Nova Scotia·Opinion

Premier Stephen McNeil's hires highlight relationship between press and politics

CBC political commentator Graham Steele says the relationship between politicians and the press is at the forefront with the recent hires by Premier Stephen McNeil.

Journalists who move into politics lose the veneer of objectivity, says Graham Steele

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has hired a former CTV reporter to be his principal secretary at an annual salary of $160,000 (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

You cannot understand politicians unless you understand their relationship with the press.

This relationship is at the forefront now that the premier has hired — in rapid succession — three political journalists: Jackie Foster, formerly of CTV, David Jackson, formerly of the Chronicle Herald, and Laurie Graham, formerly of CBC and CTV.

They've joined the long list of journalists who've stepped over the dividing line between journalism and politics.

It's a big decision. Once they've stepped over that line, it's impossible to go back. The veneer of objectivity is gone.

That's one reason why there are far more ex-journalists in government jobs than there are journalists covering the legislature.

Both sides need each other

Politicians and journalists have a complex, symbiotic relationship: they need each other.

Politicians need journalists to get their message out. It's a lot cheaper to get free news coverage than to buy an advertisement.

Journalists can reliably count on politicians to fill the pages and airwaves by creating a constant stream of stories.

My experience in the legislature, and in government, is that politicians and their staff pay a great deal of attention to what's being reported. They're almost obsessed with it.

In opposition, the question is, "How can we get in the news?"

In government, the question is, "How can we get the most favourable story?"

So the politicians develop a range of techniques for getting in the news in the most favourable way: leaks and tips, and controlling the way interviews are conducted, with availability and timing.

Three skills journalists have

Journalists are hired by politicians because they bring a valuable set of skills.

There are three skills that are especially valued:

  • The ability to sift through a lot of material to get to the human heart of a story
  • The ability to work to deadline
  • The ability to communicate clearly

There are lots of smart people who can't do those three things.

Then there's the fourth skill that is valued above all.

Politicians like to hire journalists because nobody understands journalists like a journalist.

Let's be frank: the politicians want to control, or at least channel the energy, of reporters covering the legislative beat.

The ex-journalists on their staff understand how working journalists think. They understand a journalist's day, and what it's like working to deadline and how to make things easy or difficult.

If you want to send a reporter in a particular direction, or prevent them from going in a particular direction, nobody knows how to do that better than a former colleague.

Two downsides

David Jackson worked as a political reporter for the Chronicle Herald. The paper's newsroom union staff have been striking nearly two months. (CBC)

Hiring journalists has a couple of downsides.

The first is the loss of depth in the legislative press gallery.

The CBC's Jean Laroche is by far the most experienced Nova Scotia political reporter, along with Brian Flinn at I'm pretty sure Laroche was around when Joseph Howe was a boy.

Experience brings context and depth. When journalists are hired away, that experience is lost.

The other downside is that a regular conveyor belt of journalists into political jobs feeds the narrative of media bias.

When I was in politics, I truly didn't see any systematic bias among reporters (owners and editorial writers, maybe). Reporters are good people doing a tough job.

But there are plenty of politicians who claim to see bias.

As one proof of the bias, they'll point to journalists joining a government of a different political stripe than their own.

Here in Canada, journalists have gone to work for governments of all stripes, so the argument doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

But that doesn't mean politicians won't try, if it suits their purpose.

Eyebrow-raising salary

There's one more issue — and we need to say it out loud: money.

Government jobs pay better, and are more secure, than most reporting jobs.

In this time of media turmoil, it must be hard for many journalists to see a stable career path ahead. David Jackson, for example, was hired off the Chronicle Herald newsroom union's picket line.

When the offer of well-paid, secure employment comes up, it must be very tempting.

Laurie Graham was a reporter on Parliament Hill. She now works for Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil. (Laurie Graham/Twitter)

Even so, hiring Laurie Graham as the premier's principal secretary at an annual salary of $160,000 was eyebrow-raising.

That's a higher salary than the premier's chief of staff, who is ostensibly her boss — and more than any cabinet minister.

It sets a new, high bar for starting salaries in the premier's office, and not just for journalists.

Even more puzzling, the job of principal secretary is usually filled by the premier's chief political operative, deeply immersed in the partisan portion of the premier's portfolio. Graham has skills, but not those skills.

But if you're a journalist, and someone offers you $160,000 a year to work for the premier, who wouldn't jump?


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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