Day 6

Politicians vs. the media: Doug Ford may be bombastic, but he's no Donald Trump

Donald Trump ramped up his anti-media rhetoric this week as Doug Ford's Ontario PCs stand accused of anti-media behaviour. But the Toronto Star's Robert Benzie says there are still important differences.

'I think it is a bit of a performance'

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, pictured here making an announcement at Queen's Park in Toronto, has been quiet with the media since he was elected. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Doug Ford's Ontario government made headlines on Tuesday, but not just because it axed the province's basic income pilot project.

During a news conference about the project's cancellation, government staffers loudly applauded Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, purposefully drowning out reporters trying to ask questions, bringing an abrupt end to the minister's media availability

CTV News reporter Colin D'Mello later said he used his "dad voice" to tell staffers to cut the clapping.

Robert Benzie covers the Ontario Legislature for The Toronto Star and says the clapping was common on the campaign trail, but now it needs to end.

Here's part of his conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Brent Bambury: You weren't at the news conference on Tuesday, but you were watching on the TV in your office. What was your reaction when you saw government staffers clap over questions from reporters?

Robert Benzie: I wasn't surprised because this is something that we saw during the campaign. It began then and I kind of thought that it would subside now that the election is over. But in the first few events since the Tories took office — they were sworn in on June 29th — we've seen this clapping by staffers to sort of usher out a politician.

Now luckily … on Thursday we had another availability with two ministers: Rod Phillips, the environment minister, and Caroline Mulroney, the attorney general, and there was no clapping at the end of that. So hopefully this is something that is starting to fade away.

BB: So it might be an evolution, but it might also just be an aberration on Thursday. But is that a big change — that kind of performance from staffers? Is that a big change from how other governments have behaved?

RB: Yes, because on campaigns that behaviour is expected and accepted, I guess. But now these folks who are clapping are on the public's dime. Taxpayers are paying their salaries. So, they should be at their jobs doing their work, not serving as performing seals.

Social Services Minister Lisa Macleod was taking questions from reporters when clapping staffers cut off reporters. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

BB: On the same day that reporters were drowned out at Queen's Park in Ontario, CNN reporter Jim Acosta was verbally attacked by a crowd at a Trump rally in Florida and people were giving him the finger, they were yelling 'fake news.'

It looked like a turning point in what has been a campaign against the media in the United States. How fair is it to compare the way Donald Trump treats the media to the way Doug Ford might treat the media?

RB: I don't think that's necessarily a fair comparison, Brent, because we have not seen any indication from the premier's staff or the premier himself that he will not deal with the media or doesn't like the media.

There's never any disparaging comments made by his staff, certainly, who are very professional and very decent to deal with, frankly.

The situation in the States is very troubling and Jim Acosta — I was watching on Thursday when he was asking questions of Sarah Sanders and she wouldn't say in her press conference that the press were not an enemy of the people.

I mean, that's an extraordinary situation. Especially when the president's daughter, Ivanka, was saying that she doesn't believe that the press are enemy of the people.

It's never personal. This is about covering an important public official.- Robert Benzie

BB: The odd thing about the Jim Acosta incident is that he said as soon as the cameras shut off, the same people who were yelling at him approached him and asked questions. So is this really acrimony for the media or is it just a show?

RB: Now, that's a very good point, but I think it is a bit of a performance. And there's also a mob mentality. You certainly see that on social media. Twitter is a very toxic and vitriolic place and I'm astounded at the nasty things that people say to journalists.

They may disagree with a report that's written and and they lash out and make personal attacks. And sometimes when I have time, and the people have tweeted with their real names, I'll actually you know track them down and call them and ask them what they meant.

As Mr. Acosta found in Tampa after the rally, when you talk to people one-on-one they're inevitably going to be very reasonable and fair-minded and decent. Because most human beings are. At Premier Ford's rallies during the campaign, I never once had anyone say a nasty thing to me or anything like that. People were unfailingly polite when you wanted to talk to them about why they were at the rally, what they saw, what their thoughts were.

And that's not just because Ontarians are naturally polite folks or anything, I think people realize that what the job the media do is important and that we have an important role to play.

Premier Doug Ford pictured at a rally in London, Ontario, in May. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

BB: After he was elected, people kept expecting Donald Trump's behaviour toward the media to change and clearly that hasn't happened. Do you think that Premier Ford will be more amenable in his approach to the press?

RB: I think that he will, Brent, because he is a bit of a news junkie, not unlike Trump in this way. And I've met both Trump and Mr. Ford, obviously, and there are some similarities in their personal style for sure.

They're both hail fellow well met one-on-one with reporters. I last saw Mr. Trump many years ago — it was before he in politics — but he loved dealing with the media back then because he loved the oxygen that he got from it.

And I think Ford kind of enjoys the cut and thrust of debating with reporters and arguing with us because he likes being in the newspaper. He likes being a newsmaker.

Does he take some things personally? I'm sure that there are things that we're going to write about over the next few years that he may or may not like. But it's never personal. This is about covering an important public official.

He's the second most powerful elected official in this country and I think that that's something that he understands — that he has an important job to do. And I think he appreciates that. There are a lot of comparisons between Trump and Ford because they're both populist, but I don't think that Ford is reflexively against the media.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Robert Benzie, download our podcast or click the listen button at the top of this page.