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For Canadian journalists covering Doug Ford, being called ‘fake news’ was the last straw

Progressive Conservative  leader Doug Ford speaks at a campaign event in Ontario in June.

MONTREAL — He hasn't taken to Twitter to rail against the media like his neighbor to the south, but the government of Doug Ford, one of Canada’s best-known politicians, has been picking a fight with the journalists who cover him.

Ford, the brother of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, took office in June as leader of Ontario, Canada’s biggest province.

Political reporters in Toronto soon began to notice changes, they said.

In a holdover from news conferences on the campaign trail, for example, government staff members would suddenly start applauding as the politicians left, drowning out any further questions.

Ford’s administration also launched Facebook and Twitter accounts called “Ontario News Now,” featuring taxpayer-funded TV news-style spots, although neither has garnered big followings. At the same time, journalists' access to government officials was curtailed. During a scrum, which is generally a free-for-all, a rope kept them as much as 15 feet from officials.

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They were told to get in line to ask a question and then speak into a microphone held by a political aide. Questions were cut off after five, but the system also meant the aide could yank the microphone away from any given reporter at will.

“Gotta admit, I’m pretty furious about this,” tweeted Jameson Berkow, a reporter for BNN Bloomberg, who was photographed at a July 27 news conference as the mic was taken away from him. “I was told I would get to ask one question.”

“Despite what people think of reporters and their level of politeness, none of us did anything about it,” said Steve Paikin, a longtime TV anchor and political columnist in Ontario.

And then, last week, things seemed to come to a head, Paikin said. The Ford government had announced it would cancel a pilot project on universal basic income that, during the campaign, senior party representatives had said they would not cancel.

On Thursday morning, on the floor of the legislature, government minister Lisa MacLeod denied that the party had broken a campaign promise, calling that version of events “fake news.”

Canada has its own history of strained relations between government and media, especially under the country’s last Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper. Harper was notorious for his tight control over media access, and several of his aides have gone on to work for Ford, Paikin noted.

But MacLeod’s comment — the “temerity” to use the term “fake news” — was unexpected, Paikin said.

“Finally, I guess it had just been going on too long,” he said. The same morning, two other ministers held a scrum, and reporters refused to line up, Paikin wrote on his blog.

“Instead, they returned to their former practice of simply asking questions from where they stood. To their credit, the cabinet ministers answered their questions.”

The day before, reporters had finally also confronted staff members about the applause. “Resorted to using my ‘dad voice’ today to clearly tell Ontario PC staffers to stop clapping at the end of news conferences,” tweeted CTV reporter Colin D’Mello.

The morning after, there was no applause or cheering, Paikin said.

In retrospect, there may have always been an unspoken deadline on how long reporters would tolerate Ford’s rules, he said.

“I think everybody understood during the election campaign that the reason they did it was because, frankly, Doug Ford had only been the leader of the party for three months. He was new to a lot of the issues,” he said. “I never talked about this with anybody, but my supposition was people sort of understood that this was the communications team's way of protecting the leader.”

A Ford spokesman declined to comment on why the new media policies were put in place or whether they’re now being reconsidered.

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