You won’t hear the editors at the Afghan Post complain about Stephen Harper’s lack of accessibility – they’ve already sat down with him once and are likely to get another chance before the election ends.
Access to Mr. Harper has been tightly guarded through the election campaign, with reporters travelling with him limited to a total four questions a day – five if you count the one local reporter in each city who is also allowed a single question.
But the Toronto-based paper managed to sidestep the restrictions because it is a member of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, a loose coalition of small papers kept together by the exhaustive efforts of Thomas Saras. For decades, Mr. Saras has hounded political leaders, insisting the small papers he represents be given a seat at the table with other mainstream media outlets.
He finally feels his efforts have paid off: Ethnic media outlets are being granted exclusive one-on-ones and invited to take part in roundtable sessions, such as the one the Afghan Post participated in during the first week of the campaign along with editors of other ethnic publications and several television stations.
“We offer our members the ability to reach political leaders,” says Mr. Saras, who has been president of the group for 12 years. “I help them meet the politicians … this is the first time I can remember the Prime Minister’s Office being so close to the press.”
Most of the papers that pay $30 a year to be part of his club are tiny, put together in living rooms and basements late at night after the editors come home from their day jobs. But collectively, they reach about five million readers who have the ability to swing votes in key ridings in cities such as Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.
To the almost 450 member papers in his organization, Mr. Saras is an authoritarian mentor who scolds them at board meetings if they open their mouths while he speaks. As he lectured about 40 of them about ethics at their April meeting at Queen’s Park, many kept a straight face when being addressed directly but broke into laughter the minute he looked to another part of the room.
“Always the meetings go on like this,” says an exasperated Senthi Chelliah, president of Tamils’ Guide. “Things can take a long time to say.”
They tolerate his long lectures because he has delivered. Mr. Saras, who emigrated to Canada in 1968 and is also the editor of the monthly Greek Patrides, acts as a gatekeeper for the politicians looking to raise their profile in the communities the mainstream press often fail to penetrate.
He’s hounded prime ministers since the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau told him the best way to be taken seriously was to band together with other small publishers. Now with one phone call, he can summon dozens of editors to meet with senior politicians to discuss policy and the issues of the day.
The appeal for politicians is obvious. One meeting with Mr. Saras’s band of editors can lead to stories in hundreds of publications – because many of them publish in different languages, there is little fear of competition and overlap. Some prefer to run question-and-answer type pieces that are made available to them after the sessions; others just run a photo of the politician shaking hands with the grinning editor.
Mr. Saras’s members gain access they could never dream of getting on their own. He says Mr. Harper has met with members of the group almost 12 times in the last four years, Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff have visited 10 times.
The closer relationship with the press doesn’t always mean more ad revenue, however. Ahmad Shah Hotaki, editor of the Afghan Post, said the parties are more interested in editorial content than they are in placing paid advertisements in his paper.
While members believe Mr. Saras has brought them access to politicians and a sense of camaraderie, the group also makes other members of the ethnic press uncomfortable – they worry close ties with politicians skews coverage. Mr. Saras casually refers to Mr. Harper as “one of Canada’s greatest statesmen,” and last year named Mr. Harper’s chief of communications Dimitri Soudas “Lifetime Honorary Member of the Board.”
Madeline Ziniak is the vice-president and general manager of OMNI Television and runs another trade association called the Canadian Ethnic Media Association. Her members also sit down for editorial board meetings, but don’t cultivate special relationships in exchange for access, she says.
“We encourage our members to be judicious in their outreach to politicians, because gone are the days of naive ethnocultural communities,” she says. “It’s not enough to have your picture taken with the Prime Minister, you need to step up and provide quality coverage.”
Mr. Saras bristles at the criticism. The walls of his cramped office in Toronto City hall may be covered in pictures of him with politicians, but his role, he says, is to even the playing field with the mainstream press that also benefits from personal relationships in the corridors of power.
“If people find you are a decent person and you try to do something for the benefit of the many then they respect you and will do whatever they can to help,” Mr. Saras says. “When you are 40 years in this business, it is obvious the party leaders will know you and know your principles and will want to help you. This is democracy, that is what this is.”