High hopes and tube tops

March 23 1992

High hopes and tube tops

March 23 1992

Giving thanks for small mercies



This week, a brief lecture in modern history, titled, “The Rise of Extreme Moralism and Judgmentalism in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, circa 1950-1992: Causes and Effects.” But first, a little background.

The Hill Times, which calls itself Ottawa’s parliamentary newspaper, is designed to appeal to people—members of Parliament, public servants, members of the press gallery, among others—who work on or near the capital’s only known geographical eminence. The paper appeals to them by writing about them. In its issue of Feb. 27, The Hill Times ran two pieces side by side, under the heading, “Cutting press gallery subsidies.” One was by Claire Hoy, freelance columnist and author, who was identified as “against,” the other by Kirk LaPointe of The Canadian Press, who was “for.” Their debate, and a debate among members of the press gallery as a whole of which it was an outgrowth, was about the cost to the government—now estimated at $357,700—of providing for the press gallery, and whether the newspaper, TV, radio and magazine people who use the place ought not to pay more for it.

There has never been a time within living memory (mine) when this debate has been worse than temporarily suspended. There is nothing new about it, except the decidedly bureaucratic name by which the subject evidently is known nowadays—“press gallery self-reliance.” It used to be called simply freeloading. Now it is made to sound like something out of a mail-order course in personal uplift. But I digress. This is a serious subject, not to be taken lightly. Press gallery self-reliance has implications for the outside world, which is to say, for people who do not work on or near Parliament Hill and accordingly may have no inkling of what they are in for if the press gallery ever does achieve a state of complete financial purity.

So much for background. At this point, we commence the substance of our lecture.

What has to be understood first in consider-

ing extreme moralism and judgmentalism among members of the parliamentary press gallery is that it dates from the ending of the practice of news people covering national election campaigns on free railway passes. Even as late as the general election of 1953, most of the campaigning was still done by train. It was the custom of the Liberal and Conservative parties, independently of course, to book a couple of private cars on the railway of its choice for the leader and staff. A third car looked after the press. Press gallery members had only to apply in writing to the railways to get train passes, which covered their basic transportation. They paid for their accommodation aboard the train—chair, upper or lower berth, compartment, drawing room, according to the circumstances and benevolence of their employers.

Things were a little different with the CCF, progenitor of the NDP. The CCF was scarcely covered at all except by the newspaper of the city or town the leader happened to be in, by The Canadian Press staffers where there were CP bureaus, or, for the rest, by stringers. As the whole of his attendant press corps, I covered a brief swing through Northern Ontario with then-CCF Leader M. J. Coldwell in the 1949 general election campaign sitting up

in a day coach; we each carried our own bags.

Parliamentary reporters mainly looked tolerantly on the perks of MPs. For a start, the perks were not many. MPs were two to an office, each with a phone, a desk, a filing cabinet, a shared watercooler and the shared services of a secretary. But there was another factor. Notwithstanding that the fear of seeming hypocritical has never been an absolute barrier to media criticism, the fact that reporters themselves enjoyed free working space, free desks, free typewriters, free notebooks and free pencils with which to write notes that would be translated into stories typed on free paper; free phones, free copies of Hansard, free parking, free library services, free messenger service and use of the subsidized parliamentary restaurants and cafeterias, barbershops, shoeshine parlors and health rooms, not to mention the free use of barmen to deliver drinks to desk-side—all those things and more had a certain muting effect on the critical faculty, at least apropos freeloading.

At that time, even the largest news-gathering organizations—The Canadian Press excepted—maintained no premises away from Parliament Hill where they would be exposed to the harsh winds of commercialism, which is the long way around of saying that they paid not a cent of rent, not just for a desk in the gallery but anywhere else. It was only when the Speaker of the House of Commons and the fire marshal together made sounds of having the whole lot thrown into the street that a reluctant press consented to the government’s converting an old building into a press centre in which the occupants would pay rent.

But it was the ending of the railway passes available on application that started the avalanche. There cannot be a media organization today that does not pay rent for off-the-Hill offices, in the press centre or elsewhere. Most pay a full per-seat share of the cost of places on campaign aircraft, prime ministerial flights abroad and similar travels. Free junkets provided by foreign government or commercial enterprises generally are refused. So are gifts. All of this has made the media terribly aware of the possible ethical and/or moral weaknesses of others.

Less than two weeks after The Hill Times wrote about the debate on press gallery selfreliance, CP carried a critical piece complaining that it is possible through Access to Information to obtain details on what makes of cars, in what years, at what prices, were in the government car pool, but not to find who used which car, of which year, at what price—obviously useful for bringing down moral condemnation on the Sybarites who drove the expensive ones.

It is perhaps just as well there are still perks to be had in the parliamentary press gallery. If everybody had to pay full price, as is not the case, for phones, desk space, faxes, photocopiers, Hansards and other government publications, library research, use of a parliamentary gymnasium and restaurant, and, by no means least, 89 reserved, free parking spaces around the Parliament Buildings, the puritan judgmentalism of the press gallery would be absolutely unbearable.

If everybody had to pay full price, which is not the case, the puritan judgmentalism of the press gallery would be absolutely unbearable