Alberta is on the cusp of a provincial election in which a United Conservative Party increasingly dominated by far-right ideologues and an ever more centrist NDP will face off to see whose vision shapes our province’s future at a crucial moment in its history.
In 2020, a group of political observers and academics met at the University of Alberta to discuss a collection of essays on the UCP’s first years in office. The result was Anger and Angst: Jason Kenney’s Legacy and Alberta’s Right.
Anger and Angst combines 22 essays on politics, the economy, the environment, education, housing, child care, right-wing populism, and the UCP’s relationship with the media. Authors include pollster Janet Brown, journalist Gillian Steward, and former Opposition leader Kevin Taft. I’m delighted to say I was asked to contribute a chapter on Mr. Kenney’s relationship with the media.
The passage below is an excerpt from my chapter, entitled, “We Reject the Premise of Your Question: The Media and Jason Kenney’s Government.”
The Pandemic Changes Everything – and Nothing
Then came the pandemic.
COVID-19, arriving in Year 2 of the Kenney government, changed everything, and nothing. When the virus arrived from the east — that is, Alberta’s west — it not only created some entirely predictable political problems for the Kenney government, it also handed the UCP’s strategic brain trust new opportunities to exploit.
The stresses imposed on public-sector health-care workers, surgical facilities, and intensive care units gave Kenney’s UCP the opportunity to justify a rapid privatization of health care in the name of responding to the crisis. But the excuse of COVID-19’s threat in public places could also be used as a mechanism for clamping down on media access to government officials, handing the UCP a powerful tool for media manipulation and control.
It wasn’t just the Kenney government that took advantage of this, of course. To some degree, driven by the genuine need to “bend the curve” of infection downward, the term regularly used, all governments, and not just in Canada, used COVID-19 as an excuse to restrict media access. But the Kenney government — led by a man with a natural bent for secrecy and manipulation and a party in which a distrust of media already ran deep — embraced it with gusto.
It was soon obvious that news conferences using video conferencing software, moderated by a party employee with control over media questions, were an effective way to control and direct the narrative. The political staffer moderating the news conference now had the ability to move to another question by another reporter to cut off the first reporter who had asked a question the official providing the answers didn’t like.
People who have not worked in media, who have not had to ask questions in the room at a news conference, don’t realize how much influence the first question asked by a journalist at one of these events can have on the direction taken by the whole affair. This is why politicians of all parties have long preferred stage-managed news conferences, with a certain ritual decorum, to hallway “scrums” at which any reporter can hurl a hostile question captured by rolling media cameras. (It was just such a moment that launched Kenney in 1993 when he ambushed Klein, asking him about MLAs’ pensions.)
Most of the time, if the organizer can get a news conference moving in the right direction, the reporters in attendance can be expected to adopt the tone set at the opening. Moreover, a friendly opening question — and in a properly staged newser, the organizers usually get to choose the first questioner — also gives the spokesperson the opportunity to run out the clock on reporters who are seen as likely to have less-friendly queries.
So here’s a pro tip: If you’re a journalist and find yourself in a traditional news conference organized by people who know what they’re doing, always try to ask the first question. On days when there’s no raging controversy with every reporter chomping at the bit to ask the same question anyway, there’s usually a polite little pause right at the start of media questions when, if you have your wits about you, you can dive in and seize control of the narrative. Use it or lose it!
With COVID-19, of course, that was gone. Maybe lost forever. A political employee of the minister was acting as the moderator. Reporters were phoning in from remote locations with their questions. Like the host of a radio talk show, the moderators could pick who got to speak first and who didn’t get to ask questions at all. Reporters were immediately limited to one question, a situation unusual in live news conferences.
Later, when the normally well-behaved members of the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery complained — doubtless politely — that was upped to one question and a follow-up. This was an excellent modification from the UCP’s perspective, causing as it did no loss of control, but adding significant opportunities to run out the clock. Remember, no experienced reporter worth their salt will ever decline the opportunity in such circumstances to ask a second question. But independent reporters, bloggers and those that had built a reputation for asking the toughest questions like the CBC’s Charles Rusnell, were soon having difficulty asking any questions at all.