Scrum and Gone
The incredible shrinking Queen’s Park press gallery is a stark example of what happens when resources run dry. What’s going: informed citizens and democratic accountability. What’s coming: a potential breeding ground for political corruption
The morning Question Period at Queen’s Park ends and reporters scrum politicians streaming into the halls. The exchanges aren’t rapid-fire shouting matches, there’s no staccato of camera flashes and politicians aren’t trying to outrun reporters chasing them down and barking questions. About two dozen journalists swarm Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, some holding television cameras that bathe him in a chilly white light. His mouth is the target of a dozen or so voice recorders, held by the tips of fingers as steadily as the journalists can as they try to get closer without toppling forward. Duncan answers their questions in a relatively calm rhythm. Several address the province’s massive projected $24.7-billion deficit. Does he know anything about the reports of General Motors paying back bailout money to U.S. and Canadian governments?
“Nothing formally, no. I just read that in The New York Times, and I take it for what it’s worth.”
How about that for a statement vague enough to be an adept deflection— or a jab at every journalist in the scrum?
Deb Matthews is next, but the health minister enjoys a crowd half the size of Duncan’s. The rest of the reporters have left to speak with other Members of Provincial Parliament—a single journalist can’t be in two places at the same time, after all. Only half a dozen reporters and one camera greet New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath and as the numbers thin, the pace of the questioning slows down as well. Soon, all but the stragglers are gone.
At Queen’s Park, home of the Ontario legislature, scrums are now shorter, smaller and quieter. It’s a symptom of a dramatic drop in press gallery membership, as well as restrictions on the lines of communication between journalists and politicians, which make context and leads harder to come by. As multi-person bureaus become single-occupancy caverns, and experienced journalists with the know-how to navigate the intricacies of Canada’s second-largest government leave the hollowed halls, the breadth and depth of the coverage declines. Stories are now more narrowly focused on Toronto and only the biggest scandals and controversies get much attention, depriving citizens of the information they need to hold their representatives truly accountable.
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When the new legislature building opened in 1893, the handful of reporters who regularly worked out of Queen’s Park often supplemented their salaries with odd jobs such as writing MPPs’ speeches. Until the 1960s, reporter-politician relationships were unabashedly close, and journalists often had to pick and choose what insider information they could disclose without risking that cozy coexistence. The love-in cooled as journalism became more adversarial, especially in the wake of Watergate. With the press taking its role as watchdog more seriously, coupled with swelling numbers of political support staff, the gallery grew in size as well.
The press gallery lounge used to be a storm of activity, according to past president Richard Brennan. Reporters crowded around the large table in the centre of the room, poring over the day’s papers, discussing the goings-on of the legislature. Today, the lounge is usually empty save one or two people shuffling through un-crinkled issues, or using the microwave in the corner to heat up their lunches.
An old boys’ club atmosphere persisted into the early 1990s and stories about reporters and politicians partying together after late-night sittings abound. Brennan notes that mickeys in jacket pockets and heavy drinking were common, but “papers don’t tolerate those shenanigans anymore.”
A bucket filled with bottles of beer sat in the lounge and—from early morning on—reporters, politicians and staff would drop in, crack open a cold one and shoot the breeze. The boys even played hockey together and would “sit around naked in the change room drinking beer afterward,” says Toronto Star columnist Jim Coyle. Since politicians and reporters talked with each other more, that meant more scoops, though not necessarily better coverage. Friends protect friends. “Before I came here,” says current gallery president Randy Rath, “[Premier John] Robarts would have affairs left, right and centre and nobody would say a word about it.”
Today, a glance at the membership list reveals a large number of “vacant” entries beside bureau phone numbers. Full-time reporters, researchers, columnists and camera crews have also disappeared from the legislature building, which some affectionately call the Pink Palace for its sandstone exterior. In 2001, the gallery had 88 full- and part-time members. It now has 45.
CTV Ontario’s team included four reporters and four full-time camera operators in the ’90s. Today, only Paul Bliss remains, aided by a cameraman until 2 p.m. CBC Television is now gone, leaving only CBC Radio’s Mike Crawley to regularly represent the crown corporation. When TVO replaced its provincial affairs programStudio 2 with The Agenda with Steve Paikin in 2006, the Queen’s Park segment “4th Reading” went with it. TVO’s final departure from the Park in 2008 raised eyebrows, though Paikin, a former Queen’s Park correspondent and the author of a book on Robarts, still offers insightful comments about provincial politics on his robust blog.
Many newspapers, including The Windsor Star, the London Free Press and The Hamilton Spectator have also left. Today, one reporter from the Ottawa Citizen and another Canwest reporter, filing for the National Post and the rest of the chain, are the only ones left. “You’ve got fewer people chasing a diversity of stories,” says former Globe and Mail correspondent Richard Mackie. “They have less and less time to go after stories that might interest them and they have to spend more time on the stories that everybody else is writing. It’s frustrating when you hear about something but you can’t write about it.”
Some prominent veterans recently vacated their desks as well. CBC Radio’s John McGrath took a retirement package in July 2009. An 11-year veteran of Queen’s Park, he got his first taste of provincial coverage in 1995 following Mike Harris, who led the Progressive Conservatives from third-party status to power. “It was the biggest change in Ontario politics, and I was on the bus.” McGrath says CBC waffles on coverage of Queen’s Park. “There are times it thinks it’s important, and times it doesn’t give a damn.”
The Globe once enjoyed a bureau of three reporters, one columnist and one researcher. In March 2009, management shuffled columnist Murray Campbell out of Queen’s Park. He resigned and is now the communications director at the Ontario Power Authority. Hearing rumours that the Globe wouldn’t replace Campbell, the party leaders told publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley the move was a mistake. “They all recognized that he had a very long institutional memory of the place,” says Graham Murray, president of G.P. Murray Research Ltd., which releases the subscriber-only newsletter Inside Queen’s Park every two weeks. “He wrote very well, had a good sense of the place, a good political gut and he, in various ways, had a lot to bring to the process. Also a charming fellow.”
Past and present correspondents speculate that the Campbell controversy was one reason behind the end of Edward Greenspon’s days as the paper’s editor-in-chief. And whether or not the Globe was bowing to pressure from the politicians or from readers, Adam Radwanski took over the column in September, which he supplements with a blog on theglobeandmail.com. He and reporter Karen Howlett are now the only full-time members of the Globe’s bureau.
Even the politicians seem worried enough by the changes to voice their concerns in public. “What government relies on at the end of the day is an informed and caring citizenry. And that depends on you folks doing your jobs well and having the resources you need to do that job well,” commented Premier Dalton McGuinty at a press conference the month Campbell left. “But, mostly, I’ve seen a lot of you go. That has not been a healthy development.”
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Beyond the most-frequented halls and visitor-friendly sections of Queen’s Park, the venerable building can be a maddening asymmetrical maze. A stairwell may lead to several press gallery offices or into the stern gaze of a gentleman in a security uniform politely asking visitors to turn right around and go back the way they came. Lacquered wooden door frames, reaching from floor to ceiling, and beige walls evoke a sense of foreboding. If Queen’s Park was a source, it would radiate a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you vibe.
Rath, also a correspondent for Hamilton’s CHCH-TV, speeds through the twisting halls and half-mazes as he goes about his daily business. His office, which he shares with Global’s Sean Mallen, is a mess of papers, press releases and television equipment. His desk is particularly cluttered, accented by a Barack Obama bobble-head, and a medical face mask hanging from a shaded lamp. A tacky navy blue corduroy recliner sits beside it. Mallen’s desk is similarly cluttered, but surrounded instead by calendars and Ontario party rosters with scribbled notes on MPP mug shots. The two are an odd couple: Rath is tall, clad in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans and greets people with, “Hey, how ya doing?” The shorter Mallen—who, along with contributing stories to Global’s evening news, single-handedly produces segments for his weekly show Focus Ontario—is well-dressed in a clean suit, has nary a hair out of place and has voice intonations that are simultaneously friendly and eerily made-for-TV.
As the gallery thins, the number of potential stories isn’t slowing, and journalists left behind, including veterans such as Rath and Mallen, struggle to keep up, often chasing only the biggest story or two each day. The amount of information available online or through Freedom of Information requests has grown, but reporters are frequently too busy to use it. And if they can’t do the research, their readers and viewers will never know what’s going on beneath the surface. “The news media have a very important role in a democracy,” says Rath. “If they’re not shining a light on what’s happening, then nobody can.”
The 29-year veteran cites the eHealth Ontario scandal as an example of the kind of story the press gallery needs to bring to light. The investigation of misspending and untendered contracts at the agency created to develop a provincial health record database began with Freedom of Information requests filed by the Tories. The revelations led reporters, notably Bliss and the Star’s Tanya Talaga, to start digging. Talaga’s first investigative story, headlined, “Health agency paid consultant $2,750 a day, documents show,” ran May 29, 2009 on page A6. The ensuing flurry of reporting culminated in an Auditor General’s special report that documented significant waste in the $1 billion spent by the agency since 2002. The scandal dominated headlines for months and led to the resignations of Health Minister David Caplan and eHealth CEO Sarah Kramer.
For his reporting, Bliss relied on sources he’d cultivated as well as leaked documents, but with no colleagues in his bureau, he also had to provide daily coverage of the legislature. “It’s tough because sometimes there will be three or four stories here, and I have to focus on one, but still maybe write two or three,” he says, giving credit to his bosses, who let him spend months on eHealth. “The station let me dig. I’m happy they backed me on that.”
Bliss has worked mostly full-time at Queen’s Park for seven years. But Graham White, who was a procedural advisor in the Clerk’s Office at the legislature from 1978 to 1984, worries about the high turnover in the press gallery. Now a political science professor at the University of Toronto, he points out that many reporters consider a Queen’s Park assignment a stepping stone towards their real goal: covering Parliament Hill.
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As bureaus diminished in size and eventually left Queen’s Park, so did the journalists who staffed them. Many of these reporters worked for news outlets outside Toronto. Now, for example, the Spectator, like all Torstar papers, runs copy from the Star’s bureau. Even Coyle, whose column often appears in other papers, sees a problem with this. “I don’t mind saying it: I don’t have a Hamilton perspective. I’m an east Toronto guy, working for a Toronto paper, and that’s what I write about. The interests of Hamilton are not at the top of my mind most days when I’m writing. I don’t think the papers are terrifically served.”
Not all of his colleagues see this as a recent or crippling situation. “It’s always been a bit Toronto-centric, I think, just because there are so many reporters here from Toronto,” says Sun Media bureau chief Antonella Artuso, who points out that people who cover Queen’s Park from the gallery need to live in or near Toronto anyway. Sun Media papers will often take copy from her and add local sources or details, but articles exclusively written by staff from the London Free Press, for example, are few and far between. And many of the stories coming out of the legislature have equal importance anywhere in Ontario. “Are there stories that, if I were working for the Spectator, I would write?” says Star correspondent Robert Benzie. “Perhaps, but I would argue that stories about all-day kindergarten are just as applicable in Waterloo or Windsor as they are in Toronto, regardless of who’s quoted in them.”
Jim Poling, managing editor at the Spectator and a former Queen’s Park reporter, doesn’t believe a full-time office is essential for quality coverage. In September 2009, one of his reporters, Steve Buist, compiled a four-part report on the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, featuring people whose lives fell apart because of addiction to the slots. And in 2008 and 2009, thepaper produced dozens of articles covering a C. difficile outbreak, a few of which appeared in the Star. Meanwhile, Maria Babbage’s Canadian Press piece about the sit-in against the harmonized sales tax staged by two Tory MPPs, for example, would have been no less critical or entertaining a read whether it appeared in the Spec or on Yahoo! Canada News: “For all its bluster and bathroom humour, the political circus over tax harmonization that dominated the Ontario legislature for 44 hours ended Wednesday with a whimper, rather than the populist-fuelled bang of a legislative desk.”
But other members are convinced that a full-time presence is better than occasional visits. According to Mallen, a reporter making a one-off visit to the legislature doesn’t know the long-term context of most current events. The ensuing story might be weaker than if a correspondent had been following it for a week, catching comments that had already been refuted or over-quoted days earlier. Adds Bliss: “If you’re on the phone you’ve got to be polite; you can’t interrupt. It’s a lot less of a conversation. You gather a lot from body language or voice intonation. The physical discomfort of being in a scrum can sometimes loosen the lips of a politician.”
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The late-night drinking culture and the beer bucket in the lounge are history. Even night sittings are, for the most part, a thing of the past, to better accommodate a family-friendly workforce. “I want to pick up my kids at daycare, I don’t want to sit around drinking beer with the minister of widgets,” says Benzie. “Frankly, I’m not sure you got better coverage from that sort of clubbiness.”
At the same time, the government controls its message more carefully than ever. The premier leads almost all press conferences instead of sharing the spotlight with his ministers. And since Question Period moved from the afternoon to 10:30 a.m., reporters have less time to prepare questions for scrums. Before, they had a few luxurious hours to research and gather details to better grill their targets.
While the government may benefit from less scrutiny, the smaller press gallery creates problems for the opposition parties. Gilles Bisson, NDP representative for the northern riding of Timmins-James Bay, says, “Back in 1990, you could push an idea and get someone to write about it.” With fewer members—about half of the crowd he remembers when he was a part of Bob Rae’s government—“it’s hard to get them to write about anything other than ‘the big story.’”
When smaller, local stories do make the news, a single article doesn’t have the same resonance with readers as long-running scandal investigations. “Critical media are essential to democracy, and we have less and less of it than 20 years ago when I was elected.” Bisson compensates by appearing on local radio talk shows or dropping in on the newsrooms in his riding for informal chats. He doesn’t worry about getting quoted in Toronto papers: “Nobody would read them at home.”
While Bisson may have found his own way around the problem, Graham White believes the reduced coverage of smaller and local issues undermines the democratic role of journalistic watchdogs. “If people really don’t know what’s going on other than in very broad-brushstroke kinds of ways, it’s very difficult to keep government accountable.”
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In early December 2009, Progressive Conservative MPPs Bill Murdoch, in a kilt, and Randy Hillier, his bespectacled wingman, end their two-day camping trip inside the legislature. That Monday, during Murdoch’s statement on the harmonized sales tax, he called McGuinty a liar, the equivalent of walking into Question Period with a sandwich board that reads, “Hey, jerks, suspend me.” It’s a perfect storm of looming taxation, partisan skulduggery and the media’s itch for salacious drama combining to create a Queen’s Park story with more fervour to it than usual.
A scrum gathers around the visibly fatigued MPPs, who declare victory over…something. Coyle’s column that morning spared no words for the stunt: “It’s no great victory for [Opposition leader Tim] Hudak that his PC party now wears the flushed and foolish faces of Bill Murdoch and Randy Hillier. They were faces of raving irrationality that any woman abused by her mate would recognize.” The online version of the article attracted 43 comments, more than any other Coyle column that month.
The scrum is a little larger today and the main event comes as Murdoch and Hillier call Coyle out for the column.
“How can you stand here and say the things you’re saying when you’ve been complicit in the same kind of thing?” asks Coyle.
“Because we have democracy,” replies Murdoch. “And how can you write the crap you write? Because we have democracy, that’s why.”
How’s that for a double-edged swipe from an elected representative?
Hillier delivers the second jab. “I wouldn’t even talk to you,” he says, then harps about “gutter journalism.”
They certainly don’t sound like old boys who’ll gather in the press gallery lounge to chat over beer any time soon. Though the sit-in ends uproariously, the Star’s website keeps the story of embattled golfer Tiger Woods at the top of its front page for most of the day. Readers apparently prefer gossip about a celebrity’s clandestine girlfriends to news of what goes on in the province’s central nervous system. The machinations in the Pink Palace can be just as lively, and sometimes just as scandalous—but they can’t cut through the din of pop idols. And informing citizens won’t be any easier if the press gallery continues to shrivel.