At the time this article was
written Robert Vaive was Clerk Assistant of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly.
This is a revised version of a presentation to the 12th Canadian
Presiding Officers Conference in Yellowknife in January 1966.
The press gallery is an
essential part of the democratic system. It is instrumental in helping
Parliament perform its primary function in making government accountable for
its actions. The public observes events through the eyes of the collective
reporters who make up the press gallery. When Parliament is not adequately
covered, the democratic process suffers. This article looks at a few of the
issues surrounding the operation of the press gallery.
Half a century before Confederation
the legislatures of British North America provided space for journalists
covering the proceedings. In fact press reports were the best official reports
available until Hansard was introduced in the mid-1870s. This was an era of
partisan press with journalists having close ties with politicians they
supported. Press gallery members were not only observers of politics, they were
very active participants. This changed with the establishment of the Canadian
Press in 1917. It served a number of newspapers with different political
outlooks and journalism gradually became distinct from the partisan political
Another milestone was the
introduction of television in the House which introduced a new dimension in the
relationship between the press gallery and Parliament. Electronic Hansard
enables the public to bypass the filtering and sometimes excesses of the print
reporters. TV in the House, therefore, created a greater public awareness and
interest in Parliament, but also enhanced the importance of the press gallery
as interpretors rather than reporters of what was taking place.
The press gallery is technically
under the authority of the Speaker of the House of Commons. By tradition it is
forbidden to take notes from any of the parliamentary galleries (lest the
proceedings be reported to the Monarch). In theory the press gallery is not
exempt from this prohibition but since it is situated directly above and behind
the Speaker's chair, it was "out of sight, out of mind" as far as
note-taking was concerned.
In fact, the Speaker delegates to
the gallery self-governing functions including the important responsibility of
accreditation of its members. The gallery's constitution outlines how it is to
be governed, its membership and accreditation criteria, and its
self-disciplinary measures for unethical or unbecoming conduct. Memberships
vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In British Columbia the membership is
about 50, in Ottawa it is closer to 100.
Until the late 1950s, in Ottawa at
least, broadcast journalists were not allowed in the press gallery. It was
thought that print journalists monopolized radio and TV and they moonlighted,
as well, to earn extra income as panellists on radio and TV, so they kept an
exclusive control in that respect. But in 1959, broadcast journalists were
allowed in the press gallery.
Parliament has always been loathe
to discipline the press gallery for its actions. There was a case in British
Columbia in 1952 when the House defeated a motion to call an editor before the
bar of the House because he had written a questionable editorial.
Members of the press gallery
benefit from numerous advantages including free office space in the Parliament
buildings in most jurisdictions. In many jurisdictions, the gallery enjoys free
stationary, free photocopying, free fax machines, free government publications,
free parking, access to the parliamentary dinning room. They enjoy other special
facilities that enable them to do their job such as facilties for holding news
conferences, lock-ups where they may examine the budget or other important
documents prior to their tabling in Parliament.
The press gallery has evolved over
the years from faithful verbatim note-taking to reporting on key issues.
Members have also come to focus more and more on question period. They seem to
feel it is the blood and guts of their job. Virtually all of their stories grow
out of question period. It provides essential elements of the news because of
its immediacy, brevity, and conflict between identifiable individuals as well
as its potential significance for future reference. Critics say that such
emphasis on question period coverage provides little in-depth argument and very
little long-term perspective.
The press gallery also tends to
focus on government activity although there is clear competition between
government and opposition parties to get press gallery attention. As government
continues to grow in size and complexity, the press gallery will spend more
time covering various ministries. Press gallery concentration on government has
some consequences for the House, i.e. a perceived disproportion of power
between executive and legislative. It is also perceived reinforcement of a
notion of executive dominance over the parliamentary system. This may not be
true, but the perception is there nevertheless. If the press gallery has turned
away from the House it may be partly the fault of the House itself for not implementing
reforms to enhance the profile of Members and of the House.
Press scrums have become common
place in Canadian legislatures. They usually occur right after the question
period. In British Columbia scrums tend to take place in the Speaker's corridor
immediately behind the chamber, thereby obstructing passageways. They can be
disruptive to the general workings of the Assembly.
Politicians and the press gallery
Members of Parliament and Members
ofthe Press Gallery form an uneasy but durable alliance. Politicians want ink
or air time and reporters want a story, a quote or a film clip. The press
gallery often has been instrumental in making or breaking political careers.
Former Prime Minister Joe Clark, for example, initially received a very
negative image due to the press. Another former Prime Minister, John Turner
generally benefitted from a very positive image from the press.
There may be times when conflict
characterizes the relationship between the press gallery and Parliament.
"When the press adopts the US idea that they are adversaries of government
— that is, opponents or even enemies - they are aligning themselves with one
side of the debate; the opposition. Instead of being reporters, they become
critics seeking to discredit the government. That is not to say reporters have
no investigative function. It is their business to find out as much as they can
about the inner workings of government and indeed of the opposition parties.
But they need to do so with responsibility and restraint, and not with a
missionary zeal to throw the rascals out."1
Mackenzie King once described the
press gallery as an adjunct of Parliament itself.
Some members of the Press Gallery
develop too close relationships with politicians. Standards vary in different
jurisdictions but a misunderstanding of what is acceptable can be disastrous
for both journalist and politician. For example in 1991 a member of the British
Columbia press gallery was advising a Minister on speeches and on other
media-related matters. Conversations were leaked and the case was widely
publicized with the help of opposition Members. The discomfort of the press
gallery in dealing with the matter was quite obvious. The reporter withdrew
from the press gallery and the Minister resigned.
Press comments indicated that the
reporter had crossed the line, but there was no articulation of what that line
should actually be. In the long run, it is unlikely that there will ever be a
code of conduct for members of the press gallery to guide their relationships
Two recent cases in Westminster
demonstrate the same point. One involves the editor of the Guardian newspaper
arranging to have a Minister's hotel bill sent to his office, though he sent
the request on House of Commons letterhead and pretended to be asking on behalf
of the Minister. With respect to this case, there has been criticism both in
the press and during debate on the motion to refer the matter to the Privileges
Another case occurred in July 1994.
The Sunday Times lured two MPs into accepting an offer of $2,000 to ask a
parliamentary question; a clear case of cash for questions. The matter was
referred to the British House of Commons Committee on Privileges in October
1994.2 Such incidents raise the question of what disciplinary powers
parliamentarians should wield vis-à-vis the press. Is the power to discipline
the press completely passe? Is the press gallery too powerful?
Governments also have not been
above abusing and exploiting the members of the press gallery. They can and often
do leak proposed policy changes to obtain public reaction. It is manipulation
since the press has no choice but to play in government's hand in polling
public reaction. Another government trick is to bypass critical press gallery
reporters and communicate directly with local reporters. There is a recent
example in 1986. The federal Conservative government implemented a
dial-a-Minister scheme, whereby regional media outlets could call a Minister
directly rather than rely on national reports in Ottawa. This has the effect,
of course, of bringing politics closer to the people, but also may detract from
the importance of Parliament.
1. Anthony Westhall, The Pundits,
2. On April 20, 1995, the House accepted
the findings of its Committee of Privileges, reprimanded the two Members and
suspended them for ten and twenty days respectively.