.

The Sun brain trust is apparently made up by three key people. They are:

Kory Teneycke – This is the name everyone knows. Teneycke is a former director of communications for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Sun TV is said to be his brainchild. He’s the big boss there.

Matt Wolf – Sun’s executive producer of primetime programming. From 2008 to 2010 he served as issues advisor in the office of… Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Dennis Matthews – The director of marketing and brand development at Sun. From 2006 to 2010 he served as manager of advertising and staff director for, you guessed it, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Before that he worked for Conservative MP Rona Ambrose and Harper again during his opposition days.

That’s three former Harper staffers running the network. now when you start to see blatant Conservative propaganda from Sun like this…

Sun graphic

…it makes more sense. It’s a shame. Sun does have its share of legitimately good reporters who want to do real journalism. But they’re continually undermined by the guys at the top shilling for their former boss.

I guess there’s a market for that. But given the rolling layoffs at Sun papers and the chronically dismal ratings of Sun TV, you’d think after a while they’d get the partisans to lay off and let the reporters do their thing.

New disclosure stats

Canadian telecoms Rogers and TekSavvy just released disclosure reports about how often government agencies ask them for customer data. Here’s a rundown of what we know from individual companies so far. Note the time periods vary.

ROGERS

Total data requests in 2013: 174,917

Requests with a warrant: 74,415 (43%)

Other: Rogers says it received 9,339 “emergency requests from police in life threatening (sic) situations” plus 711 requests in cases of child exploitation emergencies, and 2,556 requests under government requirement orders issued under such laws as the Customs Act or Income Tax Act.

How many requests were granted: Rogers doesn’t say.

Who asked for the data: the RCMP, CSIS, Canada Border Services Agency and the Canada Revenue Agency, as well as provincial and municipal agencies like police forces and coroners.

TEKSAVVY

Total data requests in 2012 and 2013 combined: 52, all of which were for subscriber information.

Number of requests granted: 17 (33 per cent)

Number of times a warrant was used: 1 (6% of disclosures, 2% of requests)

Other: TekSavvy was sued for information on 2,114 IP addresses tied to downloads of a copyrighted movie. Background here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/tech-news/court-tells-teksavvy-to-reveal-customers-who-illegally-download-movies/article17025513/

FACEBOOK

Total data requests from first six months of 2013: 192 requests for info on 219 accounts.

Amount of requests granted: Facebook says it handed over full or partial information in 44% of cases.

Times a warrant was used: Though Facebook doesn’t explicitly spell this out, a spokesperson tells me that they only ever hand out data if a warrant is produced, even in cases of emergencies. So from this we can gather that police used a warrant 44% of the time. The staffer tells me most requests are for IP addresses tied to certain accounts/pages.

APPLE CANADA

Total data requests from June 2010 to June 2011: approximately 100 requests.

Times a warrant was used: 20%

Note: These figures don not include police asking for surveillance footage from Apple stores during theft investigations.

 

And of course we know nine companies received 1.2 million requests from government agencies in one year. Details about what companies were asked is here.

 

 

 

 

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.