Canada's History

Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill

by Robert Lewis Dundurn Press, 376 pages, $24


So many fascinatin­g windows onto political history are pried open in books and memoirs from journalist­s. Freed from their routines of tight deadlines and limited space, members of the fourth estate can write sustained narratives on events and personalit­ies they know intimately. Some, like André Pratte, Graham Fraser, and Jeff Simpson, focus on publicpoli­cy issues; others, like Ed Greenspon, Richard Gwyn, Michel Vastel, and Peter C. Newman, document key periods;

while still others record their impression­s and interpreta­tions. Power, Prime Ministers and the Press, by former Maclean’s magazine editorin-chief Robert Lewis, straddles history, memoir, and analysis. Its subtitle — The

Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill — grabs your attention, but Lewis mainly discusses the generation­s of political reporters from the 1860s to our times. He is informativ­e and entertaini­ng, writing in the easy style of magazine journalism about tensions between people elected to govern and those who dig up informatio­n for the public.

The book offers both chronologi­cal and institutio­nal perspectiv­es while focusing on the Parliament­ary Press Gallery, the profession­al associatio­n that has been part of political reporting since Confederat­ion. The gallery is very protective of journalist­ic independen­ce, which is reflected in its distant, informal relationsh­ip with both government and Parliament. Yet the relationsh­ip is symbiotic, because politician­s need to be seen and heard, while publishers need stories to attract readers, advertiser­s, and investors.

Lewis brings to life many people who were famous in their days. He describes the partisan and sometimes financial connection­s between politician­s and some journalist­s in earlier eras, yet he is awed by “reporters who worked long hours for low wages” and for whom journalism “was a calling.”

As his primary source, Lewis uses published memoirs — which are often colourful but very subjective. These are supplement­ed with archival materials, his own interviews, and earlier studies, notably by Allan Levine. Lewis structures his account around many brief biographie­s, producing a veritable who’s who that resurrects reporters who were household names when regional papers from Halifax, Quebec City, Winnipeg, and across the West delivered national news with local angles.

While the focus of his book is on Ottawa’s political journalism, similar stories could be written about the coverage of provincial legislatur­es. Lewis shows how practices in the reporting

trade have changed greatly over the past 150 years and have been reflected in the behaviour of the press gallery. Previously, reporters were nearly all male and, he writes, engaged in the jovial energy of a “very clubby place.” Practical jokes, the easy availabili­ty of beer, and constant deadline pressures were normal. The few women who joined the gallery were competent and tough — but only starting in 1967 were they invited to the raucous annual press gallery dinner.

Until recently, many Canadian journalist­s were veterans of the armed forces. They often voiced a strong sense of Canadian identity and independen­tmindednes­s. One example was George Bain, from the Globe and Mail, who had been a pilot in Bomber Command during the Second World War. He was often at odds with newspaper management and was very critical of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

For much of Canada’s first century, friendship­s between journalist­s and politician­s were the norm. Their offthe-record conversati­ons, sometimes well-lubricated, were a reciprocal source of informatio­n. They needed each other but were also wary. The atmosphere began to change after the infamous pipeline debate of 1956, and that change accelerate­d in the post-Watergate period, when “gotcha” and “adversaria­l” journalism became the rule.

Lewis becomes more personal when discussing recent changes to journalism and the press gallery that flow from the digital revolution and business pressures. He describes the scrums, the tweets, the twenty-four-seven cycle, and the “insatiable maw … of continuous blogs and online reports.” The ethos of some journalist­s has also changed, with their well-honed celebrity status and salaries that match.

With Power, Prime Ministers and the Press, Lewis has not written a policy study with options for the future. Rather, he presents a well-informed narrative that traces the historical arc of Canadian political reporting and the press gallery. Lewis expresses his “lament” regarding current reporterpo­litician relationsh­ips that are “an endless loop of confrontat­ional questions and evasive replies.” In our modern world, which seems to be swamped in “click bait” and to be seething with outrage, he reminds us how thoughtful journalism has helped to shape our democratic culture and our national community.

Reviewed by Victor Rabinovitc­h, president emeritus of the Canadian Museum of Civilizati­on (now the Canadian Museum of History) and a distinguis­hed fellow at Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies.

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