Despite being the longest-serving member of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas almost never gets to ask George Bush a question.

That’s because Bush controls who asks the questions and he doesn’t like the kind of tough, doubting questions that she asks. Given a rare chance recently, she pointedly asked him: If the Iraq war wasn’t about oil, what was it about?

If Bush hadn’t had such tight control over the media, his plan to invade Iraq might have come under the kind of public scrutiny it so badly needed.

Canadian prime ministers have traditionally been more accessible to the media, which has obliged them to submit to a basic level of public scrutiny. Stephen Harper wants to change this. Like Bush, he wants to select who gets to ask the questions.

Reporters who want airtime and prominence will quickly learn not to be like Thomas. They’ll learn just to type down the Prime Minister’s words.

Harper insists the Ottawa press gallery is biased against him. He’s trying to use the allegation of “liberal media bias” just as Republicans use it to intimidate the U.S. media.

In reality, virtually all major Canadian media outlets are large corporations that view much of Harper’s agenda favourably. The media co-operated with Harper’s election strategy of presenting himself as a moderate, allowing him to shed his image as an ideologue who once headed the ultra-right National Citizens Coalition. The Globe and Mail helped him out right before the election with a banner front-page headline: “Harper says he’s evolved.”

Harper now accuses Ottawa reporters of taking on the role of opposition. In fact, they have simply been asking questions, including questions the Prime Minister might prefer not to answer. This is essential. Although elected with a weak minority, Harper is taking the country in some radical directions. Who will hold him to account? The Liberals are leaderless and the NDP seem more focused on stealing ground from the Liberals than challenging Harper.

What this country needs is a whole press gallery full of doubting Helen Thomases.

Harper’s unwillingness to submit to freewheeling media questions suggests an anti-democratic tendency.

His political views have been heavily influenced by Leo Strauss, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago who spawned the U.S. neo-conservative movement.

Strauss’s ideas have been cultivated in Canada by the so-called Calgary school — a right-wing political clique at the University of Calgary — with which Harper and his mentor Tom Flanagan have long been associated.

Strauss was deeply suspicious of democracy. He argued that the public isn’t capable of making intelligent political decisions, and so should be kept pacified rather than informed. The real decisions should be left to an élite.

With the élite making the decisions for a docile, dim-witted public, who needs the media — except to type down the Prime Minister’s words.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...