"When the press fails to keep its distance from politicians" Victoria Report by Hubert Beyer
VICTORIA - Hardly a week goes by without some social gathering between polticians and reporters covering provincial affairs at the Legislative Buildings in Victoria, a development that should be of some concern to the public.
I'm not talking about a reporter having a working lunch or dinner with a cabinet minister. I'm not talking about a friendly chat in the corridor.
I'm not talking either about having a few drinks with a politician on a purely social basis. I'm talking about something far more insidious, I'm talking about fun and games, regularly scheduled baseball and basketball tournaments, between members of the legislative press gallery and politicians. Not the odd game, I'm talking about weekly meets.
Press gallery against premier's office; press gallery against Socred caucus; press gallery against NDP caucus. Fun and games on the court, followed by a friendly get together over pizza and beer, with a good time had by all.
When the press gallery was beaten in a recent baseball game by the NDP, Mike Harcourt rose in the legislature next day to announce that the honor of the House had been preserved, the "Scrums of the Earth" had been routed by Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, he said, much to the enjoyment of the MLAs.
Pardon me for being a spoil sport, but I have a feeling that that's not what we're here for. When the legislature rises half an hour early to accommodate a social event between MLAs and the press, as was the case a couple of months ago, something is very wrong.
Not that the press and the politicians never met socially before. For as long as I can remember, the press gallery has thrown an annual bash for the MLAs. To reciprocate, the Socred caucus usually invites reporters and their spouses to a dinner. The NDP causus has organized the odd standup cocktail-type due for reporters.
But those have been annual affairs. For one or two days a year, both politicians and reporters would declare a truce. They would put aside their adversarial roles and meet on neutral ground.
What's happening now goes far beyond that. In this new era relationship between press and politicians, the lines get blurred. The traditional distance reporters have kept between themselves and politicians they are supposed to watch, has been replaced by an atmosphere of kinship and affinity.
At a recent Government House dinner hosted by Lieutenant-Governor Stephen Rogers for members of the press gallery, government house leader Bruce Strachan showed up. What the hell, I want to know, was a politician doing at a dinner for the press?
I wasn't at the dinner, but I was told that Strachan referred to press gallery members as servants of the legislature. I've got news for you, Bruce. I'm nobody's servant. Not yours and not the legislature's.
Aside from making my living at journalistic endeavors, the only reason I am in the press gallery is to keep an eye on politicians and tell readers what they're up to. I can't see how playing ball with politicians or drinking beer and eating pizza with them could possibly help me in that task.
By joining the politicians in this happy family environment, reporters are allowing themselves to be co-opted. And that spells bad news for the public which expects the press to be at arm's length from the politicians.
I'm not suggesting that this organized love-in has influenced coverage of the legislature. Not yet, anyway. Balls games notwithstanding, Stephen Rogers got nailed to the wall for his stupid "poor white trash" remark. But perception is every bit as important as reality.
Seeing reporters and politicians embraced in an ongoing social dance doesn't enhance the credibility of the press. An innocent bystander would have to wonder about the effectiveness of the press if he saw reporters and cabinet ministers, including Premier Vander Zalm, laugh and cajole their way through a ball game.
If the press is to fulfill its role properly, it must be cantankerous, it must be obstinate, and it must be free of obligations. The incessant after-hours love fest between politicians and reporters of the legislative press gallery, is not conducive to unencumbered journalism.
As to the "poor white trash" remark here's a link, its on page 109 and goes by the title of:
Maybe a certain element of Stockholm Syndrome creeps in as journalists spend extended periods in close company with their sources - especially between news people and some sources was brought into question in Victoria in 1987. Reporters at the BC Legislature were chatting with a colourful cabinet minister, Stephen Rogers, outside the legislative chamber in an area that the Speaker of the House had said was not to be used for interviewing. Rogers made some controversial remarks while one CBC reporter had his tape recorder discreetly running. The CBC reporter chose to ignore the comments (describing Britain's unemployed as "poor white trash") as casual banter. But another reporter (Barry Bell) who heard it chose to report the comment. Uproar ensued. SNIP
(Source of the "reporter" is in a Gary Mason Vancouver Sun column on 08 May 1987 available via your local public library online thereby skipping a search on Google)
This relationship puts a considerable strain on reporters, who have to be careful how intimate they become with the sources. The friendship developed between press and politicians be in the BC Legislature were subsequently even further strained when an affair between a minister and a reporter became public knowledge. SNIP
BC Rail Trial is long over, but one has to wonder about whether or not the coverage by the mainstream press would have come under fire from the late Hubert Beyer, so far, the CBC's latest edition from Victoria has done a repeat performance of old. Some good, and some not so good.