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Rodney MacDonald's scrummy politics 

Tories decided to move cabinet scrums from a hallway to a shiny new room---where they stuck the premier onstage, behind a podium---it was a power move.

Scrums---those huddles of microphone-thrusting reporters that you see on the news every night knotted like a rat-king around politicians or other high-profile news-makers---are all about control.

When Rodney MacDonald's gang of election-prepping Tories decided January 29 to shift weekly cabinet scrums from a hallway into the legislature's shiny new media room---where they stuck the premier up on a stage and behind a podium---it was a power move.

And when legislature press gallery members stood A Fistful of Dollars-style at the back of the room for 30 to 45 painful seconds waiting for the premier to come down off the stage and out from behind his protective piece of wood, that was about power, too.

God. It's all so boring, isn't it? Podiums and platforms and tiny-empirist government bureaucrats and whining journalists.

Boring. But deadly important. Because we really need scrums.

It's been two weeks since the podium ruckus. (I won't keep you in suspense: Rodney refused to move, so the press picked up their cameras and bags, beetled up to the stage and scrummed him around his podium. Not everyone fit. Some "folks," as Rodney is fond of referring to the members of the media, were half hanging off the platform; some camera-operators had to shoot from that unflattering from-below angle that makes their subjects look like Eric Cartman from South Park.)

In any case, the fortnight-long round one Asteroids match between the preem and the press has ended in an agreement: Rodney and his fellow cabinet members---who have been keeping step with the premier all the way---will come down off the stage, but will keep behind their podium. The press will stick to the media room and out of the congested hallway.

Scrums don't need to continue simply because they always have. Scrums are necessary because they work. And I'll go a level deeper---they work to the advantage of journalists over politicians.

Scrums are different from press conferences (which is where Rodney's podium-and-stage show were undoubtedly heading) because in a scrum reporters control the flow of questions and can ask the follow-ups they need to.

Metro News reporter Paul McLeod, who was at January 29's "Monty Python version" of the cabinet scrum, says politicians rarely answer questions on the first try and reporters in a scrum work together to pose follow-ups to get answers. Those answers are harder to nab when reporters can't easily stop politicians mid-message-track to ask them to clarify, or when they can't tell a politician she didn't actually answer the question. In other words: rapid-fire produces results.

McLeod thinks scrums are especially difficult for Rodney MacDonald, because he is fond of long (and I'll add meandering) answers. "Sometimes to be a good journalist you have to be a jerk and cut someone off. And I find that has to happen a lot more with Rodney.

"I can see why he would not want to do scrums. If I were him, I probably would not want to do scrums."

But McLeod says the solution isn't to make things easier for MacDonald by allowing him to modify the style and setting of questions, it's for the premier and others to work to be more direct.

"That is the key to a successful scrum: Answer what's asked of you so the people aren't trying to grind the information out of you," McLeod says. "It's night and day between people who are trying to stay on message and who get dragged off message, and people who are just there to try and answer your questions." (Naturally you're wondering who he's talking about---McLeod says Mark Parent, Darrell Dexter, Graham Steele and Chris D'Entremont are a few who cooperate and answer directly.)

But who says reporters deserve that advantage?

I know that comes off as deeply unfair to many people. (I know because I've been listening to feedback on coverage of this story on CBC radio, and I know because I've watched the happy dismissal by scores of Canadians of Stephen Harper's years of creepy crawling claw-backs of Parliamentary press access.)

But here's why reporters need the leg-up scrums provide: Getting answers is a mechanism for keeping governments in check. We can't rely on opposition parties alone. Perhaps not at all. We need to rely on the press. It is in nobody's interest except the politicians to do away with scrums.

"Why," says McLeod, "would you ever side with politicians over not answering questions?"

Bombard Lezlie Lowe with questions at lezliel@thecoast.ca.

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