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Scrum in the time of COVID-19

By Ivana Ask

Since Plague-apalooza 2020 really kicked into high gear, 17 or more reporters queue up on a teleconference line on a daily basis, waiting to pose questions to Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang at the 3 p.m. news conference.

Every day, nine or more reporters hang up in frustration, not having been given the opportunity to speak after the government-mandated 25 minutes of question time, while the same hacks, with few exceptions, constantly get a turn.

Reporters having a live presence in the media room at One Government Place were nixed early on, for understandable reasons. But the government is no-doubt enjoying its almost-complete control over the daily proceedings.

In teleconference-land, the top tier are called on first: the CBC, Canadian Press and CTV, in no particular order. Then the second tier, led by allNovaScotia, Radio-Canada, Global, News 95.7, and the third tier, which on most days is Ralph Nader wannabe Tim Bousquet from the Halifax Examiner (People on Twitter are concerned about the price of cheese! — ed.) and your eccentric-but-loveable auntie, Sharon Montgomery from the Cape Breton Post. If there’s time left after each gets one question and one follow-up — which is, invariably, an entirely different, sometimes excruciatingly long-winded question (Hi Aunt Sharon! — ed.) — someone in Cheticamp, perhaps, gets thrown a bone.

While Tina Thibeau, director of media relations for the province is obviously choosing questioners by each outlet’s reach —both real and perceived — there is a fear of picking and choosing favourites in this situation. And, for whatever reason, avoiding Frank Magazine. One easy format-tweak would be to go with a moderator who’s not beholden to government, but that’s rather unlikely to happen.

Although even some of the toughest reporters in the province agree that live news conferences in the age of COVID-19 don’t make any sense, they acknowledge that the level of control over media is a dream come true for any government in general, and the Stephen McNeil government in particular.

The real fear contaminating legislative press gallery hacks, I understand, is now that they’ve gotten a taste of the level of control they’ve always wanted, it will persist when the coronavirus is nothing more than a distant memory.

Those reporters who have longer memories than what’s trending on social media this morning point out that it wasn’t all that long ago that every week, post-cabinet-meeting scrums were de rigueur in Nova Scotia. The beginning of the end for those weekly unmoderated free-for-alls came in 2016, when it was announced that every other week, they’d be taking questions from the phone lines along with those from the live reporters. Sure, was the thinking among reporters at the time. Nothing wrong with the Yarmouth Vanguard or the New Glasgow News asking a question remotely.

But because the phones were involved, it meant the politician had to stand and speak into one mic, instead of being surrounded by live reporters holding microphones. And because the phone questions had to be moderated — it doesn’t make sense to have multiple people yelling on the phone to be heard — the moderator (Tina Thibeau or another Communications N.S. flack) ended up controlling the whole post-cabinet scrum, every other week. They’re not really scrums at all, because scrums aren’t moderated.

As time marched on, the McNeil government stopped having weekly cabinet meetings. When the legislature isn’t sitting, emails announcing the cancellation of the Thursday cabinet meeting — and thus the media availability — became common. Sometimes they’re down to one a month in the summer time.

By 2018, all post-cabinet scrums morphed into moderated news conferences with outside-metro Halifax reporters waiting in the wings on the phone.

And there would only be, say, five minutes to pepper a struggling cabinet minister — oh, I dunno, Lloyd Hines — with moderated questions before they’d “go to the phones.” And when a cabinet minister, or even the premier, gets painted into a sticky spot by, say, press gallery mainstays Jean Laroche and Michael Gorman of CBC and Brian Flinn of allNovaScotia, fleeing to the phones for a no-doubt friendlier line of questioning became common.

“There’s no way Rodney MacDonald or Darrell Dexter would’ve gotten away with any of that,” sez one press gallery veteran, referring to a time when the Province House beat was covered by more than four or five regulars.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try.

When Rodney was in power, he built a press theatre at great expense to taxpayers — our current premier was against it at the time, but seems to have no problem with it now — but reporters refused to play ball. When the boy fiddler took to the podium in January of 2009, instead of sitting in their chairs 15 feet away, reporters gathered around the podium. After a few weeks of tension, Rodney gave up and returned to submitting to scrums.

“There is no question the chaos of scrums can be unnerving for politicians,” Brian Flinn wrote in allNS at the time, “But some adept communicators manage to use the format to appear both accessible and commanding.”

Not to mention, scrums allow reporters “maximum opportunity to ask probing questions.” Another COVID-19 modification that reporters are fine with now but worry may continue post-plague is the fact that all coronavirus-related media questions are being filtered through one dedicated media line. Which means reporters can’t go directly to government departments for answers.

But, why wouldn’t they go back to the old way after all this virus stuff is behind us?

“Because, the direction these guys are heading is less access and less ability to ask questions,” notes one observer.

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