McGuinty asks reporters to keep away five feet
TORONTO - It's not you, it's me.
That popular break-up refrain appeared to be Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's explanation Thursday as he defended his need for some "breathing space" -- namely that reporters stand at least five feet away when posing questions.
In his first availability with the media since his office instituted the rule, McGuinty spoke of his "love" for the press gallery, called them "wonderful," but asked for a little room to breathe all the same.
"I love them like my brothers and sisters, but not even my brothers and sisters want to stand as close to me as they do," McGuinty said as he attempted to make light of the situation.
"What I've asked of my friends in the gallery is that I have a little bit more breathing space."
The premier tried to claim that he was "fully supported in this by all the people who operate cameras here" until a veteran Queen's Park cameraman loudly voiced his objection to the premier's statement.
"There's a bit of a divide and conquer tactic here," said McGuinty, "which is obviously failing."
The opposition parties wondered what McGuinty was "afraid of," and suggested his new objection to the same close proximity question and answer sessions -- called scrums -- that he's participated in for the past five years has more to do with the recession than anything else.
However, the premier insisted he would be as available as ever to reporters and said his motives were personal space, not the economy.
"I'm not talking about curtailing my accessibility to the media," he said. "I'm not talking about telling them what kind of question to put to me or about refusing to answer certain types of questions."
Political scientists see the move as an attempt by McGuinty's handlers to better control his image by having the television cameras isolated on the premier instead of seeing him surrounded by journalists thrusting microphones in his face.
"I think his advisers have said 'maybe we ought to look more like an Obama presidential newscast,' and I have a feeling these guys think about how they can add more gravity to the appearance of the premier," said Prof. Henry Jacek of McMaster University in Hamilton.
"Over the last generation there's been so many things imported from the way the (American) presidents do things in terms of style, that I just think this is a continuation of that."
Chris Dornan, associate professor at Carleton's University's School of Journalism, agreed the new rules were about improving the television images so McGuinty doesn't look like he's under assault from the media.
"They likely are thinking in terms of pure optics," said Dornan.
"He's still going to field questions from the press. He just doesn't want the press pressing on him."
McGuinty's communications staff have said it's a matter of having the question and answer sessions with reporters become a little more formal and dignified.
The legislative press gallery said its primary concern was access to the premier, something McGuinty promised to maintain, even as he dared journalists to try to make an issue out of his five-foot rule.
"I think we should let Ontarians judge the severity of the restrictions I have put in place that ask that I have just a little bit of breathing space," he said. "I think it's reasonable, and respectful of one another."