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Harper’s Office Backpedals After Banning Journalist From PM’s Malaysia Trip

This past weekend David Ellis, a CTV photo journalist with 28 years' experience, boarded a plane bound for Malaysia with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Last week Ellis was set to be banned from accompanying Stephen Harper on the upcoming trip because he asked the Prime Minister an unwelcome question during a photo op in New York.

Harper's office backed down after a backlash from the major television networks, including CBC, CTV and Global News, which questioned the role the PMO should play in journalistic coverage of Harper's travels abroad.

Harper was in New York last week for a "highly scripted public program, including a business roundtable" according to Tim Harper of the Toronto Star. Included on Prime Minister Harper's schedule was a photo op with the business leaders, a "staged event" to "make the prime minister look good," during which he "smiles and grabs the hand of whomever he is about to meet."

In 2006 Harper instituted strict rules prohibiting journalists from asking questions during photo ops in Canada and abroad. In Britain and Australia, there are no restrictions on journalists asking questions during photo ops. This rule is occasionally broken in the case of breaking news.

At the time of Harper's New York photo op, David Ellis was concerned with the charging of Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro under the Canada Elections Act for exceeding election spending and donation limits. Del Mastro was Harper's parliamentary secretary, though he's now been stripped of that title and is no longer a member of the Conservative caucus.

After clearing it with his Ottawa office, Ellis asked Harper, who has defended Del Mastro while he was being investigated, "Any comment today, sir, about Dean Del Mastro being charged?" Stephen Harper declined to answer, and all journalists were vacated from the room without incident.

Within one week CTV was notified by the PMO that Ellis would not be allowed on Harper's plane for the seven-day trip to Malaysia and Indonesia even though the journalist had received clearance to work as a pool cameraman.

According to the Canadian Press, the main networks CBC, CTV and Global "[pool] resources on prime ministerial trips in order to cut costs," with each sending its own reporter but taking turns sending camera operators, editors and technicians.

Media travelling with the prime minister pay for their own lodging and transportation.

The networks in the pool backed CTV's decision to send Ellis to board Harper's plane despite the the PMO's order.

When news of the ban became public, Jason MacDonald, the Prime Minister's communications director, issued an email, stating "no accredited Canadian media outlet is prevented from joining us for the upcoming trip to the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit."

"To suggest otherwise is absolutely false," he added, declining at the time to specify whether Ellis would be allowed on the plane.

Following the backlash from the press gallery, the PMO clarified Ellis would accompany Harper after all. "I'm not going to get into the issue . . . all that matters is he will be on the trip,'' said MacDonald.

"Asking a question of an elected official shouldn't be a punishable offence," Daniel Thibeault, president of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, told the Star.

As Tim Harper of the Star puts it, "picking and choosing who you want on your plane covering an official government foreign visit is one step short of the PMO flying to Malaysia with its own stenographer who would email back tales of the glorious leader's conquests."

Image Credit: World Economic Forum / Wikimedia Commons

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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