CALGARY — It surely was the final act of media paranoia in a remarkable three-day display of it during the Conservative party convention.
Nov. 3, I sat on a bench in a hallway outside the convention space chatting with Luseland, Sask., farmer and Reform-Conservative veteran Sam Magnus about his years volunteering for the cause and what changes his crusading work had wrought.
He is no party dissident.
Throughout the interview, I was aware of someone walking past us, slowing down when abreast of us and then soon after repeating the pattern from the other direction.
I looked up to see a woman who, when she wasn’t walking past, was parked 10 feet or so away, watching and listening before beginning another walk about.
Clearly, she was eavesdropping, monitoring to make sure nothing incendiary about the party or leader was being said.
Incredible as it was, the incident was just one small piece of a convention-long effort to control and limit reporter access to delegates, a few of whom harboured some anger or dismay about party handling of the Senate expense scandal and that of the prime minister’s office.
A few, like Ed Hudson of Saskatoon, even ventured the opinion to a Calgary reporter that prime minister Stephen Harper should step down.
This was not what the party and convention organizers wanted — stories about dissatisfaction in the base or even dissent. It was meant to be a show of unity and solidarity.
So the apparent strategy was to keep reporters away from delegates as much as possible and to be as unhelpful to reporters as possible.
Accredited media were consigned to a room and a hallway away from most convention activities — a space guarded by security that herded an errant reporter back if he ventured outside the barrier.
In most cases, mingling with delegates was close to impossible (the purpose of course) and the “media room” was as bare bones as they could make it.
It was a room where there were few necessities of life for journalists, including free access to Internet (access could be purchased) and water or coffee. And there was no access within blocks to where such necessities could be purchased.
Security and guards were more visible than at any previous political convention I’ve covered over four decades.
The Conservative volunteers (mostly Calgarians) were unerringly friendly and tried to be helpful, but the party, not so much.
And of course, this attempt to control media access and the message didn’t work. Delegates would occasionally wander past, step outside for a smoke break and had to be outside the guarded area to arrive at or leave the building.
They usually were willing to talk and overwhelmingly were supportive of the party, but still, the messages were seeping out about what was happening at closed meetings and some disgruntlement.
Reporters managed to do their jobs in one manner or another.
All the control tactics did was make resentful journalists more determined to thwart the message managing efforts.
Sometimes, it descended into farce. New Democrat MP Peter Julian took to bringing relief packages of water and Tim Horton’s fare into the pressroom, tweeting a photo of himself in the process while mocking the Conservative attempts at control and reporter deprivation.
Future American president Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in 1786: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
These Conservative planners clearly are not Jeffersonian democrats.