Inside Politics

UPDATED: Tory senator offers his version of run-in with Hill media

NOTE: Scroll down for the latest update. 

There are a lot of people who don't like reporters. A lot of them are politicians. Then there is Conservative Senator Don Plett.

Plett has made himself the avenging angel of all of those politicians who feel like they've picked reporters' acid-dipped observations out of their hides for years. And for his trouble, he has, for the second time in less than six months, compelled the head of Senate security to apologize to his tormentors after employing security guards as his own personal media wranglers.

The details of the latest incident, which took place in early June, are set out in a letter sent to the gallery by Globe and Mail reporter Kim Mackrael.

According to her account, she and photographer Dave Chan had gotten on one of the ubiquitous Hill mini-buses outside the Senate Chamber, where they found themselves sitting one row behind Senator Pam Wallin.

"After we were seated, I said I was sorry to bother her and introduced myself as a reporter from the Globe and Mail," Mackrael explained.

As she was speaking, however, "another Senator several rows ahead" -- who she tentatively identified as, and later confirmed was, indeed, Senator Plett -- "began to yell and indicated that Mr. Chan and I should not be on the bus."

Although Mackrael says that Wallin not only told her Upper House colleague that "there was no problem" but said the reporters could stay, moments later, a security guard got on board and ordered them off the bus.

"We asked if we had broken any rules, and the security promised to follow up with me by tomorrow morning," Mackrael noted.

The next day, she got an apology from Senate Protective Services director Pat McDonnell, who confirmed that they should not have been removed from the bus, and assured her that he was following up with his staff.

A few days later, a second letter arrived -- this time from Senate Clerk Gary O'Brien, writing on behalf of Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella. In it, he thanked her for drawing his attention to the initial incident, and confirmed that she and Chan had been entirely within their rights to be on that bus, as "all accredited journalists have clear access to the Senate of Canada's internal transportation system."

UPDATE: After this post went up, the senator provided his version of what happened on the Senate mini-bus: 

We got onto the white bus to come back to the offices, all of us, and of course Pamela Wallin and I are on the same floor so we were there and I was a row or two ahead of them.

I didn't know them and had never seen them before. Then they took out either a microphone or a Blackberry and stuck it in front of Pam. 

I said, you aren't allowed on the bus.

They said, we are.

At which point I simply turned around and told security and the driver they are trying to interview a senator back here and some reporters are disturbing us.

At which point they were escorted off the bus.

I didn't think it was big deal and thought it was a closed issue.

This isn't the first time that Senate security has been forced to do damage control following a run-in between Senator Plett and the press.

Believe me, I know -- back in February, he pulled a remarkably similar stunt on then-Ipolitics reporter Laura Stone and me.

Like many of our colleagues., Laura and I had been front and centre in the Senate viewing gallery that day to watch the Senate vote to suspend Senator Patrick Brazeau. As soon as it was over, Brazeau left the Chamber, which prompted a frantic exodus from the gallery as reporters attempted to make it down to the Foyer before he departed the precinct entirely.

Without warning, Plett -- who had been in the Senate for the Brazeau vote -- emerged from the Senate back door, shouting that we -- specifically, Laura and I -- had been taking pictures in the Chamber -- a practice which is, of course, strictly forbidden.

Unmoved by our somewhat shocked, but emphatic, denials, he proceeded to flag down a nearby security guard, ordering him to seize and search our smartphones for evidence of the alleged breach, all the while steadfastly refusing to give his name. In fact, it was only when I began asking passing staff and senators to identify him that he did so.

In any case, it soon became clear that the allegations were entirely unfounded, but even after our phones had been returned by a somewhat sheepish guard, it took repeated requests -- and, it's worth noting, a growing crowd of curious onlookers -- to elicit even a grudging apology from the senator.

Toronto Star journalist Joanna Smith, who witnessed the entire kerfuffle, filed a formal complaint with the gallery, and a day or two later, I got a call from McDonnell, who assured me that he was looking into the matter.

A few weeks later, Speaker Kinsella also sent a note to the gallery, in which he described himself as a "student of human rights" who had always defended freedom of the press." He agreed that "the incident should not have happened in the way that it did," and promised that "there would not be a recurrence."

Given what went down on that mini-bus in June, however, it appears that reassurance may have been premature.

Note: I attempted to speak with the senator about his altercations with the press, but as yet, he has not returned my calls. I'll be sure to update this post if that changes.

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