A screentshot of Pierre Poilievre during his now infamous press conference on September 13, 2022.
Pierre Poilievre during his now infamous press conference on September 13, 2022. Credit: CPAC Credit: CPAC

Pierre Poilievre’s debut news conference as official Opposition leader didn’t go smoothly but at least he found his real enemy.

That enemy is not inflation, or the national debt, or young people getting squeezed out of the housing market, or the cost of groceries. Those things he can blame on Justin Trudeau because he’s the prime minister and Poilievre isn’t. That’s politics.

The bigger enemy out there—the one he’s calling on all freedom loving Canadians to help him conquer—is reporters asking questions. And that leads us down a very dangerous road.

Poilievre last Tuesday invited reporters to be stenographers as he bashed Trudeau over Canada’s high inflation rate. There was only one condition—that he would not answer any questions.

As Poilievre was beginning his statement, Global chief political correspondent David Akin interrupted him several times, asking if he’d take questions and asking some — like if Poilievre was still planning on firing the governor of the Bank of Canada.

“We have a Liberal heckler who snuck in here today,” Poilievre said mockingly, because of course he knows very well who Akin is.

Akin, who has built a solid reputation as a tough but fair reporter, evidently chose to speak up because he objects to politicians, like Poilievre, who want a free ride to use the media for their own purposes. But no other reporters joined his protest and Akin, after being trolled on Twitter for his rudeness, realized he’d gone too far. His apology said: “Many (of you) said I was rude and disrespectful. I agree. I’m sorry for that. We all want politicians to answer questions—but there are better ways of making that point.”

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.

Poilievre sent out an email to his followers that attacked Akin personally and said his Conservatives are not fighting against just the Liberals but against the media as well.

“It’s the media, who are no longer interested in even pretending to be unbiased. They want us to lose,” his email said. Poilievre urged supporters to donate money to “go around the biased media. We can’t count on the media to communicate our messages to Canadians. We have to go around them and their biased coverage. We need to do it directly with ads, mail, phone calls and knocking on millions of doors. And to do all that we need your help.”

A big red button linked to the Conservative website’s donation page.

We’ve seen this script before. Donald Trump took aim at the media throughout his presidency, calling journalists “the enemies of the people” and branding critical stories as “fake news.” That resulted in an erosion of trust in the U.S. media and a proliferation of conspiracy theories that ran unchecked on right-wing networks like Fox News. It also enabled Trump to carry off the Big Lie that he actually won the 2020 election, even though the facts said otherwise.

It’s too easy to say this phenomenon is unique to the United States. In Canada, a recent public opinion poll by Abacus Data showed that 44 percent of Canadians—or 13 million of us—believe in conspiracy theories such as “big events like wars, recessions and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people working in secret against us.” More than one-third of Canadian adults, or 11 million, believe that there are powers trying to replace native born Canadians with immigrants—the so-called “Great Replacement theory.”

The poll, done during the Conservative leadership contest, said that supporters of Poilievre are more likely to believe these things than supporters of other candidates. In other words, that’s his base. And it’s not the first time he has tried to turn the public against the news media and their professional obligations of fairness and verification.

In July, Global reporter Rachel Gilmore drew his wrath when she sent out a Twitter message containing questions she had posed to Poilievre and that he refused to answer, and even called her “unprofessional” for sharing them.

“Canadians’ trust in the news media has reached an all-time low,” the Poilievre campaign said in a public message to Global News. “And when we look at your coverage of these issues, it’s easy to understand why. Instead of just covering news, unprofessional journalists like you try to set disingenuous traps to attack your opponents. Since you insist on demonizing Canadians who dare to speak up against the Trudeau government, we can only assume that Global News is content to be a Liberal mouthpiece.”

Some of Gilmore’s questions were in the public interest and had to do with Poilievre’s support of James Topp, a Canadian Forces warrant officer who’s facing court martial for leading a protest march while in uniform against Ottawa’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Same with the questions that Poilievre was trying to duck when he called his press conference last week to respond to Justin Trudeau’s announcement that doubled the GST tax credit for six months and offered $500 for 1.8 million Canadian renters with low incomes

Akin’s interruptions at least persuaded Poilievre to relent and answer two questions. One reporter asked him why the federal government couldn’t use tax dollars to help struggling Canadians—a perfectly good journalistic question to respond to Poilievre’s criticism.  Poilievre said the problem is the top-up won’t be enough to help cover inflation.

“In many of our big cities, per month, that money will go up in smoke for the average family,” he said. “What we need are more apartments for people to live in, more houses for them to buy and lower taxes so that their paycheques go further. That is what Conservatives are fighting for.”

Someone might also have asked him if he gives the government any credit for the easing of Canada’s annual inflationary rate, now 7.6 per cent after peaking at 8.1 percent in June. Prices have been slowly trending downward since the Bank of Canada began raising interest rates in March.

Although I agree that Akin’s protest was ill-advised and may have played into Poilievre’s hands, I believe that politicians need to be held accountable by journalists. The only question is how best to do that.

Whenever a politician fails to answer a question that is in the public interest, that to me is news that should be reported. Whenever a politician gives an evasive answer or resorts to a talking point to sidestep an important question, that to me should be on the record, including the exact question he or she wouldn’t answer. Whenever a political leader shuts down any scrutiny at all, as Poilievre did, journalists should refuse to show up.

And if Twitter and the front page are documenting all the questions politicians are afraid to answer, readers might demand change. They might demand real answers. 

These, to me, would be better journalistic tactics than rudeness.  

John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...