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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Keeping Governments Honest

Ottawa’s press gallery has evolved but its task is unchanged

Tim Harper

Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill

Robert Lewis

Dundurn Press

376 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9781459742642

Three times, over three different decades, I have been the grateful recipient of the traditional engraved pewter mug marking the end of my time in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, only to be flung back into the fray as if tethered to some 613 area code boomerang.

I lived through the era of ashtrays in the Centre Block foyer and the drunken Friday night press club dust-ups. I tried to subtly shake awake a senior cabinet minister who had passed out at the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner.

I was witness to governments falling, cabinet ministers resigning in scandal, a leaked budget, and gunfire in Parliament. I feigned interest as Jean Chrétien told the same story about him and Helmut Kohl for the fifth time on yet another transatlantic flight on the government plane.

It was a privilege to ply a trade in the country’s most marvellous workplace, and I never strode into the Parliament buildings without a sense of awe at my surroundings.

Relations between prime ministers and the media are no longer cozy.

Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana via Flickr

This may not have been a golden era, but it was an era nonetheless.

It has fallen, however, to Robert Lewis and his meticulously researched Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill to tie together the many disparate eras of the one-time boys club known as the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The former gallery member and Maclean’s editor-in-chief has chronicled the often cliquish and sometimes adversarial relationship between this nation’s leaders and those whose calling was to record “history on the run.”

The gallery, as it is generically known, was often populated by journalists who were giants of their trade, better known than the men and women they wrote about. But it was also too often populated by partisans who sat on information or acted as head cheerleaders as the situation demanded, writers who hid conflicts of interest and others who covered for drunken colleagues, filing stories under their names as part of a fraudulent buddy system.

Lewis pays homage to them all, from John Dafoe to Chantal Hébert, celebrating victories but not airbrushing the warts. He also reminds us of how elitist and clubby the gallery has been, how its resistance to change was central to its hidebound DNA.

Nowhere was that more shamefully on display than its treatment of women seeking entry to this club. It wasn’t just women. At various times, Lewis writes, the gallery also sought to ban Jews, -freelancers, magazine writers, and the lowest of all lowlife, broadcasters (whose full-time status would cost the print boys their freelance TV cash).

He credits Genevieve Lipsett-Skinner as the first woman to gain membership into the gallery in 1922, sponsored by the Vancouver Sun, but a woman who was already stringing for dailies in the five largest cities in the country.

But for far too long, Lipsett-Skinner and the women who followed her were often a novelty, toiling in a lonely and oppressive work space. When she left, no other woman entered the male sanctum for a decade and during its first 79 years only three women were admitted to the gallery. Women were banned from attending the annual black-tie gallery dinner until 1967 and could not enter the National Press Club until 1970.

This is more than a historical treatise, however.

Lewis has had the good fortune of dropping this book in the middle of a period of seemingly unprecedented media demonization south of the border, a shoot-the-messenger strategy that appears to have drawn the interest of Andrew Scheer and his band of cranky and victimized Conservatives. In Ontario, the Doug Ford government records and distributes its own propaganda newscasts under the banner of Ontario News Now. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s periodic love sonnets to the free press provide warmth and a tug at the heart, but his government is only marginally more open than the steely Stephen Harper, who was reviled by the gallery for shutting off the taps to information—the lifeblood of the trade.

At a time when CNN has to sue the White House to regain access denied to its correspondent, Jim Acosta, when Donald Trump roils his base in dangerously violent rhetoric about “fake news” and the “enemy of the people,” clearly we have gone down a dark tunnel in relations between politicians and those who cover their every move, such as we have never seen before, correct?

In fact, Lewis provides evidence that there is nothing unprecedented at play at all.

John Diefenbaker was an early practitioner of “fake news” and Anthony Westell of the Globe and Mail was a 1960s version of Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star Washington correspondent who obsessively logs Trump’s lies. Dief was fond of referring to “secret” documents that were not secret at all or fabricating political exchanges in the Commons for his base, all the better to portray his Liberal rivals as a corrupt gang consorting with criminals. Westell would correct the Diefenbaker record daily in print by publishing the truth in parentheses. He then provided a ground-breaking op-ed analysis that proved Diefenbaker’s vague relationship with the facts, laid out in chapter and verse.

Trump may inveigh against his evil interlocutors, but Diefenbaker ranted as well, only much more privately in the pre-social media era. After reading Peter C. Newman’s 1963 book about his demise, Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years, Diefenbaker called the author a “literary scavenger” who rifled through trash baskets and got his marching orders from the Liberals. “He is an innately evil person who seems intent on tearing other people to pieces,” Dief wrote. “Seems honourable people have no protection from his mind and pen.” He finished his tirade by noting that the Czech-born Newman was an immigrant, erroneously labelling him an import from VIENNA (capitals from Diefenbaker). The handwritten note would not look out of place on Trump’s Twitter feed.

Before Ford’s propaganda channel, Brian Mulroney had “Tory TV,” a propaganda newscast that bypassed the wretches in the gallery. Then there were Harper’s 24 Seven videos that would provide news on his terms, often news that would come from events that reporters travelling with the prime minister were barred from attending.

The Harper message control was legendary.
A succession of communications directors refused to communicate or went over the head of Ottawa bureau chiefs to deal directly with their bosses at head office. Omnibus bills bundled unrelated legislative initiatives into one weighty tome (a practice continued by the Trudeau Liberals) and one cabinet shuffle was revealed in individual tweets for each appointment. A favourite ploy of the Harperites was to invent a conflict with the gallery as a fundraising tool, often starting with “You’ll never believe what the press gallery is up to now…”

The tight control was an outgrowth of the evolution of Harper. While in exile in Calgary, he was an affable gold mine of informed speculation and information, but when he gained power he quickly developed a bunker mentality. Personal encounters with journalists went down the rabbit hole of cautious blandness.

When I returned to the gallery and sat down with him on the campaign of 2011, his first words to me were, “So, how long have you been back?’’ When I next encountered him one-on-one six months later, he greeted me at a social event by saying, “So, how long have you been back?”“Six months longer than the last time you asked me that question, Prime Minister,’’ I replied.

We were a long way from the early days when journalists were fed inside information on a hush-hush basis or suggested cabinet appointees to the prime minister of the day. Mine was an era when budget items were selectively leaked based on regional interests, when a self-serving leak would come to me from a minister’s office on Tuesday, then another from the same office passed to the Globe on Wednesday. It was an era when a Sunday afternoon staple was a call from a Paul Martin loyalist dishing the latest dirt on Chrétien during that internecine Liberal power struggle. The irrepressible Stockwell Day interrupted dinner preparations one night, calling from Stornoway to tell me he couldn’t reveal the name of his new chief of staff, but he could give me his initials. Information was often gleaned at the bottom of a beer mug.

Today, a much leaner gallery has adapted to the era of partisan anger and self-promotion on Twitter. This is the era of data-mining and access-to–information, when context is needed more than ever and expertise and experience are vital as Facebook doles out half-truths and fantasy and more consumers than ever rely on that to stay informed.

When I returned to Ottawa in 2011 after an eight-year hiatus, what I lamented most of all was my discovery that rehearsed questions and rehearsed answers passed for Commons debate.

Smart men and women read from pre-packaged lines. Committees, by and large, had slid into majority-rule darkness. Thanks to social media, everyone had become an analyst and every ministerial aide had become hyper-partisan.

This is no call for a return to the days of yore. The gallery will always be smaller, the Ottawa posting no longer the pinnacle it once was.

Lewis is correct in his belief that a tough, vibrant gallery is needed more than ever. The Parliamentary Press Gallery may never have been more talented, but sadly, it is also less relevant because our politicians have made themselves less relevant. The basic dynamic still rules, however. The late, great Val Sears once called his (male) colleagues to work because they had “a government to bring down.”

If they can’t bring it down, today’s lean band of women and men in the gallery are crucial to keeping government, MPs, and all decision-makers -honest, accountable, and uncomfortable.

To paraphrase Sears, “Come, ladies and gentlemen, we have a government to keep honest.”

Tim Harper served three stints in the Parliamentary Press Gallery as reporter, bureau chief, and national affairs columnist with the Toronto Star between 1988 and 2016.

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