Anthony J. Wright
At the time this article was published
Anthony J. Wright was with the Research Branch of the Library of Parliament.
This paper considers relations between
legislators and the press. The term "press" covers all printed or
broadcast reports and comments.
At times it seems that the adversary
relationship between Parliament and press is carried too far, that reporters or
columnists overstep the bounds of fair comment. We discuss examples of such
friction between the two in Canada and whether it is becoming more acute.
The paper has three sections:
1. Are Press and Parliament Adversaries?
2. Examples of Friction between Legislators
and the Press.
3. Improving Relations.
Are Press and Parliament Adversaries?
There are, of course, moments of friction between
political writers, editors, broadcasters or commentators and the legislators on
whom the report. If the friction is intense or lasts for long, reporters and
politicians may appear to be adversaries doing battle rather than allies in a
Sometimes the press does more to thwart the
ambitions of Government federal or provincial than the Official Opposition.
This is especially true when an administration holds overwhelming power over
its opponents. The press then becomes a natural brake on the government machine
reminding ministers and bureaucrats that there will be a day of reckoning when
voters call politicians to account.
Some may argue that it is healthy for the
press and for Parliament or other legislatures to be at daggers drawn. Such
rivalry keeps reporters on their toes and politicians alert, busy and honest,
the argument runs.
It is doubtful, however, that the press and
Parliament are naturally enemies. They need each other too much for occasional
skirmishes to develop into open war.
To be effective Parliament has to stay
closely attuned to the wishes and concerns of the electorate. They are either
made known to MPs by voters or come to national attention by way of newspapers,
radio or television.
Thus politicians, reporters, commentators,
and editors are partners in democracy. The politician wants to get
"ink" or "time" on the air., the reporter a story or a film
Politicians and the press form an uneasy but
durable alliance based on need. If they did not have newspaper and broadcast
reports to fall back on, politicians would often come empty-handed to Question
Period. Without Question Period parliamentary reporters would have a much
They relish the mock. warfare that goes on
daily in Parliament; it provokes the disputants into rashness and displays of
temper. These in turn generate news. But the careful reporter will not take
sides in such a way as to lose the respect and confidence of politicians. They
are valuable allies and sources. It is for the press to watch and assess the
political battle without becoming embroiled in it.
The televising of Parliament has corrected
some of the excesses of print or radio reports on legislatures. Writers and
commentators often acted as a filter, blurring, or even distorting, the
impressions left by legislators on the public mind. Legislators disliked having
pundits interpret their words, motives and actions to the nation. A seasoned MP
analysed the difficulty thus:
the continuous televising of proceedings in
the House would take this House out of the hands of the press gallery. We
desperately need that to be done. Even if we say that the newspapers, radio and
television of this country are doing as good a job as they are capable of
nevertheless the information we get ... is second-hand, selected and very
often, unfortunately, hysterical and antagonistic. We have to take that power
out of the hands, of the press gallery. Certainly the gallery will still have
its role to play. It can go on interpreting, and perhaps its role will even be
enlarged. But there has to be something besides interpretation: there has to be
a direct view of what is happening in this place ... The proceedings of this
House have to be taken out of the hands of the media and broadcast directly to
the people of this country."1
Television has rekindled interest in
Parliament and may lessen public cynicism about democracy. Taxpayers now see
and hear debates themselves rather than through the eyes, ears and judgement of
reporters. It is healthy for the people "out there" to know what is
Television's interaction with politics is
part of a process that has moulded man's affairs for ages. Before mankind
learned to write, speech linked individuals and groups fitfully in a fragmented
The goose quill, writing and print hastened
civilisation – with its towns architecture, roads, armies, bureaucracies and
taxes. Printing let loose a revolution of its own. Mass education and
representative government. developed. Print technology, according to some,
created the public. Electric technology helped create the mass and altered
The age of oratory when gifted speakers or
frenetic demagogues declaimed, exhorted, reviled or charmed at huge mass
meetings gave way to persuasion by radio. Politicians learned to live with the
microphone. They are now coming to terms with the camera which sees through
overblown rhetoric, synthetic anger, excess vehemence or empty bluster.
Whatever the changes, politicians and the
press continue to be wary allies rather than adversaries. The press, however,
bristles into attack when it sees a party abusing power and side-stepping
parliamentary processes. In such a crisis broadcasters and journalists run the
risk of becoming crusaders whose sense of mission warps their judgement.
Serious friction between Parliament and the press may then develop.
Examples of Friction between Legislators
and the Press
Slipshod reporting, especially if it implies
that legislators are lazy and careless, angers Parliament. Thus before Christmas
1971 senators indignantly denied that the Upper House had considered a
"hefty 739-page tax bill" for "only a few hours". In fact
the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce had spent three months and
"26 or 28 meetings" on the massive tax reform measure, some of its
meetings lasting for hours.
"We often sat more than once a day said
Senator John J. Connolly. 'We heard 30 briefs and examined 129 witnesses and
the examination of witnesses was not a formality in any sense of the
Senator Connolly complained that a
television reporter contended the Senate had examined the bill for "only
four days ... as against 50 days spent by the other place". A newspaper
correspondent had later trimmed this down to three days. The senator expected
"that the raising of these matters ... will probably have no effect on the
press at all; however, it was in Parliament's interest to speak out.
"The political commentators of this
country, and, at times, politicians themselves show a very immature attitude
toward the established institutions of our bicameral system. Their comment is
The Acting Leader of the Opposition in the
Senate, the Hon. Allister Grosart, remarked sadly:
"I am an old newspaperman, and I do not
remember a single occasion in the reporting of any Story at any time over a
period of many years when all the facts on either side, on a pro and con basis,
were presented. That is why I am concerned, and have been concerned for some
time, about the impression that is widely held concerning the work of this
chamber. I am more concerned now than I was a week ago.4
Politicians and the press have generally had
difficulty agreeing about the timing and size of pension or salary increases
for legislators. Ralph Stewart, when MP for Cochrane, accused the Globe and
Mail of wishing "to do everything possible to discredit Members of
Parliament. In a letter to the editor on May 4, 1970 he complained:
"Those who represent you in the Press
Gallery know how much work we do and the difficult facilities with which we try
to accomplish our role. You are not doing your job of informing the public and
on the contrary, you are deliberately trying to mislead your readers by
slanting the facts completely.
Lately the target has been the improved
pension for MP's. You never told how deplorable it has been in the past such as
should make Canadians hang their heads in shame. You never mention that people
who have spent their lives in service to the public are turned out to pasture
with a pittance. My predecessor resigned at the age of 72 after a life of
service and his pension is less than if he were on welfare. You know about
this, but you fail to mention it. You know also that an Opposition Member in
the House today replaced his father after 40 years of service to the public and
yet the father's wife has to live on her husband's pension of $91.00 per month.
You know also that the situation in the past has been so deplorable that the
last three Members who died had to have the hat passed around for their
families and one was a Minister!"5
The member argued that a good, fulltime MP
makes many sacrifices and risks his future yet "you don't talk about
that". He felt that the Globe only wished "to bring contempt on your
Evidently the paper did not mend its ways.
Writing on April 29, 1971 Mr. Stewart said that the Globe of that day makes
"such a concerted effort to discredit MPs ... that it cannot be allowed to
pass without comment". Salaries were once again the sore point. asked:
"Why this great crusade against us? Are
we any less worthy members of society than members of other professions? Do we
not contribute as much to the community as doctors, lawyers, school teachers,
tradesmen and others who also are paid with he funds of the public? Are you
afraid that our salary is coming too close to your own? It would be interesting
to know what the increase of the editor of a newspaper has been from 1963 to
1971. Have you ever pointed out what percentage increase teachers have had in
the past 8 years? By the way, are you taxed on the money you receive on your
The MP rejoiced that "your biased
reporting on this matter does not impress" my constituents but "it is
unfortunate that many other Canadians may be influenced by your one-sided
On December 19, 1974 the Globe berated the
Government and Official Opposition for favouring a measure to raise MPs' pay
and allowances by 50%. The bill was withdrawn for amendment and all-party
consideration. The newspaper's editorial, headed "What price
"It is a strange spectacle. The people
elected by Canadians to provide leadership, by persuasion and example, toward
the self-discipline that offers the only national defence against economic
disaster, throw themselves into an orgy of incontinent greed from which they
are forced back only by the outraged indignation of those they were to
Since politicians lead a fishbowl existence
and are on the public payroll, editors will continue to goad parliamentarians
on the subject of salaries. To unreasonable persons forming hasty judgements
the pay and allowances may appear ample until one takes account of a
Aislin of the Montreal Gazette reflected a
popular view of politics in a cartoon portraying a "typical average
candidate" during the 1979 federal election. His pitch to voters had this
"If we're lucky, you won't even hear my
name at all until the next election! And why so humble you ask? Simple! Tell me
an easier way to make $41,300 a year?"8
Generally cartoonists have been free to
harass politicians without fear of reprisal. On January 17, 1979 the Victoria
Times' Bob Bierman learned that those days might be over. The B.C. Supreme
Court ruled that Bierman must pay Municipal Affairs Minister William Vander
Zalm $3,500 and costs. Mr. Justice Craig Monroe found that a cartoon the Times
ran in June, 1978 libelled the minister. It had depicted Vander Zalm, then
Human Resources Minister, gleefully pulling the wings off flies. The defendant
said he would appeal.
The Globe and Mail reported:
"During the three-day trial Mr. Vander
Zalm ... testified that (the cartoon) implied he is cruel and sadistic, enjoys
inflicting suffering and torture on helpless people and was not fit to hold the
welfare post. He said the cartoon may have been responsible for his transfer to
his current portfolio in December.
His lawyer, Rodney Taylor, argued that the
usual defence used by newspapers, that of fair comment on a matter of public
concern, was not sufficient in this case because the cartoon was defamatory and
contained imputations of improper, dishonorable or disgraceful conduct.
Mr. Bierman testified that he was attacking
the minister, not the man. He said he was inspired to draw the cartoon after
Mr. Vander Zalm advised Indian youngsters hanging around downtown Vancouver to
return to their reserves because they had better opportunities there. He felt
the minister was 'clipping their wings' and was unmindful of the suffering he
Mr. Vander Zalm testified that the statement
had been taken out of context , and he had been expressing concern about all
youngsters hanging around downtown.
Mr. Taylor told the court that the cartoon
exceeded the extremely wide latitude allowed to people attacking holders of
public office. He said The Times had refused to publish an apology."9
The decision upset political cartoonists;
they feared it would hamper their work. Bierman said that if the judgement
stands "we will have lost the fight, not just me and the Victoria Times
but everybody editors, newspapers, cartoonists, everybody concerned."
Terry Mosher (the Gazette's Aislin)
commented that "satirical cartooning of political figures has been part of
our society for hundreds of years ... this is the first case of this kind I
know of that has gone against the cartoonist ... politicians have always been
In the Gazette's view the spirit of
censorship was abroad in the land. if we believe in a free and open society, we
must catch it and bottle it up again before it does any more damage." The
newspaper said, in part:
"Surely one of the most important
functions of political criticism is to raise the alarm when governments, even
if acting in good faith, take actions that may have undesirable, perhaps even
Any citizen including a cartoonist should be
able to make such warnings. And if the warning on occasion turns out to be
unjustified, better that than a system where there are no warnings at all.
Robert Stanfield once said that a politician
who attacks a cartoonist only succeeds in making himself look even sillier than
the original cartoon did. He was right.
And if that were all there were to it, the
Bierman-Vander Zalm case might not matter. But unless this verdict is
overturned on appeal, it sets a precendent that will put a daily constraint on
cartoonists' freedom to lampoon our society. We all lose from that.
All societies need court jesters, people to
remind them of their own frailties; cartoonists, it has rightly been said, are
our court jesters. They should not be muzzled."11
It is customary for newspapers and
broadcasters to rally to the defence of "freedom of the press" when
judgements hobble comment. But the lesson of the Bierman-Vander Zalm case is
one of practical politics. Most seasoned legislators would agree with Mr.
Stanfield there is no political advantage in giving a cartoon wider currency by
It's not unusual for legislators to be irked
by the scoldings of commentators
Generally the issue is rowdy behaviour, flagrant
abuse of the rules or flouting of the Speaker's authority.
In a column headed Surely to God it's
time..." Norman Webster had this to say about the Ontario Legislature in
"Something has to be done about the
Speaker. His loss of control in the House becomes more noticeable every sitting
Two months ago the Camp Commission on the
Legislature described question period at Queen's Park as 'a tumultuous
argumentative, noisy free-for-all, marked by catcalling, desk-thumping and
Those were the good old days. Nowadays
question period has become little but a noisy squabble, devoid of practical
purpose, in which members on all sides disregard even the most elementary rules
of order and exhibit, to an astonishing degree, contempt for the presiding
It is the latter that is so bothersome ...
insults are regularly directed both at the chair and the person of the Speaker
himself (Russell Rowe, PC, Northumberland) . It is a shameful display."12
Such strictures may have borne fruit. It
appears that the Ontario Legislature is today less unruly. This is partly due
to the firmness of Speaker Jack Stokes, criticized by some for being too rigid.
Inevitably the press gallery are among the critics.
The Speaker ran into opposition from a
reporter who declined to remove his coffee cup from the chamber. The incident
did not perhaps merit all the attention it received in print and over the air.
It did, however, show that someone was willing to do battle for decorum.
It is natural that as the Speaker took
firmer control there would be press complaints that he was too strict. He
ordered a stairway behind the Speaker's chair closed to reporters who had
rushed down it after question period to catch ministers leaving the chamber.
The gallery thought this was interfering with news coverage of the
'Legislature. Mr. Speaker stuck to his guns. The Globe reported:
"Mr. Stokes said the Legislature in the
past has been referred to by the press as a circus. If the Speaker isn't going
to clean it up he asked 'who is going to?'
'It may be fair to say that I did come down
with a heavy hand. Everyone said that's what was needed. Then when I did that,
everybody was surprised."13
Generally reporters and politicians at
Queen's Park make it clear that they bear each other no ill will. Even when
Government Whip Mickey Hennessy threatened to punch a columnist in the mouth
for declaring "politicians are jerks", no one became distressed. 14
Although at times the press watch over
politicians appears pompous and self righteous, most citizens would probably
agree that it Is healthy. Acidic editorials15 about committees of
the Ontario Legislature journeying in Florida in midwinter to study auto
insurance or spending three weeks abroad in several attractive capitals to
examine the role of the Ontario Ombudsman serve to dissuade others from
extravagance at the public's expense.
Since few taxpayers read Hansard it is
fortunate that the press is quick to draw attention to undignified exchanges
between legislators. Seeing their remarks in print or hearing them over the air
can be a salutary experience for politicians.
3. Improving Relations
If there is fighting between legislatures
and the press both sides are aware that it is generally mock warfare, no more
wounding than the political skirmishing that goes on in Parliament. The tension
that exists there between observers and actors is healthy, ensuring that the
public is well served and abuses corrected. There is no reason to believe that
friction between Press and Parliament has become more acute recently. Some have
blamed reporters, often fairly, for Parliament's decline in public esteem.
Witness the remarks of the Hon. Jack Horner when P.C. member for Crowfoot:
"Who is it who projects across the country
the image of members not working? It is the vultures who sit up there. They are
the ones who project this image across the country. No wonder we have a man
coming to Ottawa and attempting to throw a bomb into this chamber ....
The vultures sit up there waiting to see
whether or not a member is going to be in a dangerous position. Then they flock
in and feast upon the bones. If we are all healthy and working there is nothing
sensational about which they can write so they circle high and stay away. They
know nothing and care nothing about a parliament which is working. They want
sensationalism to sell their newspapers and capture the imagination of the
television and radio audiences. They have agitated the public and discredited
the House of Commons all across Canada. They alone are responsible for the
disrespect in which this house is held. It is high time that they educated
Unfortunately news concerns itself with
crisis, with the offbeat, sensational, scandalous or shocking., Hence reporters
pick through the debates looking for headlines or pegs on which to hang a
The astute politician who wishes to attract
news attention has to humour and befriend the press for most of the year with
little hope of reaping an advantage. But, now and again, having noted the
angles and attitudes publishers and broadcasters favour, he is able to make a
statement he knows will arouse interest, e.g. some editors are unable to resist
the bait when offered an item flavoured with nationalism "or "anti-Americanism".
Such strategems pay dividends for those
politicians who have to work hard to keep their names in the public prints or
on the air. Others, because of their office or their personality, appear to
have trouble keeping out of the news.
Politicians as a rule overestimate the
importance of the press. Some fret if a story about them is buried on page 43
under a one column head instead of being played on page 1. They should reflect
that within a day or so the whole thing would be forgotten anyway.
More skilful parliamentarians never or
rarely upbraid the press. They are careful to avoid pleas that they were
misquoted, unless of course a grave matter is at issue and a correction has to
be made. Their main concern is to remind voters that the candidate they sent to
the legislature is busy in their interests
This common sense view is true 'D f
Parliament as a whole. The press respects legislators who do good work but
derides a chamber which lowers itself by posturing, bickering and time-wasting
inefficiency. Improving the product is Parliament's best way to improve
relations with the press.
1. Canada, House of Commons, Debates,
January 25m 1977, p. 2363.
2. Senate of Canada, Debates,
December 22, 1971, p. 1732.
3. Ibid., p. 1733.
4. Ibid., p. 1734.
5. Letters to the editor of the Globe and
Mail written on May 4, 1970 and April 29, 1971.
7. Globe and Mail, December 19, 1974.
8. Gazette, May 17, 1979.
9. Globe and Mail, January 18, 1979,
10. Ibid., p. 9.
11. Gazette, January 18, 1979, p. 9.
12. Globe and Mail, September 24,
14. Ibid., October 7, 1978.
15. Ottawa Journal, October 25, 1978,
16. Globe and Mail, January 30 and
February 7, 1978.