Harper's government by Twitter isn't all bad for journalists
Two years ago, then industry minister Tony Clement took to Twitter to confirm he was prepared to overturn the original CRTC decision on usage-based internet billing.
Last spring, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird tweeted out the news that Qatar had dropped its bid to convince the International Civil Aviation Organization to abandon its Montreal headquarters for new digs in Doha.
In July, the prime minister himself — or, more accurately, a staffer with access to the @pmharper Twitter account — used the social network to share the details of his reshuffled ministerial lineup.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister's Office communications team tweeted the text of his pre-throne speech address to caucus while simultaneously barring reporters — but not, interestingly, TV cameras — from attending the event in person.
Given that trend line, it's hard not to conclude that, at least for certain news bulletins, this government would prefer to skip the media middlemen and tweet its message directly to the masses.
But according to PMO communications director Jason MacDonald, journalists shouldn't feel like they're being deliberately left out of the loop.
"People get news and information through a variety of mediums and platforms, including (and increasingly) through social media," he told CBC News by email.
"The use of Twitter allows us to engage directly with Canadians on the issues that matter to them, like jobs and the economy. This, I assume, is among the reasons journalists use it too."
Hill and Knowlton digital communications expert Joseph Peters points out that politicians tweeting out announcements isn't new.
"Obama used similar tactics to 'treat' his followers during the last U.S. election," he notes.
"What was surprising was the media pickup of the PM's tweeting out of the cabinet shuffle in July. The fact that he tweeted out the shuffle was the story as much as the shuffle itself."
Given the reaction, he says, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the government has stuck with the tactic.
But social media-saturated Canadians still tune in to the nightly news or scan the morning paper, and there are millions more for whom the so-called legacy media is still their main source of news.
Even with 340,000 followers and counting, @pmharper would be unwise to rely entirely on Twitter.
That semi-legendary tweet from Tony Clement on the CRTC ruling on usage-based billing was actually a reply to a Hill journalist — specifically, the CBC's Rosemary Barton — and was sent at 10:37 p.m.
In the pre-Twitter era, Barton almost certainly would have had to go through the minister's press secretary, who may or may not have been awake, on duty and fielding queries at that hour.
In this particular instance, of course, he or she likely would have been on duty — but they would also have been dealing with dozens of similar requests for comment, while simultaneously working on a response — one that would probably be attributed to the minister, at least, but that would have been provided to media only after making it through the internal approval process.
Instead, she asked the minister a direct question, and got a clear, concise answer.
Now, not all cabinet ministers are as active on Twitter as Tony Clement — in fact, back in 2011 when that exchange took place, he was one of the few who were obviously operating their Twitter accounts personally, and not simply handing the password over to a staffer.
These days, however, more and more ministers seem to be taking control of the keyboard, and interacting directly with other Twitter users — including journalists, who are otherwise faced with increasingly restricted face-time with those same ministers.
Cabinet access increasingly rare
One would never equate an exchange of tweets between a minister and reporters with, say, a post-cabinet scrum, but at the moment, Hill journalists are not really able to engage in the latter — this particular government won't even reveal when the cabinet meets, and Hill security ensures that even if the media were to stumble upon a confab in progress, reporters would be prevented from getting within question-shouting distance of the participants.
As for the new practice of tweeting out the details of cabinet shuffles and prime ministerial speeches, putting out information line-by-line in real time isn't really all that different from sending out a press release.
"This in no way devalues the role of the media," says Peters.
"A filter, lens or perspective on an announcement will always be essential. The difference now is that the media may not always be the breaking news source. It could easily be PM, the CEO, or the activist. We still need the media to put the big picture together, connect the dots and tell the full story."
Journalists are not, and never were intended to be strictly transcriptionists. They don't simply copy and paste official statements; they provide context along with quotes, commentary and other useful information.
If the prime minister's Twitter feed can add any of that to the story, it will likely become a reliable source for media, if not necessarily for the public at large.
If not — well, there's always the unfollow button.