The New Brunswick Telegraph Journal

Senator critical of prime minister’s handling of media

Tim Jaques

CAMPBELLTON – Is the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper being too tight in the control of information it releases to the media and ultimately to the public?

Senator Jim Munson definitely thinks so.

Munson, 64, was in his hometown of Campbellton on the weekend as the guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Campbellton’s 85th anniversary banquet. A veteran journalist who spent decades with CTV News covering such world events as the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Iran-Iraq war and the First Gulf War (he joked that he thought CTV wanted him dead) he became Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s director of communications in 2002. He held the post for about a year before Chrétien appointed him to the Senate in 2003, where he currently serves as chief opposition whip.

While his speech to the Rotarians was mainly about memories of his boyhood in Campbellton in the 1950s, he was asked afterward about the Harper government’s approach to spreading its political message.

“Well, they need some help,” he said with a laugh. “It is easy to tell your story if you are sincere about telling your story.

“I’ve always had that philosophy about engaging with journalists,” Munson said. “But this prime minister’s office picks and chooses who they want to talk to, and who is going to spread their message.”

Munson said that when he was the president of the National Press Gallery in 1982-1983, an arrangement was made with the then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, to come to speak to journalists once a week for 45 minutes. He said Trudeau did indeed come and face the press and answer questions as agreed. He says there is no reason why the current prime minister couldn’t be as open.

“There is a great deal of animosity in Ottawa these days,” Munson said.

“I don’t want to make this sound like it is because I am a Liberal senator,” he said. “Love it or lump it, you have to work with the national press corps. Right now there is a lot of animosity between the national press corps and the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I don’t think it had to be that way. There is an opportunity each and every day to step forward every day and deliver your message,” he said. “What is happening is that they are trying to control that particular message.”

Munson said that, while the national press galley has to deal with the tight control imposed by Harper, the same situation exists when questions are asked of the government by reporters elsewhere in the country.

“They allow two or three questions, and then they move on,” he said. “Within those two or three questions, they pick who is going to ask those two or three questions.

“Even my son, who is a reporter at the Yukon News in Whitehorse, was cut out because they said they were going to pick out someone else to ask a particular question.”

“Whether it is a local reporter or a regional or national reporter, what are you afraid of?” Munson said. “Just take the question. I am sure he (Harper) has the confidence to answer it.

“They are trying to control or micromanage the message. I don’t think it is a good thing for the country,” he said. People see through it.

“Whether you live in Campbellton or whether you live in Toronto, you see the flags, the straight message, the rent-a-crowd, and the people see through it.

“I don’t want to sound like the Liberal senator trash-talking a Conservative government, but it doesn’t work,” Munson said. “It simply doesn’t work.”