Is the principle of independent journalism diminished when a journalist is appointed to the Senate? 

For a former journalist, Senator Mike Duffy should have expected the hard-line questions reporters have thrown him about his housing allowance expenses, several columnists have said recently.

Yet Duffy “stonewalled” and was “rude to reporters,” wrote Andrew Cohen, an Ottawa Citizen columnist and professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, last week.

“Had Duffy still been a reporter, he would have asked the same questions,” Cohen said.

The irony, Cohen points out, is Duffy was a champion of the free press in his earlier days in Ottawa.

“Once, in 1984, when the Liberal government was trying to restrict our access, he blew up: “The Parliamentary Press Gallery is the pinnacle of Canadian journalism! We shouldn’t take this!” He urged us, memorably, not to submit ourselves to an unpleasant act of a long, cylindrical object in an inconvenient place.”

Yet, Cohen says it was well-known that Duffy wanted to become a senator.

“Mike wanted to be a senator. Badly. It was no secret. We called him “Senator Duffy,” and he beamed. And given that this was the case over the terms of five different PMs, it didn’t seem to matter what party he represented. Liberal, Conservative or Independent — as some aspire to be singers, athletes or doctors, Duffy wanted to be in the Senate.”

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There is no rule saying that journalists cannot become politicians.

To find an example of such, look no further than last summer, when former Radio Canada journalist Pierre Duchesne ran for office with the PQ in the Quebec elections. The Liberal Party lodged a complaint against him for conflict of interest with the Quebec Press Council and Radio-Canada Ombudsman Pierre Tourangeau took on his own conflict-of-interest investigation into Duchesne's conduct (he found no evidence of one during his time with Radio-Canada). Pierre April, a veteran Press Canadienne writer of Quebec politics, also argued for a minimal cooling off period between role changes in the name of public trust.

But “that is easier said than done as journalists enjoy the same democratic rights as other citizens — including the unfettered right to run for elected office,” The Toronto Star’s national affairs columnist Chantal Hebert wrote in July 2012.

That all said, of course, Duffy's case of political appointment may not be directly comparable to that of Duchesne's election campaign.

John Doyle, The Globe and Mail’s television critic, also expressed unease about media personalities who go on to make Senate appointments.

Isn’t the principle of independent journalism diminished when we see people who have interviewed politicians and covered political stories then sit as appointed members of government? It is a human impulse to ask what we have been fed. And be uneasy about it.” […] Thing is, it occurs to me, the trajectory of Mike Duffy’s success and eventual appointment to the Senate illuminates a truth about the Canadian media and TV in particular – the famous tend to gravitate toward power. There is a small media landscape here, especially in television, and once fame and success are achieved, a next, natural step is into the embrace of government. If you’re looking to go upward, and stay on the national stage, it’s one of the few directions available.

Cohen concluded that Duffy’s appointment to the Senate raised questions among his former colleagues “if Duffy had lobbied the Conservatives for the appointment. Or, more subtly, if he had softened, shaded or slanted his reportage to make himself more appealing to them.”

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.