On February 23, 2021, something amazing happened—almost a miracle, as far as I’m concerned. I got to ask Premier Jason Kenney a question during a news conference (about the upcoming legislative sitting). Before that, the last time I’d been called on to ask a question was December 18, 2020—67 days previously.
But who’s counting?
This, sadly, is the new normal for me and many of my colleagues in the Alberta news media. Even though Kenney still holds news conferences relatively often, some of us go weeks, even months, without being called on to ask the premier or a minister a direct question. This is thanks in part to the pandemic, which has forced the government to hold its news conferences online. And it’s thanks in part to a government that’s happy to use online news conferences to limit access to the premier and cabinet ministers.
Once upon a time, before the pandemic, the premier and ministers would hold news conferences in a room filled with reporters who would ask questions. These were semi-civilized affairs nominally run by press secretaries who, in trying to organize reporters, were doing the political equivalent of herding cats.
But the system worked fairly well, if not perfectly. Reporters would ask questions and follow-ups if they needed more information or if the politician was ducking the issue. Other journalists were free to jump in with their own topic or pick up a thread laid down by a previous reporter. At times politicians no doubt felt this was a pile-on, particularly if they were trying to avoid a thorny issue.
At other times, though, this was simply reporters trying their best to understand a complicated issue.
Aggressive journalists, or those feeling frustrated at getting a non-answer, could elbow their way in to asking more questions, with the whole process becoming at times a verbal jumble. But if democracy is a messy business, so too is a free press.
Enter COVID-19. The pandemic has simply added to the mess, even if on the surface things appear more civilized.
The one-sided news conference system run by the UCP government means Kenney can easily ignore and deflect questions on thorny issues.
The government now holds its news conferences online, where reporters phone into a teleconference and are placed in line to ask a question. To listen in you’d think journalists have become a tame lot. Journalists aren’t shouting over each other or asking a string of follow-up questions.
What’s actually happening is the government press secretary running the news conference has all the reporters on mute. The secretary determines which reporter gets to ask a question and then mutes the reporter again. Getting a follow-up question is strictly at the discretion of the press secretary. (Kenney’s staff didn’t allow follow-ups until last March, when journalists pointed out on Twitter he seemed to be the only premier in the country to routinely shut down a reporter after one question.)
Dozens of reporters dial in, but only a handful are called upon to ask a question—and I have to say it seems those more friendly to Kenney get called on more often.
This might sound trivial, or so much inside baseball that you should be reading this column with a hotdog and a beer. But the one-sided news conference system run by this government means Kenney can easily ignore and deflect questions on controversial issues.
For example, when asked by a reporter in December about criticisms of the government’s pandemic response and whether he took any responsibility for deaths in the second wave, Kenney attacked the question. “That sounds a lot more like an NDP speech than a media question,” said Kenney. “I reject the entire premise of your question.”
This is a problem not just for journalists but for the notion of holding a government to account.
In an op-ed piece for Postmedia in January, Vitor Marciano, former press secretary to Wildrose leader Brian Jean, pointed out that “the usual model of conveying information to Albertans in an emergency has gone out the window and been replaced with weird, deferential, presidential-style press conferences. This has resulted in the media having limited opportunities to ask questions.”
This us-versus-them mentality is infusing the day-to-day relations between the news media and government.
“We reject the premise of your ridiculous, agenda-driven questions,” is how Kenney’s office responded to an email from the National Observer, whose author was writing a feature on the UCP premier. The Observer is not exactly a fan of Kenney, but the pugilistic tone of the premier’s staff is indicative of a growing divide in media/government relations.
There is a troubling irony here. During an unprecedented pandemic, when the public desperately needs an open and accountable government to answer questions, the government is using the pandemic as cover to help avoid that scrutiny.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.