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In defence of the Parliamentary Press Gallery

June Callwood penned the definitive portrait of Ottawa’s press gallery in 1965, when journalists were reviled by politicians—even as they simply reported the news


 

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IN ANY COUNTRY SO large that it isn't feasible for the entire population to collect daily in the market place, it becomes necessary for citizens and their government to find some other method of keeping in touch. The system that has evolved in world capitals served by elected governments is an almost total reliance on a glutinous mass of writers, broadcasters and television commentators known as “the press,” whose role has been described momentously as that of writing history on the run.

The press corps reporting on government in Ottawa is dignified by a title, the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, and by some ennobling views of its primary function — “the essential bridge between parliament and the people” being typical. In 1951, Gordon Graydon rose in the House of Commons, nodded respectfully toward the shelf of reporters above the Speaker’s dais and declared ringingly, “The eyes and ears of the people are in that press gallery.” The vision and hearing thus accorded Canadians is far - ranging. The gallery has one hundred and twenty-eight members, including associate and life members, who turn out more than a hundred thousand words a day for the more than four million Canadians who read the country’s one hundred and fourteen daily newspapers, for every Canadian within reach of radio or television, for readers of periodicals, pamphlets and monthly newsletters. Of the gallery’s active members, about a fifth (twenty) represent radio or television, twelve are French - Canadian correspondents or broadcasters, two are women, sixteen represent the country’s ubiquitous and reliable wire service, The Canadian Press, and thirteen file copy to such foreign press as Russia’s Tass, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London.

Theirs is a grave obligation, since a bungling or venal press gallery could mislead the electorate, destroy good men, elevate rascals and suffer fools. The gallery sees its role much as did Mackenzie King in 1944, when he observed that it was an “adjunct” of parliament itself.

It therefore is lamentable to witness the indignities that the present press gallery is bearing with keening fortitude. Politicians no longer rise in the House to praise their eyes and ears. Prime ministers view them darkly. In recent years, the gallery has endured insult at public meetings, such as last summer's Couchiching Conference; on television shows, such as the CBC’s Inquiry; in magazines and in newspaper editorials; from politicians in the House, politicians on the hustings, politicians bellying up to the bar A mari usque ad mare and, most unforgivably, from its own members. Along with such epithets as “drunks,” “incompetents” and “deadbeats,” the gallery has been belabored with “dull and pedestrian” (Frank H. Underhill), “servile'’ (John Diefenbaker) and “mediocre” (Douglas Fisher).

In addition to this rude harassment, the press gallery currently is facing a crisis in its housing arrangements: it is about to be evicted from its snug quarters, three rooms and the corridor in the heart of the Parliament Buildings, for no good reason except that the space annually is condemned by the dominion fire commissioner as a fire hazard, is provided rent-free and costs Canadian taxpayers more than one hundred thousand dollars a year, operates untidily as a blind pig for the distribution of bootleg booze throughout Parliament Hill, and has been described by its most charitable admirers as a slum area and a disgrace.

This concentration of maltreatment is rendered the more bitter to bear because the gallery in its hundred-year history has never contained such a high proportion of intelligent and astute journalists, who have never worked harder, never had such complexities to unravel, never labored under such a pressure of time, competitiveness and rising standards and never before sought more sincerely and mightily for insight and perspective. By grotesque mischance, the improving professionalism of the present gallery coincides with a record onslaught of hostility from politicians, disdain from intellectuals and skepticism from the public.

This incongruous situation owes much to the current Canadian mood for critical self-examination, a testy nagging for universal excellence that takes the form of dissatisfied analysis of all institutions, both sacred and profane, and often blindly overlooks the emergence of worth in its attentiveness to the diminishing supply of numskulls. The Ottawa Press Gallery, a clutch of some of the best-paid, most-envied and most-influential reporters in the land, naturally has not escaped baleful scrutiny, particularly in this shabby period in Canadian history when Parliament Hill’s proclivity for theatrics, crime and turn-moil assures Ottawa datelines of wide readership. Away from the nation's capital, however, most authorities agree that the gallery is able and honest and — despite some bizarre shortcomings — serves its responsibilities well.

Politicians tend to dispute this, some of them slanderously. Among the milder opinions of a taut MP from Jasper-Edson. Progressive Conservative Dr. Hugh Horner, are the convictions that members of the gallery turned against John Diefenbaker because he didn't provide them with free liquor and that the entire gallery hates the entire House of Commons ever since MPs voted themselves a salary increase. "We got a raise and the gallery didn't, so they're sore,” he declares. "Ha, most of them couldn't be elected dogcatcher.”

The more prevalent view among politicians is an aggrieved complaint that the gallery pounces on a government’s mistakes and magnifies them, presenting a distorted picture to the voters which speedily leads to a change in government. A thoughtful and dignified Progressive Conservative. Gerald Baldwin (Peace River), remarks without rancor, "The gallery definitely can damage a government. For example the press formed a strong bias against John Diefenbaker when he was prime minister and it was reflected in its news coverage. It's happening again in this scandal thing, in the loose usage of such strong words as ‘corruption’ and ‘bribery.’ They are tarring an entire government with them.”

Observes Senator Grattan O'Leary, the tough-minded Tory who publishes the Ottawa Journal and worked in the gallery in his youth. "The press gallery can't bring down a government all by itself, but it certainly can hasten the process.”

The gallery retaliates with the charge that the average MP's notion of impeccably fair journalism is when his speech is printed in its entirety on the front page of his home-town newspaper. "They don't grasp the nature of news,” explains the CBC’s respected television commentator. Norman DePoe. “There’s no drama in a daily item that ‘Flight 539 has landed at Malton after an uneventful flight and all passengers are safe.’ ”

The bitterness of parliamentarians toward the press in Ottawa can be traced back to the Great Pipeline Debate of 1956, when the Liberal government used closure to terminate discussion in a rebellious House. The press gallery found itself caught up in a spirit of flaming outrage and abandoned all pretensions of writing impartially. The Speaker, for instance, was described as “crooked” and a “self-seeking Liberal hack”; one reporter compared the unhappy man, to his disadvantage, with a bank robber.

"It's embarrassing to read it now,” admits George Bain, the Toronto Globe and Mail's deceptively shy columnist, whose playful political satire is approximately as innocent as a piranha. "It had a shrill tone, but those were wild times. We would sit in the House listening to debate until three in the morning, write our stories and talk a while and then get home at six for about three hours’ sleep. It didn't do much for one's objectivity.”

The shrillness has abated lately but the broad-axe style of reporting has been retained intact. “The pipeline was a taste of raw meat.” notes Blair Fraser, Ottawa editor of Maclean's. “Now we can't leave it alone.” A scholarly civil servant adds, “Don't quote me, but since the pipeline the real party in opposition is always the parliamentary press gallery.”

Politicians in both major parties agree. The Liberals are still nursing grudges because of the pipeline, along with fresh wounds identified by a catchall phrase — “the Dorion inquiry, and so on.” The Progressive Conservatives capered into office in 1957, after the pipeline debate, in a glow of camaraderie with the press gallery, to whom they felt linked in eternal brotherhood. This impression disappeared when one of the quirks of John Diefenbaker’s nature turned out to be an intolerance of press criticism, which he handled in a forthright manner by scolding writers publicly. Currently, the Progressive Conservative leader is enduring the worst press of any party leader in living memory, a circumstance which owes only part of its cause to unattractive political behavior — Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, for instance, is an object of affectionate respect in the gallery just now and has escaped much censure in the press for the manifold tribulations of his government.

Point-of-view writing, however, is a taskmaster that demands elevation on at least a modest mound of research, historical memory and educated judgment; the tone of the gallery since the pipeline debate has been industry and application, disappointing to veterans who fondly recall the boy's-dormitory days of the gallery when pranksters set off roman rockets under the desks or burned a reporter's straw hat in his wastepaper basket. Nonetheless, many critics continue to clobber the gallery for a variety of real or imagined faults, among them the technique of interviewing one another, a time-saver that results in stories studded with “well-informed sources claim...” and may contribute to the frequent manifestation of the gallery phenomenon of Identical Inspiration, in which essentially the same conjectural story appears simultaneously in thirty newspapers across the country.

Gallery members also are accused of role confusion, mistaking their function for party-pillar duty, a disorder demonstrated by a helpful disinclination to write stories that would discomfit friendly cabinet ministers, and to write speculative articles on cue to enable a political pal to pretest his product. This sort of Old World courtesy led the Toronto Star's managing editor Ralph Allen to comment last summer at the Couchiching Conference that "many of the worst Ottawa press gallery reporters are the best informed.”

For instance, the Toronto Telegram's Peter Dempson tells of a chat with John Diefenbaker when the then prime minister was casting about for a replacement as secretary of state for external affairs after Sidney Smith's death. Someone suggested Donald Fleming, and Dempson recalls that Diefenbaker seemed intrigued. “That might do it," he said, in substance, “that might do very well.” Dempson wrote a "There are rumors circulating in Ottawa today that Donald Fleming may be named...” kind of story, giving no sources. His item evoked such a prompt and negative reaction that Diefenbaker dropped the project. The arrangement is advantageous to everyone save those constitutionally opposed to being chivvied: the reporter gets what may turn out to be a genuine scoop and the politician is left free to dissociate himself from the whole sticky mess if it goes awry.

Similarly, the late C. D. Howe, minister of trade and commerce, when he was kindly disposed to The Financial Post, used to avail himself of the gallery's star economics expert, The Post's Ken Wilson, who was killed in an airplane crash on an assignment in 1952. Wilson would write of alternate policies that a mysterious high-placed official revealed were under consideration. In twenty-four hours, Howe could ascertain from mail, phone calls and editorials which was the more acceptable, greatly enhancing his reputation for shrewd judgment.

More recently. Prime Minister Pearson employed the same tactic and had the bad luck to collide with a new hand in the gallery who didn’t understand the rules of the game. Pearson intended to announce his new Canadian flag decision in Winnipeg before a meeting of the Canadian Legion, but he felt that some advance warning of his plans would ease the shock somewhat. Late one afternoon Richard O’Hagan, his special assistant (which means press-relations man in Ottawaese), telephoned a few reporters and invited them to Sussex Drive to meet with the prime minister. One of those summoned was the Toronto Star Weekly's Walter Stewart.

“I couldn’t figure what was coming off.” Stewart later related. “The men invited seemed oddly chosen — no one from the French press, no one from The Canadian Press, for instance, only one of the two Ottawa papers represented, no one from the Montreal Gazette, no one from the CBC, one guy from private television, two from the Southam papers, one from the Toronto Telegram, one from the Globe, a few others I forget. I figured. If something big comes out of this, a lot of noses will be out of joint.”

After a hospitable lapse of time, the prime minister drew out his original flag, the three-maple-leaf design, and asked for opinions. “Everyone loved it,” recalls Stewart. “It was all very jolly.” To a direct question, Pearson declared that this was his choice for the new Canadian flag, and the gathering dispersed soon afterward.

Stewart was baffled. He couldn't decide if he had just attended a social event, not to be written about, or the inauguration of a new era in relaxed press conferences. He asked more experienced gallery members who had attended and they explained that Pearson had produced a hybrid: a full-scale press release of hot news crossed with an off-the-record briefing, rampant on a cocktail party. Stewart was advised to write a news story about the flag as the others were doing, attributing the information to a “reliable source” and making no mention of the prime minister.

Stewart brooded about this with gathering resentment. He feels strongly about what he holds to be tacit coercion in such cases of managed news. “If you are privy to a high-level decision like that, you can't help but be prejudiced. If you’re there when the egg hatches, it becomes your chick. It’s human nature. And that’s no way for a government to behave.” Stewart defiantly notified his mother house, the Toronto Daily Star, and the story appeared naming Pearson as host source.

The next day the Toronto Star was so unwelcome at Pearson’s headquarters that a reporter was denied so innocent an item as the guest list of a dinner the prime minister was giving. Matters since have returned to normal, with two exceptions: (1) Pearson no longer leaks important announcements with such “007” intrigue, and (2) Walter Stewart is treated with the caution one would accord a ticking mailbox.

When such mishaps in press cordiality occur in Ottawa, parliamentarians have a single reflex, conditioned by decades of squaring off with hecklers: they assume the critical newsman must hold opposing political beliefs. In actual fact, most members of the press gallery are neutral in politics, performing the same workmanlike job of reporting on legislation, speeches and reports that they would if assigned to cover labor unions or a chess tournament. Their political bias is derived from the prevailing wind from the nonstop caucus of newsmen in the press-gallery lounge; political allegiance in them is the loose sand of consensus.

Independents make MPs nervous

Some others, a minority, are devoutly partisan. About twenty-five newsmen are considered hard-edged adherents of the Liberal Party, about ten are Progressive Conservative, one is Social Credit (Pat Nicholson of the multitude of Thomson papers) and four or five favor the New Democratic Party. In most cases, reporters tend to work for papers that share their politics, but it doesn't always follow: Norman Campbell, a staunch Conservative, writes for the Liberal Ottawa Citizen; long-time Liberal John Bird is on the Conservative-minded Financial Post.

The example of the gallery's two luminous Independents illustrates the irrelevance of affiliation in modern political reporting. These are two of the best brains and most famous names in the gallery: the Toronto Star’s Peter C. Newman, a pale brilliant loner whose tightly documented and revealing book on Diefenbaker, Renegade In Power, has sold eighty thousand copies, and the cheery and immensely popular Charles Lynch, chief of the fast-spreading Southam News Service, whose air of fatherly wisdom has reassured millions of television viewers that the affairs of the nation are under vigilant supervision. The two write for papers in both major political camps: Lynch for the many-hued Southam chain of eight papers, with six hundred and fifty thousand readers, and Newman for nine papers of both stripes, including — in French translation — the giant Montreal La Presse. His impressive circulation of one million, six hundred thousand makes him the most-read columnist in Canadian history.

Newman and Lynch flail and praise with impartial ardor, as their judgment dictates. Most politicians find their cavalier approach disgusting. “There’s no history of impartial political writing in this country,” explains Lynch. “Politicians are much happier knowing where you are. Lack of partisan bias makes it difficult for them to figure you out.” Newman agrees: “It’ll become accepted in time, but right now the feeling is that you’re dangerous if you’re independent. We're considered traitors to everyone, so no one can trust us.”

For his own amusement, MP Douglas Fisher (NDP, Port Arthur), the gallery’s resident critic in parliament and a columnist himself, once classified the Ottawa press corps according to ability. He found only four he could regard as literary, ten were labeled good and nine "halt, lame and blind.” The remainder filled in the gap between the extremes. Burt Richardson, a Diefenbaker aide, is even less impressed. He notes. “The range of income is indicative of the spread in ability.” (Gallery salaries range from six to thirty thousand a year.) Richardson concludes sourly, “Some are worth about twenty-five dollars a week, not a cent more.”

Many observers are inclined to blame the gallery's poor housing for any deficiency in the quality of its literature. “Those conditions wouldn’t be tolerated in a factory," asserts Grattan O'Leary. “It's just not possible to write well in such a mess."

The Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery's quarters are indeed a wondrous sight. They have the impact upon a newcomer, approaching them along the austere marbled and cathedral-roofed corridors of the Parliament Buildings, of stumbling upon a Hogarth saloon in Westminster Abbey. There is, to begin with, bedlam: Teletype machines clattering against a vibrato of fifty typewriters, a hoarse squawk-box voice paging newsmen, telephones ringing, voices tiered to be heard over or under the uproar, radio reporters cupped over telephone hook-ups with their stations and the sweet lost sound of a cuckoo clock, a possibly not significant gift from a departed gallery member.

The décor is Early Squalor, with sprightly touches of dust, empty beer bottles and solitary galoshes. When the main newsroom became crammed with antique oak desks, stalagmites of yellowed Hansards and elk-horned coat racks during the gallery's rapid wartime growth, Mackenzie King suggested that the overflow make temporary use of the broad corridor just outside. That was twenty years ago, when the gallery was less than half its present size. By actual count, a stretch of the corridor that connects the hallowed House of Commons gallery with the hushed Senate gallery now contains thirty-two desks, fifty-eight filing cabinets, fifteen coat racks, twenty-four bookcases and a festoonery of wastepaper baskets, cigarette machines, electric fans, water-coolers. Teletype machines, telephone booths and whiskey cartons rakishly stuffed with old budget debates.

Benefactor to the thirsty

The overall effect is not enhanced by the gallery's unique coalition of newsroom and bootlegging establishment. In a tradition dating back to the dark days of 1921, when politicians and press moved into the rebuilt Parliament Buildings and found them prohibition-dry, the press gallery has operated as a benefactor to the thirsty of all political faiths, but most especially writers.

The bar, a closet off a narrow hall piled head-high with cases of tonic, opens crisply in the morning at the first demand and closes with the last. Drinks are fifty cents each for all kinds of liquor except Scotch, which is seventy-five cents. Beer is obtained by inserting a quarter in a slot-machine cooler around the corner, off the patch-sized Canadian Press room. The brewer's agent who makes the delivery is a picturesque sight as he threads his way apologetically through the jumbled newsroom with seventeen cases of empties on a cart.

The drink concession, a distinguished family business, is under the supervision of Robert Carisse, chief clerk of the press gallery, who inherited the mantle from his father, who was appointed in 1923. He is assisted by a staff of three messengers who, along with their regular duties of distributing government handouts to reporters and supplying them with Hansard's verbatim accounts of speeches in the House, offer a delivery service to office-bound parliamentarians. “The later it gets at night.” grumbles an MP, “the more the price goes up. They always say it's their last bottle.”

The raffish operation is sustained because, by happy chance, it is invisible: everyone on Parliament Hill pretends it doesn’t exist. When the Speaker in 1961 coarsely referred to the press gallery as “that blind pig on the third floor” in a written order to the sergeant-at-arms, he was informed of his error and obligingly erased the offensive phrase from the inter-branch journals of the House. There has been no further fuss, except the minor flutter caused when press gallery beer was delivered one day in a Government of Canada van. "Only happened once,” comments the sergeant-at-arms grimly.

Even without its roguish sideline, the press gallery presents a disheveled picture, unmistakably stamped with the calculated neglect of a landlord hoping to have his lease broken. The paint is peeling, the windows dirty, the debtors’-auction leather chairs in the lounge are sprung and cracked. The government has been trying to rid itself of this eyesore for many years: it now is nigh on to frantic.

"Next September we'll have seventy-five countries coming here for the Inter-Parliamentary Union meetings.” explains the Speaker. Alan Macnaughton. “We'll have foreign correspondents from all over the world. What sort of impression will they get of us if we don't get that mess cleaned up?”

Good-by to all that

The government's plan is to move the press gallery into a nearby office building, clear out the corridor, refurnish the lounge and turn the newsroom into a modern "hot room” with Teletypes and typewriters available for fast-breaking news. The government owns the Norlite Building, across the street from parliament's West Block. It wants an “economic rent" of $3.25 a square foot, but is willing to make no charge for converting the top floors (which have a spectacular view of the Gatineau River) or installing a cooling system, automatic elevators, a commissionaire on round-the-clock duty at the door and the free extras now provided: clerks, messengers, Hansards, Canada Year Books, Parliamentary Guides, stationery, parking spaces, paper clips and rubber bands.

Last year, press gallery spokesmen met twenty-three times with the prime minister or the Speaker or their staffs. To date: stalemate. Those newsmen clinging to their burrows have valid arguments, the most cogent of which is that they will be handicapped if their files are ten minutes away when a big story breaks in the House. Pointing to two hundred folders full of clippings. Quebec City’s Le Soleil reporter Amédée Gaudreault, says sadly, “I'm a columnist. I could not write without this background material handy.”

But the egress has begun. The Canadian Press moved its headquarters out of the gallery long ago; the Toronto Star, the Toronto Globe and Mail and other papers have followed suit. A gaudy era is closing down and a sense of mourning already overhangs the disreputable and beloved debris on parliament’s third floor.

The battered gallery has a long tradition of reluctantly welcoming yesterday. Proud and snobbish since the days of Confederation, it balked at allowing magazine writers to join until Mackenzie King became aroused on behalf of beseeching Time Inc. in 1942 and pressured the gallery into admitting a Time correspondent. The gallery then dug in for a titanic fight to exclude radio and television from membership, yielding under combined battering from the CBC and the BBC in 1959.

The gallery had a manly frankness about its motives, which in many cases were pure greed. Holding a monopoly on the right to take notes in the House of Commons, the newsmen were moonlighting profitably on the CBC’s French network and on such English-language shows as Capital Report, Viewpoint and Press Conference. “If we let in radio and TV, I’ll lose two thousand dollars a year off my income,” a gallery member complained.

The press gallery has a curious constitution for a squatter organization, being responsible to the Speaker of the House but keeping all the prerogatives of a chic country club to itself. In the nearly hundred years of its recorded history, from the first days when parliament begrudged it fifteen dollars for paper and no more, the gallery has excluded whom it pleased and stared down any House Speaker bold enough to intervene. The latest and angriest dispute arose in 1962 when Raymond Spencer Rodgers, a PhD-holding journalist, was refused admission on the grounds that he planned to work only part-time at covering parliament.

“Actually, he was just too smart for his own good,” one newsman explains. “When Kenya’s Tom Mboya was here, Rodgers was the only one who knew all about African government. A real troublemaker.” Rodgers took his case to the House Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections and was championed in the House by Douglas Fisher, but he finally gave up the struggle and retired to the civil service to nurse his wounds.

The gallery argues that its hauteur is a vital protection, both of its limited working space and of its code, that it must be purely an organization of full-time parliamentary correspondents, a view that has saved the gallery from the flabbiness of the National Press Club in Washington, where half the membership is made up of lobbyists and hucksters hoping to improve their pecking order.

Despite its nanny severity, the Ottawa gallery is expanding at the rate of six or seven new members a year. The larger papers have been adding to their Ottawa bureaus, but the main impetus has come from a ginger group of radio reporters. “They’re all over the place with their little tape recorders,” a newspaperman complains, “a real nuisance.”

Politicians haven’t made up their minds. “In my constituency,” comments the attractive PC member from Grenville-Dundas, Mrs. Jean Casselman Wadds, “people seem to be getting most of their political news from radio and they’re well informed. If I’m away from the House for a day, they’re ahead of me.”

But some politicians are concerned. “Radio seems to be irrefutably accurate because you hear a man making a statement, in his own voice,” observes MP Gerald Baldwin (PC, Peace River). “But I’ve been dismayed to hear myself on radio. They can edit out the qualifying statements and the cautious sentences and just leave your most startling observations, which present a quite different impression than you intended.”

Douglas Fisher offered a particularly unpleasant experience a year ago because of an edited tape. The west coast’s jovial Jack Webster dropped in to Fisher’s office and the two struck up a fast rapport. Webster asked permission to tape-record an interview, during which he asked Fisher what he thought of the press gallery. Fisher, responding to Webster’s blithe mood, answered cheerfully that the members were a bunch of "lushes, drunks and incompetents.” Ed Murphy, a gallery member who represents a number of radio stations, obtained the tape and inserted his own voice for Webster's, retaining Fisher’s reckless reply. It was used on Ottawa's CFRA and the gallery reeled like a dowager confronted with a dead cat. Murphy’s deceit was overlooked, but Fisher was judged a bounder. He was obliged to apologize in writing.

The great advantage the radio contingent has is freshness—as one newsman puts it wearily, "the menace of novice enthusiasm.” “We don't have the contacts that the rest of the gallery has.” says Paul Akehurst of CHUM in Toronto, one of the youngest reporters on the Hill. "Some of them knew cabinet ministers when they were back-benchers. So we have to dig pretty hard and try to get the breaks.”

Akehurst. along with George Brimmell of Southam, spent tedious weeks following up a tip that Montreal bankruptcy-court files and those of the justice department would make fruitful gleaning, a chore that paid off when they were the first to break the story of the unusual deal in furniture obtained by Secretary of State Maurice Lamontagne.

A Toronto Star man. Robert Reguly. following a lead on rumors that had been prevalent in Ottawa for weeks, broke the story of minister without portfolio Yvon Dupuis' alleged involvement with a harness track payoff. Over the years, alert reporters in the gallery have played a consequential role in the nation's affairs. The late Grant Dexter of the Winnipeg Free Press, a superb reporter of whom Bruce Hutchison once said. "He knew more about the nation's business than any man in Ottawa.” once spotted an item in a budget of Finance Minister J. L. Ilsley raising the tariff on steel pipe, which the minister hadn't bothered to mention in his budget speech. Dexter's report alerted the prairie Liberal MPs, devout free traders all, who marched into llsley's office with an ultimatum: "Drop the steel pipe tariff or we'll be obliged to vote against the budget and defeat the government.” Ilsley dropped the tariff item. This is the last example on record of a successful revolt by back-bench MPs against government policy.

Some scoops are cloak and swagger. The Toronto Telegram's Peter Dempson pursued a tip that a fellow member of the gallery, Vasily Tarasov of Tass, was actually a spy. He made inquiries and was told uneasily that he was right, but the intrepid RCMP were still in the process of arranging a trap for Tarasov; would Dempson please wait to write his story? Dempson did, for ten days. When the trap finally was sprung, Dempson was notified and wrote an exclusive.

Mostly, though, the life of a press-gallery member is grinding. When the House is in session he may work up to fourteen hours a day, filleting two-hundred-page economic reports for their news; sifting through droning debates on the fine print of the pensions bill: enduring stoically the boyishness of the country's legislators, who thump their desks and howl at banalities; scanning handouts from the Department of Lands and Forests, and fat brochures from Agriculture.

“The reporters who can do the best job are the ones with the most time,” George Bain remarks. “Too many of them haven’t a moment to read outside newspapers or magazines, let alone books. The necessary drudgery takes so much time that people can’t develop, can’t learn the background to issues. A frequent complaint is, ‘I’d like to find out more about this,’ but how can he? He’s writing six to eight stories a day.”

In addition, political reporting has become staggeringly complex. Senator Grattan O’Leary recalls when the budget was explained to reporters by the finance minister with a few notes in his hand: “He’d tell us that we took in this much last year, spent this much and here’s what we have left. That was all there was to it.” Present budgets are explained to the press by a team of experts at a briefing that lasts for hours and scarcely can be grasped by a specialist with a degree in economics. Reporters have equal difficulty deciphering complicated bills such as the government’s pension plan. “They don’t lay out the details of the Labor Code, for instance,” notes the highly intelligent and relaxed Pauline Jewett (Lib., Northumberland). “It would be valuable right now to explain the social insurance plan and how it differs from social assistance, but no one is trying to spell it out.” Further, the press gallery seems uninterested in the country’s foreign policy; one distinguished analyst recently looked up brightly and asked, “What’s the capital of Vietnam?”

Journalists who have served in Washington’s press corps say a major gap in Ottawa is the scarcity of background briefings, not-for-attribution seminars conducted by experts to outline the factors influencing government decisions. George Bain claims it was the absence of such briefings that caused Canadian newsmen to misunderstand Pearson’s actions at the United Nations at the time of the Suez crisis. “It was the worst PR failure the government has ever had,” says Bain. “The immediate reaction here was that he was selling out Britain. It could have been avoided if the gallery had been kept abreast of what Canada was trying to do and why.” Prime Minister Pearson’s present press man, Richard O’Hagan, concedes, “There is a very good case for an improved system of briefings, especially between sessions of parliament.”

But the hazard of background briefings, as Walter Stewart — the man who leaked Pearson’s flag leak — would be the first to say, is the hothouse environment it provides for the growth of outright government propaganda and hogwash.

There’s no possible way to suit all of the press gallery, or for the press gallery to suit all Canadians. The gallery has a Byron quote chiseled over the fireplace in its decrepit lounge:

But words are things, and a small drop of ink.

Falling, like dew upon a thought, produces

That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.

On good days — and it has plenty of them — the Ottawa press gallery does just that.



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