When journalists go political
By Benjamin Shingler
Making the switch from journalism to politics has a long and rich tradition in Canada – it also has its critics if the transition doesn’t meet certain journalistic standards.
To name just a few: Ralph Klein was a radio reporter before serving as mayor of Calgary and premier of Alberta; Mike Duffy was a popular broadcaster with CTV before becoming a Conservative senator; Environment Minister Peter Kent was an anchor at Global Television before joining the Harper Conservatives.
“There are obvious reasons for discomfort with it, but it’s exceedingly common (to run for office), and it’s even more common to go and work for politicians,” said Suanne Kelman, a journalism professor at Ryerson University.
The latest example comes from Quebec, where former Radio Canada reporter Pierre Duchesne has come under attack for his decision to run for the Parti Québecois in the next provincial election.
He left his post as chief correspondent at the provincial legislature in Quebec City at the end of the spring session, marking an end to a prestigious 25-year career in journalism.
Less than a month later, he confirmed rumours he would be a candidate for the PQ.
The twist in this instance is that, according to La Presse, the riding where he’s slated to run had been reserved for a “star candidate from Radio Canada” three months ago.
If that’s the case, it would mean Duchesne had been in discussions with the PQ while covering the party and its political opponents, the ruling Charest Liberals.
The Liberals filed a complaint with the province’s press council to look into the matter.
“If he was in negotiations to join a political party while he was working as a journalist, that’s where the conflict of interest comes into play,” said Quebec Press Council president Guy Amyot, cautioning that the reports involving Duchesne haven’t been confirmed.
“As soon as there is an agreement with a political party, that independence goes away and there are questions about whether a journalist can report things fairly.”
Duchesne and PQ Leader Pauline Marois have denied those charges, insisting that discussions began only after he left his journalism job.
CBC/Radio Canada’s ethics guidelines frown on any activities that would compromise independent reporting, but there’s no evidence that was the case here, said spokeswoman Nathalie Moreau.
Duchesne’s departure from the public broadcaster was announced on June 5 and he stopped working on June 16, Moreau said.
“We can’t control what he does after that,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t comment on rumours about any agreement that had been in place prior to his departure.
Regardless, the move has sparked a larger debate about the ethics of making such a switch so quickly, with one former reporter arguing there should be a minimal cooling off period between role changes.
Larry Cornies, who teaches journalism ethics at Western University, said such a regulation--like virtually all ethics guidelines--would be “pretty much unenforceable.”
The key, he said, is for journalists to be upfront and completely honest about any plans they may have to enter politics.
“In all these things, the rule is to be absolutely transparent – especially with your editors,” he said.
Cornies pointed out, though, that running for office is less problematic for a columnist or television commentator – with clear political leanings – than a journalist expected to report the news objectively. With respect to the situation with Duchesne, he was not a columnist or commentator, and it was reasonable for his audience to expect that he was covering the Quebec legislature free from political affiliations or leanings.
The Canadian Association of Journalists recently prepared a report on journalists seeking public office, offering a five-point plan for anyone planning to make the move.
Among them, journalists should “consider carefully the possibility that, in the near or distant future, the activity might hinder their actual or perceived ability to conduct independent reporting.” They should also “publicly declare any real or potential conflicts.”
While there is considerable debate about whether being an objective journalist – politics aside - is an attainable goal, the report concludes an effort should be made by reporters to be as impartial as possible.
“As chroniclers of history who help citizens make well-informed choices, working journalists bear the burden of a higher public expectation that they submit personal bias and political view to the demands and disciplines of their work,” the CAJ report says.
“A range of independent, unencumbered and trustworthy media is a valued asset in any democratic society.”