People and Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 17): Where do we go from here? A not-too-optimistic look at the past, present, and future of political journalism

Day 17: Where do we go from here? In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie takes a not-too-optimistic look at the past, present, and future of political journalism

There was a time when the name “Grant Dexter” put real fear into the people who ran this town. At the height of his career, he was more powerful than most cabinet ministers. He was in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s office when King heard the news that Britain had declared war on Hitler. On Nov. 7, 1941, King confided one of the war’s great secrets to Dexter — that Franklin Roosevelt told King the Japanese would begin their great Pacific lunge within a month.

King and the top bureaucrats let Dexter in on just about every other major secret and policy decision of the 1940s. Yet Dexter was never on the government payroll. He was the Winnipeg Free Press’s man in Ottawa.

The very sad thing is that Dexter kept all those secrets. He never went to press with Roosevelt’s foreknowledge of the Japanese offensive that began at Pearl Harbor precisely a month after King’s indiscretion. He kept his mouth shut about other war secrets and the spectacular insider knowledge he had of the Canadian government.

Historians and conspiracy theorists know what Dexter knew because Dexter wrote everything down and sent the insider stuff to his paper’s owners. He kept copies of these memos, and, when he went off to God’s Great Newsroom, they were given to Queen’s University.

The sad thing about Dexter — and almost every other Hill journalist — is they’re forgotten within a few years of their departure from the Hill. Journalists, even insiders, are as disposable as the product they make. Yet they roll on, like the fly in an Aesop’s fable who rides on a chariot axle and marvels at the dust he kicks up.

Reporters have always tried to be insiders. And you can’t really be an insider unless you are, in a sense, dishonest. The journalist who carries secrets around defrauds his or her readers, listeners, or viewers.

But that’s not how reporters have seen it. Some went on canoe trips with Pierre Trudeau. Others were frequent visitors to 24 Sussex and Harrington Lake in the Mulroney and Chrétien years. They got to feel, as the Prime Ministerial booze warmed their gullets and the gentle flatteries flowed around the room, that they were part of the system.

Wilf Eggleston, a 20th century journalist who spent a lot of time thinking, wrote in his memoirs that he found it a great burden to carry so many secrets around.

Eggleston, while working as chief press censor for Canada during World War II, once wrote to the head of one of the country’s intelligence agencies that the Canadian government cannot function efficiently and fairly if the press is muzzled.

When it does its job properly, it performs a role similar to auditor-general, ferreting out waste and corruption. It also provides some grounding in reality to a public that would otherwise base its opinions on rumours and bunk.

He believed the press rolled over too quickly when confronted by military and political power. After the war, Eggleston tried to solve some of journalism’s problems by starting Carleton University’s school of journalism.

There are very few Dexters on Parliament Hill anymore. Stephen Harper would never tell a reporter that he was about to fire his minister of defence. The “secrets” that are kept by Hill reporters these days are so insignificant as to be laughable.

Gone, too, are the freebies. It costs $11,000 a week to travel with the Harper and Ignatieff campaigns. That’s an awful lot of money to be treated like a natural gas salesman who turns up at the door at dinner time.

Yet reporters don’t squawk for very long when Stephen Harper jerks their chain and treats them like group home inmates. For a very short time, a few of them tried shouting questions at the prime minister after he and his sidekicks limited press questions to six per day.

After that little squawk, the press got used to the new reality the same way that a man who’s freezing to death gradually adjusts to the drop in body temperature before he drifts off to sleep and his heart stops.

Journalists know public support for their craft simply does not exist. Like lawyers, journalists pose a real threat to the lies of the powerful, so they have been delegitimized by the neo-conservatives who now dominate politics.

It hardly helps their cause that journalists tend to see themselves as part of the ruling elite. They’re better educated, better paid, and come from more privileged backgrounds than most Canadians. And it doesn’t bother them that they no longer connect with what Jack Layton, PhD, son of a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, grandson of a Union Nationale cabinet minister, calls “ordinary Canadians”.

I don’t know what will replace mass-media journalism when it finally closes its eyes and slips below the surface of the ice water. It won’t be bloggers. They don’t have the money or research skills to do the job right. But, when the last media dinosaur goes down, there might just be a little reportorial mammal that will emerge to fight the good fight that has, in reality, rarely been fought at all.