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.