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BC Politics

Journalists and the Legislature Scandal: A Story of Secrecy, Insiders and Power

How the ‘church of the savvy’ and the Speaker’s power shaped media coverage.

By Sean Holman 6 Feb 2019 |

Sean Holman covered B.C. politics for 10 years and is now a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He produced Whipped, a documentary on the corrosive effects of party discipline, and is now writing a book on the history of freedom of information in Canada.

When top legislature official Craig James was escorted out of the people’s house under police guard, some of the most prominent and powerful members of British Columbia’s political news media told their audiences he was being treated unfairly and that they were surprised by the incident.

Given an earlier controversy surrounding James, they shouldn’t have been. And now that we know more details about the allegations against James — which include using public money for questionable travel expenses and purchases — it’s their own coverage that looks unfair.

James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz, who was also suspended, have denied any wrongdoing and still have to make a formal response to the detailed allegations. Any responsible coverage should take that into account.

But why did the political news media seem to go out of their way to give the benefit of the doubt to James, the clerk of the house, and cast the shadow of it over Speaker Darryl Plecas, whose allegations led to James and Lenz being put under criminal investigation and suspended?

And why didn’t the news media themselves uncover the issues that led to those allegations?

As an investigative journalist who covered B.C. politics for 10 years, I believe that the power and secrecy of the legislature’s officials is one part of the answer to those questions. So is Plecas’s own handling of the case. But the other part is the predominant reporting biases of the press gallery, which is neither left nor right wing, but something else entirely.

Those biases showed up almost as soon as James left the legislative precincts. In columns published in the province’s major newspapers, he was described as having been roughly handled and subjected to a humiliating “perp walk” in front of television cameras. Reporters were “stunned” and “shocked” by the scene.

But as I watched the footage from my downtown apartment in Calgary, I wasn’t stunned or shocked. That’s because one of my last efforts to bring more accountability and transparency to provincial politics was about an earlier controversy involving James, even though it didn’t have my name on it.

Seven years ago, just a few weeks after I moved to Alberta, Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, issued a news release revealing James had racked up a $43,295 bill for travel expenses between Aug. 25 and Dec. 12, 2010, when he was the province’s acting chief electoral officer. Those expenses included the cost of James and his wife taking a business trip to Africa and later for him to stay at an exclusive private club in Washington, D.C., as well as an Arizona resort.

At the time, I had quit covering the legislature to make a documentary on party discipline and eventually teach journalism as a professor at Mount Royal University in Alberta. So I suggested Travis file the freedom of information request, which resulted in that revelation. I also edited his release before it was published.

There were some reports based on that release in the province’s news media, including James’s response that the travel was legitimate and consistent with Elections BC’s expense policy.

And the travel was even referenced in the coverage of James’s suspension and expulsion from the legislature.

That should have suggested to journalists there could be something to the allegations against James, especially when it became clear they involved spending at the legislature. In my experience investigating provincial politics, I’ve found most officials accused of wrongdoing rarely believe they are doing anything wrong. Instead, they believe they are doing something normal. Otherwise, they couldn’t live with themselves. And James’s spending at Elections BC suggested to me that he may have believed such lavish expenses were normal. Indeed, at the time that spending was revealed, Travis said it demonstrated a “culture of entitlement.”

However, the political news media didn’t seem to appreciate the implications of this earlier controversy. And I believe that has to do with their biases.

There may be some right-wingers in the press gallery. There may even be some left-wingers.

But more than anything else, many of its longest-serving members are establishmentarians who worship at what journalism professor Jay Rosen has called the “church of the savvy.” That means, in the main, they favour members of the province’s political establishment (regardless of their ideology) over those who would challenge its institutions, practices and traditions.

This tendency is reinforced by their sources, most of whom come from that establishment. After all, when you are looking for official comment on the story of the day at the legislature, that’s who you are going to be talking with most often. But it’s also reinforced by the way those journalists cover politics: as a game where someone is up and someone is down. This means there is a tendency to cheer for those who are good players (i.e. savvy) while booing those who aren’t — something I could be guilty of too, when I was at the gallery.

I’ve seen the blind spots this creates in their coverage before. Nine years ago, when 13 members of BC NDP leader Carole James’s caucus revolted, I wasn’t surprised. That’s because I had sources among the elected and unelected dissidents, who were concerned about how she was running the party and whether she could win the next election after two losses. I had also covered most of the NDP’s conventions from beginning to end rather than just showing up for the highlights, which most of the news media reports on. So I had seen that dissent among the party’s rank-and-file. As a result, I suspected James would be forced to resign. By comparison, many members of the gallery seemed to underestimate or misunderstand that quite understandable rebellion. Some predicted James would be able to put down the revolt, which only ended when she stepped down.

I think that’s because their coverage favoured the establishment, their sources in it and those they saw as savvy — which was not the dissidents, whom were variously described as a “wrecking crew,” “morons” and a “disaffected bunch of malcontents.”

That blind spot appeared again when Plecas made his allegations against James. James is a member of the establishment, having been at the legislature since 1987. He’s also likeable and liked by the gallery — a contrast to the dourness of his predecessor George MacMinn. That’s why I gave my story about the clerk to Travis rather than one of my former colleagues.

By comparison, Plecas isn’t a member of the establishment, and he hasn’t been savvy either. He avoided reporters following the suspensions. He didn’t answer their questions. He hired and tried to gain a promotion for a friend. And in his words and deeds, he has been hyperbolic and erratic. In other words, he also gave reporters more than enough excuse to scrutinize him. And he gave them something to cover in the absence of details about the allegations against James.

I likely would have covered Plecas’s missteps too, since we’re often told there are two sides to every story — an adage reinforced by the right-left dichotomy of provincial politics and the discipline of journalism.

Even if these reporting biases hadn’t influenced some of the coverage of this story, and even if journalists had tried to investigate the actions of James before Plecas acted, they would have been stymied earlier by the power and secrecy of the legislature’s officials.

I experienced that secrecy and those powers when I started reporting on then Speaker Bill Barisoff back in December 2005. That’s when I broke the news that he had appointed Louise Burgart, a BC Liberal Party campaigner, as one of three members of the province’s supposedly non-partisan electoral boundaries commission. That appointment was significant because the commission’s recommendations are meant to prevent gerrymandering when the government redraws the province’s constituencies.

Burgart, who also co-owned a ski resort in the Barisoff’s riding, eventually resigned. Following that resignation, I resolved to pay more attention to him and his office, which includes the clerk of the house and manages the legislature’s operations. Five years later, that attention paid off when I learned Barisoff was sharing a Victoria condominium with then premier Gordon Campbell, an odd living arrangement for someone who is supposed to be the legislature’s independent referee.

I thought it was even odder when, in the same year, the Speaker named a four-member panel to review the legislature’s eight statutory officers.

Their review was being considered against a backdrop of tension between the government and one of those officers, hard-charging children and youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. Among the questions the panel was supposed to answer was whether Turpel-Lafond and her colleagues — who included the province’s chief electoral officer, auditor general and ombudsperson — were sticking to their “statutory mandate” and if mechanisms existed to ensure their activities were “conducted fairly and transparently.”

At least one of the panel members, former top Alberta bureaucrat Ron Hicks, seemed to be someone who would have strong opinions on both questions. Soon after being appointed the panel’s chair, Hicks published a paper titled “An Auditor General Who Is Both Independent and Accountable: Working Effectively Within Alberta’s Westminster Model Democracy.” In that paper, he took aim at his home province’s former auditor general Fred Dunn for issuing audits that “impinged” on the government’s “policy making role” by criticizing its policies and programs.

I wanted to know how Barisoff had picked Hicks. So, camera and microphone in hand, I buttonholed him as he was leaving the legislative chambers. And that’s when I hit the limit of accountability and transparency at the assembly.

Rough cut: Sean Holman interviews former Speaker Bill Barisoff. Footage by Sean Holman.

Soon after, I was hauled into Barisoff’s office, along with then press gallery president Tom Fletcher. Barisoff seemed to take umbrage at me questioning him in the Speaker’s corridor, the hallway next to the main MLA entrance to the legislative chambers. My impression was my access to the corridor, and perhaps even the legislative precincts themselves, might be at risk of being revoked, something the Speaker has the power to do.

I couldn’t risk that, despite having the support of press gallery members such as Vaughn Palmer, Lindsay Kines and Rob Shaw. It would have threatened my ability to question MLAs and other officials who weren’t returning my phone calls and emails, one of the few perks of having a legislature press pass. And that would have threatened my livelihood. I dropped the story.

But I remembered that experience when I got a tip to file a freedom of information request for James’s expenses at Elections BC. At the time, I was in middle of filming Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline. That meant I needed Barisoff’s permission to use footage from Hansard. I believed reporting on James’s spending might put that permission at risk. However, I didn’t feel I could take a pass on the story either. So I passed it on to Travis.

If Plecas had never made his allegations against James, this anecdote might be little more than a historical footnote. But, since those allegations have been made, it also demonstrates why it’s so difficult to report on legislature officials.

Because the Speaker’s office (and the legislative assembly as a whole) isn’t covered by the province’s freedom of information law, we only know what its members chose to tell us about what’s going on in it. That’s why I needed to ask Barisoff about Hicks instead of just filing a freedom of information request for the records related to that decision. And it’s partially why the Speaker was one of the few individuals in a position to make allegations against James. Moreover, even if someone at the legislature had leaked information about James to the gallery, the Speaker has the power to frustrate reporters seeking transparency and accountability by barring them from the precincts.

So what does this all mean? Does it mean, as some have suggested, that members of the press gallery owe Plecas an apology? I don’t think so. Plecas gave them more than enough cause to cover him critically. It’s also possible Plecas will be proven wrong and that James and Lenz will be proven innocent. But regardless of how this controversy ends, I think the gallery owes it to themselves and their audiences to question how they have gone about their jobs in the past and how they will go about them in the future.

That job will be made easier if the government follows through on its commitment to bring the legislative assembly under the province’s freedom of information law. Such a change will allow the public, including the news media, to request records from the assembly that its officials would not otherwise willingly publicize. The possibility of publication could also pre-emptively reduce the chances of wrongdoing.

As the Globe and Mail’s editorial board wrote in 1965, when NDP MP Barry Mather became the first MP to introduce a freedom of information bill, “there is nothing like the spotlight of publicity to improve a man’s democratic manners.”

However, I also think the Speaker needs to be stripped of the office’s power to affect who can and can’t cover the legislature, as well as the usage of Hansard footage. I don’t believe it should be given to the press gallery either. Its handling of DeSmog Canada’s (now the Narwhal) request to attend a news conference is proof it can’t be trusted with that power. Instead, it should be given to one of the legislature’s independent officers, perhaps the information and privacy commissioner or the ombudsperson, both of whom have an interest in ensuring accountability and transparency.

If all of this doesn’t happen, I fear that the people’s house will remain the private domain of some of the most privileged officials in provincial politics. And that serves no one’s interest, except theirs.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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