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All the Prime Minster’s crimes

John Bell

January 31, 2015

Review: Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s War on Your right to know, by Mark Bourrie (2015, Harper Collins)
Full disclosure time: back when Mark Bourrie and I were beery, blasphemous student types together journalism was a career to be respected. Watergate was still a fresh memory, and crusading reporters had brought a corrupt and venal president to his knees.
Bourrie was bitten. He worked his way from small town papers to the Parliament Hill press corps. And along the way an odd thing happened: he kept his principles and his journalistic integrity, even while the media corporations were dropping both as unaffordable luxuries. Rather than toe the line of the major media conglomerates Bourrie freelanced and wrote for smaller but respected outlets like the Hill Times and Blacklock’s Reporter, a blog specializing in parliamentary coverage. So good was the latter at covering the misdeeds on the Hill that the Harper government ordered it to be blocked from all civil servant computers.
This small example of  censorship and fear of exposure fits perfectly with the theme of Bourrie’s new book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know. This is a thorough indictment of the Stephen Harper regime, and its mostly successful attack on the “watchdogs” of parliamentary democracy: the press, the courts, the public service and parliament itself.
To his credit, Bourrie is not just a partisan Tory-basher. He lays out how Harper has taken full advantage of ground prepared by a greedy and spineless corporate media; by previous governments that have undermined parliament as a public forum for debate on policy; and by MPs of all stripes who drop all pretense of representing their constituents and act only as PR shills for their parties.
That said, Kill the Messengers describes a Prime Minister with a particular contempt for democracy. During the Chretien/Martin years reporters saw their access to political leaders curtailed. Harper has eliminated it entirely. He picks the media he wants to talk to, whether it be his annual rub and tug with Peter Mansbridge, or a softball session with some star-struck small town reporter.
More likely, as with his recent responses to Charlie Hebdo, or to expanding Canada’s role in a ground war in Iraq, he has eliminated the press completely. Scripted events in front of hand-picked supporters, filmed by the Conservative Party’s own media manipulators, released on the Party’s own website have become the norm. You can hear Harper’s stirring words about defending our freedoms, and hit the “donate” button in the corner of the screen.
Or you can tune in to 24/7, Harper’s personal video journal, taxpayer funded propaganda that would make Leni Riefenstahl blush.
While most of the corporate media has rolled over for Harper–after all, why spend money on a parliamentary news bureau when you can get perfectly good, HD product delivered to your door by team Harper–there remain honest reporters who ask uncomfortable questions or break embarrassing stories. “During Harper’s time in power,” Bourrie writes, “personal attacks, including campaigns to get reporters fired, have become common.”
So reporters like Glen McGregor or Stephen Maher, who have broken stories like Duffy-gate and election fraud in the last campaign, get to join the long list of activists, judges, veterans, scientists and civil servants who have been subjected to Harper’s attacks. Using national security agencies to spy on “enemies”; unleashing the Canada Revenue Agency to bankrupt and intimidate critical organizations; wasting millions of taxpayer dollars dragging unnecessary cases through the courts; slashing budgets for science, education and archives: Harper and the ideological warriors he surrounds himself with inside the fortress PMO will stop at nothing.
Bourrie describes all this with controlled and justifiable rage. Even a Harper watcher like me will find something new and shocking here.
There are weaknesses too. Bourrie’s fondness for erstwhile Reform Party populist rhetoric blinds him to the fact that Harper’s regime represents, not a sharp break from the Reform Party, but its logical conclusion. And the book’s prescriptions, a sort of civics class 101, are inadequate. Nowhere is there an appreciation of the role of mass movements from below in not just restoring democracy to pre-Harper standards, but in extending it.
These things are peripheral to the main purpose of the book. While Bourrie is cataloguing Harper’s record, Kill the Messengers is relentless, well researched and brilliantly blunt. On top of that, he’s a good writer who makes the litany of crimes against democracy perversely entertaining. There is nothing of the smarty-pants pundit or dry academic here.
As we roll into an election year, Kill the Messengers could not be more timely. It would give me no end of pleasure to see this book help put an end to Harper. The more people who read and talk about it, the more likely that is to happen.

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