So far in his dance with the media, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum has been what you might call a lame date.
He prefers to lead but is typically inattentive to his partner on the floor. And if you’re hoping for him to call you later, you’ll probably be waiting in vain.
In the eight months McCallum has been in office in this his fourth term as mayor – he was also mayor from 1996 to 2005 – McCallum has largely operated in a parallel universe to flesh-and-blood journalists, preferring to avoid person-to-person communication in favour of having City Hall’s communications department issue canned statements on his behalf.
Media outlets, including this one, have in desperation published editorials literally calling on the mayor to pick up his phone. (See Now-Leader editorial Dec. 18, 2018 headlined, “Mayor McCallum, Surrey needs you to pick up your phone”).
That particular editorial noted that at a Sept. 26 election campaign debate at the Civic Hotel, McCallum made a point of telling the couple hundred people in the audience that his style of mayoring is “open door.”
“I answered all of my phone calls,” he said of his nine previous years in office.
This has notably not been the case in this term, however.
The Now-Leader recently asked McCallum in a face-to-face interview if he thinks his relationship with the media is strained. Considering he habitually does not respond to media requests for comment, his response might come as a surprise.
“I actually like the media,” McCallum replied. “I’ve always liked the media as long as they stay on topic and don’t get into personal comments on people, not me only, but anybody. If they stay on the topic and on the issue. I’m always a believer to be hard on the issues, soft on the people and there is some press around that is the opposite – they’re hard on people and soft on the issue.
“I have given many speeches to students and to everything in politics and the one that is a golden rule to me is to be hard on the issues, if you want, but be soft on people and so when the press crosses, then that crosses a very red line for me,” he continued.
“But outside of that, you know, I enjoy the press because they are another part of the political process that gives our ideas back to the public, so I enjoy most of the press as long as they stay within that, I call the golden rule in politics even, it’s not just the press – it’s the same for when you’re dealing with other council members or anything, you have to concentrate on the issues.”
These comments were recorded July 24, following council’s sparsely-attended final meeting for the summer. This followed a couple days of placing unanswered telephone requests for interviews for comment from McCallum on two developing stories.
One story concerned his exclusive appointment of councillors, who remain on his Safe Surrey Coalition, to a new Interim Police Transitory Advisory committee after he dissolved the long-standing Public Safety Committee on which all council members had sat.
The other story concerned his five-four council majority’s rejection, without discussion, of motions presented by three former Safe Surrey Coalition members who parted ways with the group over what they see as a lack of consultation by the mayor.
After that July 22 meeting, reporters who tried without success to interview him tweeted about the experience.
“I tried for third council meeting in a row to interview the mayor after the council meeting ended but he just walked away and I was calling out his name several time other councillors said they heard me,” tweeted Janet Brown, a reporter with CKNW.
I tried for third council meeting in a row to interview the mayor after the council meeting ended but he just walked away and I was calling out his name several times other councillors said they heard me. @CKNW @GlobalBC @keithbaldrey @MikeSmythNews @delford @AllisonPattonND
— Janet Brown (@JanetBrown980) July 23, 2019
Indeed, some people in other lines of work might be inclined to dismiss this very Now-Leader focus report as the inconsequential whinging of a brittle, naval-gazing media that’s deluded with self-importance.
Boo-hoo, they might say – suck it up. But it involves so much more than that.
Mark Hamilton, a journalism professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, explains how and why.
Just how important is the media’s role in informing the public about city governance issues?
“Oh, it’s vital,” Hamilton said. “Decisions that are being made by politicians at all the levels have effects and ramifications for citizens right down to their neighbourhood level. They have broad ones – where parks are going to be, where schools are going to be – and keeping people informed about the decision-making process and the impacts of those, without the media there, there’s no way for ordinary citizens to really have a grasp on what’s going on.”
Is it incumbent upon politicians to answer the media’s calls not only in a timely fashion, but at all?
“I would like to think so,” Hamilton chuckled, “I’m getting biased here. There’s always been conflict between politicians and media. A part of it is that at different times they have different priorities, and what the media sees at this moment as being important, the politician may not and they’re saying I’m not going to waste my time on that.”
Hamilton said when he was a reporter “a long time ago,” in the municipalities where he worked he had “pretty good” relationships with politicians and staff, “but it was a different time in that those types of things were allowed and now we’re seeing this kind of professionalism, particularly in city halls over the last 20 or 30 years, where everything flows through a central communications support team. We can’t just pick up the phone and talk to somebody in the engineering department, which makes it difficult.”
How does this affect the public in general?
“It can make it really difficult for reporters to give an accurate picture about what’s going on, on their beat, in their city, in their neighbourhood and this idea that media and politicians are always in conflict, that the media is somehow ‘out to get’ people or the media hasn’t bought into our way of thinking, our way of doing things – that any criticism from the media therefore is a criticism of us, any question that they ask suggests that ‘they’re not part of the team,’ that attitude kind of gets set in and it makes it difficult on both sides.”
When politicians communicate with the media primarily through emailed news releases and statements, this makes it difficult for journalists to probe and clarify.
“Reporters tend to work a lot harder. You get the press release, you try and make the follow-up phone calls to ask the questions. In the minds of the people who are doing the communicating from the other side, the press release has all the information that you need. As a reporter you may have questions, you may want to go a little deeper on this, and if you can’t talk to the people who are intimately involved with this, it makes it much more difficult to try to present as comprehensive a picture as you can.
“Once this relationship is established in which the communication is basically one-way, it deteriorates pretty quickly because the reporters get frustrated, the officials get frustrated, if they think they’re doing the right thing and then it’s not being appreciated.”
This can make it difficult, Hamilton noted, to maintain a relationship where the politicians and the media are working on the same goal – not the political goals – but that of keeping the public informed and engaged in the political process in their community so they can contribute to that.
“I’m seeing this centralization of message and all of the things we associate with the higher levels of government creeping down to the municipal level, and it kind of destroys that feeling of community,” Hamilton observed.
McCallum’s predecessor, Linda Hepner, at times weathered a rough ride while in office but nevertheless made it a priority to promptly and personally return media requests for comment.
Hepner said this was “not only important but necessary.
“The media is the venue by which you deliver either your rationale or your explanations around issues, and you rely on the media to present it in a fair and balanced way, but it’s the only way you can conceivably, other than sending your own press releases out, get the message out,” Hepner told the Now-Leader. “So I thought it was important to respond to telephone calls quickly and in fact I don’t think I ever let a day go by when I didn’t respond when I got a call.
“It goes two ways, because when you want to call a press conference to get out your very specific message, that’s one avenue. But there’s a secondary avenue when the public have questions, and it creates an issue that the media need clarification for, and that’s where I see the current political environment failing,” Hepner said.
“It’s easy for them to call a press conference when they want to say something,” she noted, but it’s also important to give that same respect, “reciprocal respect, when it’s the media that have a question.”