The maternal health summit: Another bad day for the PMO

Our political editor on the controversy over conference coverage


Here’s the page of information for reporters at the “Saving Every Woman, Every Child” summit Stephen Harper’s government is running in Toronto. Highlights:

“Media representatives may consult liaison officers at the Media Centre information desk for all their needs. Officers may travel with media representatives in some instances.” In practice, this turns out to mean that reporters are being escorted to toilets like three-year-olds.

“Media accreditation will allow access to the media centre and media activities. However, some events will be accessible only through restricted pool coverage.” In practice, this means that reporters are being kept for extended periods in a “media centre” to which no images or audio from the conference floor is transmitted. And they are not permitted to leave it. While it is true that “some events” are accessible only through pools — one or two reporters whose accounts of activities are shared with all interested colleagues — it is also true that most events aren’t accessible at all

And you know what? All they had to do was tell us. If there had just been a line on the website that said, “NOTE: Reporters will not be permitted to cover most of this conference, even if they show up,” Maclean’s would not have darkened their door. We’ve got better ways to stay busy. Our reporter Kate Lunau — a gentle soul from whom I have never heard a word of complaint, and one of the country’s rising stars of science journalism — had an academic conference down the road that she’d have been happy to cover. No events at that conference were restricted to pools, and nobody would have escorted her to the can.

But instead we got suckered into believing we would be able to cover an event whose participants very much want their efforts to be covered, and instead we were wrong again, as we so often are when we expect Stephen Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office to act like professionals. As Lunau explains in her post from this morning, reporters were banned from sessions on polio and nutrition yesterday. The entire afternoon program was going to be off-limits today until a few of us made some fuss on Twitter and reporters were permitted to hear Melinda Gates speak.

This is asinine. PMO spokes-drones have argued that the coverage limitations were “a group decision” to allow frank discussion. But no participant at the summit who does not cash a Government of Canada paycheque has endorsed this entirely fictional decision. Several have expressed their dismay as they learn they can no longer expect Canada to be a free-speech country.

The funny thing is, I had taken it into my head to de-politicize Maclean’s coverage of maternal and child health. I led our coverage in 2010 of controversy over the Prime Minister’s decision to fund most interventions for maternal and child health, but not abortion. This year, prompted largely by professionals working in the field who pleaded with me to take a broader view, I took another run at the story. I interviewed former government officials and health care professionals in Canada, the United States and Switzerland. The result is here. I believe it stands as a reasonable example of serious journalism about serious subjects. It is certainly not critical of Stephen Harper.

While I was preparing the piece I found an article in The Lancet, a British medical journal, sharply criticizing the Harper government for its secrecy on maternal health. I flagged the Lancet article to Jason MacDonald, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, who had the office of International Development Minister Christian Paradis produce an extended rebuttal, which landed only a day after my original deadline. Pretty good work by today’s standards. Much of the material from Paradis’s office was recycled talking points but I compared it to the charges The Lancet made, decided it was roughly a wash, and dropped that whole element of the story. The secrecy element. Funny, that.

Harper has had several communications directors over the years, with varying styles. Kory Teneycke strongly believed it was a good thing to have more Conservatives talking to reporters, including Harper, which helps explain why my last interview with the Prime Minister dates from Teneycke’s tenure. Dimitri Soudas liked to phone reporters’ bosses to complain about their coverage, but since my boss was Ken Whyte, I never heard a word about it until I asked Ken, months later, whether Soudas had tried that tactic on me. He had. Angelo Persichilli found the job physically overwhelming, Andrew MacDougall got on well with reporters and met with some internal suspicion because of that, and now we have MacDonald and Carl Vallée.

In the past several months, there have been spectacular examples of Harper talking before he thought about a subject, which is a good way for Harper to get into trouble. He said Liberals and New Democrats were somehow unqualified to care about democracy in Ukraine. His PMO press shop backed him up. Then they had to backtrack wildly when that got him in trouble. He said Beverley McLachlin had lobbied against a specific Supreme Court nominee, and MacDonald nodded and took faithful notes, and now Harper’s credibility on Supreme Court nominations lies shattered. Now he’s done it again, picking a fight we weren’t interested in, for no reason. Harper’s instincts are sometimes really bad, and when his latest advisers let those instincts win, reporters are the least of their problems. Their problem is Stephen Harper.


The maternal health summit: Another bad day for the PMO

  1. I will never ever criticize this author again. OUCH !

    • I did mean to add one thing though, the sad part of all of this Fluff Fest Harper is having, it is not a conscientious move on behalf of Harper, its all about the politics and optics.

  2. And you even left out M. Vallee’s tweet about Ms. landau. Most days you are nicer to them than they deserve, Mr. Wells. (I think part of why Conservatives approve of your recent book is that you describe Harper’s tactics and views in detail, and then refraining from using the words that would come to the mind of most Canadians).

  3. Hm, makes me think about the Bruce Carson TV interview I saw the other day: he said he would disagree with Harper and so would Ian Brodie and so would Flanagan (and Harper would listen to them) but now, it seems, Harper’s got no one to say no to him. Yet that must be by design.

  4. “The funny thing is, I had taken it into my head to de-politicize Maclean’s coverage of maternal and child health. I led our coverage in 2010 of controversy over the prime minister’s decision to fund most interventions for maternal and child health, but not abortion. This year, prompted largely by professionals working in the field who pleaded with me to take a broader view…”

    So…you admit your coverage *was* politicized to focus on abortion. So is everyone else’s. People who sound like they should know better begged you not to do that. Your first effort at it was a week ago. No-one else has made such an effort.

    And you’re wondering why we’re here? Seriously?

    • The PM is a politician. Everything he does, including the above, is politicized, so stop being so purposefully obtuse. Mr. Wells is being intellectually and professionally honest. The same can’t even be whispered about you.

    • Do you get that he realizes he gave the Harper team too much credit?

    • I’m pretty sure Harper is the one who politicized it by singling out abortion.
      And you think the media is supposed to ignore that fact? Seriously?

  5. don’t blame Harper for barring media. they are so obviously biased against the Conservatives that I would not have any of members of the party talk to them at all. The media’s reporting is totally on the side of Trudeau not Harper. If you were reporting on the conference all you would focus on is the abortion issue. abortion is punishable by death in Muslim countries. If you were aware of that maybe you would have some understanding of why it can’t be brought up

    • These conversations go so much better if you read the coverage we’ve actually posted here instead of speculating on what it would be.

  6. The fact that this Paul Wells article is the result of Paul Wells not getting his way…….pretty much confirms what people think of Paul Wells.

    Paul….we get it. When someone kowtows to you……they get a good story. When you don’t get your way….you get…well…this article.

    As has been mentioned; Why WOULD the PMO worry about what journalists think, let alone what they write. I don’t blame the Government for wanting to go about their agenda without journalists. the media in Canada is quite biased. Especially when they don’t get their way.

    • Absolutely. The Government should be allowed to operate in total secrecy.
      Invoking “Cabinet Secrecy”, “closure” limiting debate and, undoubtedly, without the prying eyes of that pesky old media. That’s what “transparency and accountability” are all about

      If ever I find myself talking to a horse, I’ll be sure to slip around back and say “hi” to you too, James.

      • No George…I never said anything about Government secrecy. Those are your words.

        My point is that most journalists in Canada, are biased against anything Conservative; and they are always looking for an excuse to put the current Government in a bad light, while paying little attention (unless it HAS to be reported) to what the Liberals or NDP are doing that may also be just as newsworthy.

        Transparency….I’m all in favour of it.

        But if something is transparent, it means you can see light from both sides. That is all we are asking of Canada’s media.

        Both sides…..minus the spin.

        (good example: Robo-calls. Almost two thousands stories….and it was found NOT to be a scandal after all. The two hacks who spent their time writing about this non-issue, were given an award by their fellow “journalists”……….for writing stories about a scandal that didn’t exist.)

        • Your point is a paranoid conspiracy theory.

          It would be so cool if conservatives could be half as accountable as what they demand from others.

          • Oh come on, Gayle.
            Everyone knows the media hates everything Conservative.
            Need evidence? Just cuz James sez should settle the matter.

        • Ah, I suspect you should already know this but journalists are SUPPOSED to be “biased” against the sitting government WHOMEVER they are. This whining about media bias by Conservatives in Canada despite the massive lack of actual evidence to support it about how everyone with power in the media (despite our massive concentration of media ownership by a few wealthy and powerful interests, something that has been a problem for decades and only gotten worse in the information age) is always against them is the petulance of children, not serious adults, and then you wonder why so many of us find you impossible to have substantive political discussions/disagreements with you? Do you understand that the current regime in Ottawa is not even Conservative by any Canadian definition of Conservative politically speaking? Just because it calls itself such does not make it so. In an event, your comment here was juvenile, and your calling the robo-calls scandal a nothing there story indicates that far from being interested in “unbiased” journalism your interest is in whatever leaves the team you chose to be on looking good, because there is still a massive electoral scandal there regardless of whether the once strong and these days massively weakened “independent arm’s length” bodies think so.

          Understand something Mr. Halifax, I am a partisan of no party, for me the underlying partisanship has always been about the fundamental structures of our government itself, I am something of a process geek, which was why I was always so hard core against Harper ever getting near the PMO. Note I said Harper, not Tories, but then we haven’t had Tories on the federal scene since the treachery and betrayal of the PCPC by that stalwart no-merger leadership winner Peter MacKay. Remind me again how that sort of conduct represents the integrity of the proud heritage of the Canadian Conservative community/political sphere? In any event, the underlying point to this comment is this: Your claim to be interested in “unbiased” political journalism is disproven by your own comments now and in the past, you clearly do not understand the reality of the Canadian media landscape, and you also are clearly more interested in team cheer-leading than you are in substance despite all your attempts to look like a serious person (which to be fair you do do a lot better than most boosters of this so called Conservative government)..

          What made this latest media control so egregious was because it was purely unnecessary, and done with misleading materials to boot. It is not like this conference was something about something massively political charged or controversial now was it, and yet this level of lock-up was put in place? When media control becomes this second nature, this far down the food chain, then you know it is worse above, and you also know it is not a government that believes in any information about what it does ever getting out EXCEPT by its own designs. It comes off very much like what I was used to watching from the USSR and the Iron Curtain countries back in the 70s and 80s, and no, I am not saying the Harper government itself is equal to those governments, I am specifically limiting it to their information/media control practices in this comparison.

          So excuse those of us who believe that NO government of Canada is entitled to act in this manner WHATEVER their political flavour. I don’t recall hearing Lib partisans whining on and on about how the media was biased against them during their scandals while in power, individual reporters they took shots at, but the entire media, hardly. With power comes scrutiny, the more the power the more the scrutiny. This is open society civics 101. If you can’t take that heat then don’t go into that kitchen, you cannot eat your cake and then have it on this point.


    • I remember seeing lots of news clips from following my years of politics where PMs walked through gauntlets of media answering questions to reporters off the top of there heads, it may not have been the answer most people were looking for, but there was a time when they(PMs)did. Harper has taken this Hunker Bunker Mentality to the extreme, its just sad to see a PM wither away into an Wallflower(introvert). Harper is the Wallflower PM. Being a wallflower can cause severe bouts of paranoia.

      • He gets away with it because he convinced his little minions that the media is picking on him. Ergo, people like John and James ignore the facts and consider all criticism to be evidence of bias.

        Smartest thing Harper ever did. Not at all good for the country, but it keeps his mindless donors donating.

    • PM should ban media. Just ban ’em. They got no business, out there reporting on stuff the government does with tax dollars. And they’re churlish — especially the science reporters.

  7. The thing that people don’t realize is that when they cheer for Harper — and are happy to see him shut down the media — those same people, by extension, are being shut down too!
    The media is there to report to you. They are there to hold accountable the politicians we elect. Conservative, Liberal or NDP.
    So don’t cheer when ANY politician refuses to answer questions and when he acts like we are in a Third World Country. We are still a democracy… last time I checked.

    • Louis, I hate to say this, but I am no longer sure we are a democracy. There is too much that is hidden. We have a PM who publicly said he couldn`t care less what citizens think. Many Canadians are getting worried, many others are angry. This is not a happy country right now.

      • “We have a PM who publicly said he couldn`t care less what citizens think.”

        I’m sure you have a source to back up that quote?

        • Wow! Loom at you!

          The guy who routinely posts lies actually has the nerve to demand links from others.

          What’s it like to go through life without any shame?

      • Punned IT wrote:
        “We have a PM who publicly said he couldn`t care less what citizens think”

        This comment is a fine example of what I just described. I almost suspect “punned it” is a journalist as well. Just another example of taking a partial quote….out of context.

        As for the comment itself, Harper was referring specifically to the “progressives” who will complain no matter what he does….he wasn’t referring to average citizens at all.

        Nice try though.

  8. Harper didn’t want a bunch of reporters running around the conference centre asking people about their thoughts on fetuses, rather than on maternal and newborn health.

    So Macleans claims it was going to behave itself this time and be fair and balanced instead of injecting Canadian politics into a serious international development conference, but other media did NOT make such promises not to turn the conference into a circus.

    For the Canadian media, maternal health in the developing world should be monomanically focused on providing abortion services.

    Harper doesn’t care. He would rather have a successful conference on continuing to make progress on the complex and diverse issues of maternal and newborn health.

    The media doth protest too much. All they want to talk about is abortion. Hey, you have Justin if you want to talk abortion.

    Abortion is off of Harper’s agenda domestically and internationally, and as he has said, he will do whatever it takes to keep it that way, and if it means inconveniencing that massively taxpayer subsidized Canadian media organizations, so be it.

    • It must feel good to have a con in power instead of a grit, because if I can recall most of you Harper supporters used to push the media( harper thought the media were his best buds then)to ask questions to the grits when they were in power. When a PM has to send his wife out to do the stumping for the next election to stay away from the media, I look at that as either exploitation, or he is feeling that the public are starting to get sick of his corrupt ways.

    • And when we weigh the balance between the public’s right to know, and Harper’s right to decide what kind questions are appropriate, obviously Harper’s rights must prevail.

      “He would rather have a successful conference on continuing to make progress on the complex and diverse issues of maternal and newborn health.”

      Cuz the media asking questions Harper doesn’t like would grind such progress to a halt.

  9. Harper changes Canada, a journalist at a time.

  10. Apparently harper thinks his paranoid secretive controlling behaviour is a good way to get re-elected for reasons most of us are left in the dust trying to understand. Surely by now all Canadians realize this man has some serious mental health issues he’s making every effort to hide and staying away from answering smart intelligent questions from reporters is one way to do that.

  11. This Harper guy is in way over his head if he thinks he’s slowly wearing down Canadians to accept his ideological and arbitrary approach to running Canada.

    • It’s worked so far Robin. Canadians are asleep and showing no signs of waking up en masse anytime soon.
      What’s it going to take?

      • Well…..since Canadians are doing far better today than they have under any Liberal Government….it would appear they don’t want to wake up.

        Getting to keep thousands of more dollars of YOUR OWN MONEY every year, instead of pissing it away on “progressive” social policy……………tends to make people satisfied.

        Imagine that.

  12. Lead story on Macleans.ca today…

    “Harper won’t fund global abortion”.

    Bang up job de-politicizing your coverage Wells.

    • Let’s be honest: Wells is one of the best journalists in Canada today. I’m willing to overlook the occasional article where he vents his frustration (I didn’t enjoy this article very much – I get his point, but it comes across as whining and petty), if his other articles are filled with insight and what I find to be fair-and-balanced political commentary.

    • I’m confused. Is Harper funding globalized abortion? Or is your concern that some people in Canada actually care about this issue, and since it may hurt Harper to publish his position, Wells should ignore it?

    • So Maclean’s supports making it easy to abort female fetuses in developing countries. Missing women creates the an numerical imbalance between men and women in developing countries, encouraging human trafficking in women, and the kidnapping of young girls in places, you know, like Nigeria. A surplus of men over women destabilizes the developing world, as the excess men typically become soldiers, and tend to want to fight revolutions and wars.

      Developing world abortion is a complicated issue. The Canadian media frames it in developed world terms.

      The Canadian media doesn’t even consider that there may be risks to easy access to abortion in the developing world that might blowback upon the very women they are trying to help.

      Harper and Gates are focusing on things that are likely lead to sustainable progress, with less chance of reversal. And once the infrastructure for maternal and newborn health is rooted, it will inevitably lead to more abortions.

      But the ideological pure and naive, want to put the cart before the horse.

      • Apparently women without access to maternal health care in Nigeria have access to gender-determination ultrasounds.

        • Ha ha!

          Come on Lenny. Don’t inject facts into this debate. Cons will get confused.

          • Everything you need to know about whyshouldIsellyourwheat you learn when you read his handle. Decades of outrage and stewing over the quote he’s adopted because the irony of it sailed(and continues to) right over his head.

  13. Wow…so, you admit that you DO politicize everything normally? Stunning admission….

  14. Window dressing for 2015 is the crux of Harper hosting this conference. Completely two-faced Harper presents his “caring, highly concerned and distraught” face at this well orchestrated conference and once off stage presents his “I don’t give a damn” face (attitude).
    Look no further than your backyard, Stephen, the non interest and non action in addressing the thousand of murdered/missing First Nations women and girls. What could be more vital to this conference?
    Throughout his reign Harper has steadfastly displayed indifference not only women but the future of the country young women and men. If one reviews the video clip of Harper at Rehtaeh Parson’s parents plea for action Harper is completely disconnected throughout – in fact at one point he jerks when asked a question. Body language speaks volumes.
    This conference follows hotly on the heels of his visit to Israel and his proffered deep concern for Ukraine, all of which he hopes will satisfy voters about his ability to address international affairs.
    Oh to be the longest serving PM especially with Canada’s 150th on the horizon.

  15. “Once they succeeded in ending democracy and turning Germany into a one-party dictatorship, the Nazis orchestrated a massive propaganda campaign to win the loyalty and cooperation of Germans. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry, directed by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, took control of all forms of communication in Germany: newspapers, magazines, books, public meetings, and rallies, art, music, movies, and radio. Viewpoints in any way threatening to Nazi beliefs or to the regime were censored or eliminated from all media.”

    How far down this road has Harper gone?

    • I do believe that all people are biased based on where ,how and who, they live around. I like to read several different reports and talk to others and I am willing to change how I think if some one points out that I am misguided. I just don’t believe all that I read. Conductor274, you are so far out in space that you have not changed my opinion at all by suggesting this “road” you think Mr. Harper may be traveling.

    • And with this comment, I invoke Godwin, and instantly, everything else you have to say becomes meaningless.

      • Cons always hide behind Godwin to get away with their propoganda.

  16. Given the flagrant and rampant institutional anti-conservative and anti-Harper bias that exists within the media, given the documented fact that, time and time again, the media has proven to the conservatives that they cannot be trusted to print truth, but instead spin the story in an anti-conservative way, (such as “Canada records slowest economy since 2012”) is it any wonder the PMO has taken to drastic media management policy?

    If you can’t be trusted, you’ll need to be controlled. And that means limiting access.

    • “Given the flagrant and rampant institutional anti-conservative and anti-Harper bias that exists within the media”

      Don’t forget to cite your data.
      Just kidding! Only imaginary data can support hallucinations.

    • “documented fact”

      Ha ha ha ha ha

      You know that the CPC website ranting is not the same thing as fact, right?

      This was really funny though.

  17. When will the media learn that the ONLY way to deal with this man is to ignore him.

    It is like trying to reason with a child who is having a tantrum. DON’T DO IT.

    If the PMO calls do not send a reporter, do not acknowledge any memos, do not return phone calls.
    You know who is speaking at the conference….schedule private interviews with these rational adults.

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