Re­view by An­thony Wil­son-Smith

Power, Prime Min­is­ters and the Press Robert Lewis

Policy - - In This Issue - Re­view by An­thony Wil­son-Smith

Power, Prime Min­is­ters and the Press. Toronto, Dundurn Press, 2018.

If there were a hall of fame for Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ists, Bob Lewis would surely be in it. As a Par­lia­ment Hill re­porter and bureau chief for three pub­li­ca­tions, start­ing in the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s, he was as re­spected as he was liked by all sides. He went on to be­come man­ag­ing editor and then editor of Ma­clean’s mag­a­zine for an­other two decades, while his in­flu­ence on the Hill re­mained undi­min­ished.

The qual­i­ties that de­fined him as a per­son—his ge­nial man­ner, in­tel­li­gence, in­nate fair­ness, and keen eye for de­tail—also dis­tin­guished him as a jour­nal­ist. When I ar­rived in Ot­tawa for my own tour as bureau chief and colum­nist for Ma­clean’s in the 1990s, the first ques­tion prime min­is­ters Brian Mul­roney and then Jean Chré­tien asked was the same one: “So, how is my old friend Bob?”

Few peo­ple have had a closer view of Cana­dian fed­eral pol­i­tics up front, and even fewer have Lewis’s level of un­der­stand­ing of its sweep and some­times sub­tle nu­ances. That is ev­i­dent in Power, Prime Min­is­ters and the Press, his new book on the his­toric love-loathe re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Par­lia­men­tary Press Gallery and the gov­ern­ment of the day. (It is also, sur­pris­ingly, Bob’s first book ever.) Just like the politi­cians they cover, the jour­nal­ists that Lewis writes about—start­ing in the early 1900s and ex­tend­ing to the present—run the gamut from bi­ased to bal­anced; bland to blus­ter­ing; sober to scotch-soaked. The one trait they al­most all share is an ob­ses­sion with the daily drama of pol­i­tics.

That makes for no short­age of colour­ful char­ac­ters to write about, and Lewis makes the most of their foibles. For much of the 20th cen­tury his­tory of the Gallery, its mem­bers— al­most ex­clu­sively male for most of that time—en­joyed cozy, first-hand re­la­tion­ships with the sub­jects they cov­ered. That in­cluded the abil­ity to drop in on var­i­ous prime min­is­ters for a drink, to in­for­mally probe and some­times ad­vo­cate for var­i­ous po­si­tions on gov­ern­ment pol­icy. Some of those ex­changes were re­ported; many were not. That ac­cess gave jour­nal­ists greater in­sight into poli­cies and the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind them—while those con­ver­sa­tions re­mained off-record as an un­abashed trade-off. Blair Fraser of Ma­clean’s, writ­ing about Lester Pear­son when he was ex­ter­nal af­fairs min­is­ter, ob­served that “We all feel en­ti­tled to ring him up any hour of day or night…Quite of­ten he puts his of­fi­cial life in re­porters’ hands with a clar­i­fy­ing, but grossly in­dis­creet, in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the known facts.” No Cana­dian jour­nal­ist to­day would have that first-hand ex­po­sure, or write like that. But those who think that ac­ri­mony be­tween politi­cians and jour­nal­ists is a new phe­nom­e­non haven’t stud­ied the toxic re­la­tions be­tween, among oth­ers, John Diefen­baker and the Gallery. The no­to­ri­ously prickly Diefen­baker started his term in power on a friendly fish­ing trip with sev­eral jour­nal­ists—and ended it at war with much of the Gallery. He was par­tic­u­larly ob­sessed with Peter C. Newman, whose book Rene­gade in Power gave the first-ever real be­hind-the-scenes re­port­ing on a Cana­dian gov­ern­ment in power—and evis­cer­ated Diefen­baker in the process. In a hand­writ­ten note still on file at the Diefen­baker Canada Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan, The Chief re­ferred to Newman as “the lit­er­ary scav­enger of the trash baskets on Par­lia­ment Hill” and as an “in­nately evil per­son”. But Newman was no par­ti­san. He be­came so adept dur­ing Pear­son’s time at get­ting scoops on cabi­net se­crets that Pear­son threat­ened to fire any min­is­ter caught leak­ing to him. Newman du­ti­fully re­ported that rev­e­la­tion two days later. Lewis re­counts how his in­ter­est in writ­ing such a book, which was four years in the mak­ing, sprung from a dis­cus­sion he chaired at the Cana­dian Jour­nal­ism Foun­da­tion. Its ti­tle: “Does the Press Gallery Mat­ter?” That ques­tion was prompted by fac­tors in­clud­ing grow­ing dis­trust of the me­dia; the sharp de­cline in the num­ber and read­er­ship of news­pa­pers; the in­creas­ing abil­ity of po­lit­i­cal par­ties to by­pass tra­di­tional me­dia by de­liv­er­ing their mes­sages di­rectly on­line; bud­get cuts for those me­dia in­sti­tu­tions still op­er­at­ing—and the de­cline in mem­ber­ship of the gallery it­self. (Be­tween 2012 and 2016, Lewis re­ports, the Gallery shrunk by al­most 20 per cent, from 370 mem­bers to 320.) Those re­porters are ex­pected to file reg­u­larly up­dated sto­ries more of­ten through­out the day on var­i­ous plat­forms in or­der to keep up with the in­sa­tiable ap­petite of a wired world for im­me­di­acy.

Lewis sym­pa­thizes with those chal­lenges. His “lament”, he writes, is “not for a press gallery that might have been, nor for some mys­ti­cal golden age.” But if the pri­vate scotch drink­ing ex­changes be­tween politi­cians and re­porters in past years were too much to one ex­treme, then so, Lewis writes, is the present-day an­tipa­thy that ul­ti­mately di­min­ishes both sides. By the time these el­e­ments came to­gether in the 2015 elec­tion cam­paign, the need was clear, he ob­serves, “for re­porters to op­er­ate with ci­vil­ity, thought­ful­ness and a mod­icum of hu­mil­ity—along with scep­ti­cism, and for politi­cians to give up the bull­horn and the lash.”

Am­bi­tious in scope as it is rich in up­close anec­dotes, Power, Prime Min­is­ters and the Press re­minds us that the way news events are re­ported can de­pend as much on the peo­ple re­port­ing them as it does on the events them­selves. What has changed so dra­mat­i­cally is the will­ing­ness—or lack of same—of news con­sumers to ac­cept what they are told at face value. A news event only hap­pens once, but it can be told in an in­fi­nite num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways. There has never been a time in which so much in­for­ma­tion can be made avail­able so quickly to any­one equipped with a mo­bile de­vice or lap­top with mo­dem. But as Lewis ar­gues, some­one has to pro­vide con­text and bal­ance—and know how and when to ask the right ques­tions to pro­duce mean­ing­ful an­swers. That’s the job of the peo­ple in the Ot­tawa press gallery—and it’s ar­guably never been more dif­fi­cult to do.

But that, in turn, leads back to the ques­tion that prompted this book: “Does the press gallery still mat­ter?” As Lewis rightly con­cludes: “Now, more than ever.” And so, by ex­ten­sion, does this ex­cel­lent book.

An­thony Wil­son-Smith, for­mer Ot­tawa bureau chief and later editor of Ma­clean’s, is Pres­i­dent and CEO of His­tor­ica Canada.

Ma­clean’s Photo by Ted Grant, Ma­clean’s

Can­di­date Joe Clark with Bob Lewis, Ot­tawa bureau chief of lead­er­ship cam­paign won by Clark on the fourth bal­lot. wait­ing for a flight at Toronto Air­port dur­ing the 1975-76 Con­ser­va­tive

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