Opinion

When journalists join the 'dark side': Andrew MacDougall

If citizens outside of the Ottawa bubble get the impression that neither the press nor the politicians are on their side, the urge to tune it all out or knock it all down will continue to grow.

Should there be a revolving door between government and the people who scrutinize it?

Do Liberal and Conservative governments full of journalists mean anything nefarious? Or are critics just being petty? (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

How dark is the future of journalism?

It's so dark, journalists are joining the very place on which they are paid to throw shade: the government.

The latest move to the "dark" side: Postmedia columnist Michael Den Tandt, who announced he was leaving his post on February 10, only to join Team Trudeau a couple of weeks later to pen (more) words about Canada-U.S. relations.

It's been a steady stream of late out of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Den Tandt joins former Postmedia stablemate Mark Kennedy, Canadian Press alum Bruce Cheadle, ex-CTV editor David Taylor (full disclosure: Taylor's role involved assigning my partner), and two former CBC radio reporters, James Cudmore and James Fitz-Morris, all of whom have joined the Trudeau government.

Is it right?

These are smart folks and government should, in theory, be better for their service. They were good journalists, and they know government well.

But is it right? Should there be a pipeline between government and the people who scrutinize it?

It's a question I imagine Conservative leadership contenders will be asking in their latest fundraising missives. What more proof does one need that the Media Party exists, and that it wears red?

Of course, Conservatives weren't quite so fussy when they were the ones welcoming the press into government.

Liberal partisans — along with defensive media types — have been quick to point out that Stephen Harper's government appointed its share of ex-journalists. And indeed, they did. I worked for two of them: John Williamson (National Post) and Angelo Persichilli (Corriere Canadese / Toronto Star) both served stints as Harper's director of communications. And our speechwriting team during my time there included former journalists Nigel Hannaford and Scott Anderson (with Derek Shelly joining later), and historian/journalist/walking Canadian political encyclopedia Art Milnes.

And our government was better for it. Well, in most cases. But I can honestly say these folks were hired despite being journalists, not because of it, although I realize this is a distinction without a difference.

So, do Liberal and Conservative governments full of journalists mean anything nefarious? Or are critics just being petty? After all, don't journalists need to put food on their families' tables? And how could they cover a place like Ottawa without, eventually, wanting to try out their own ideas?

Journalists aren't taking the work because it's easy. It's damn hard. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Indeed, why wouldn't someone like Mark Kennedy want to join PMO to write about electoral reform? Ok, fine, let's forget that example. Why wouldn't someone like Den Tandt want to put their shoulder to the wheel on Canada-U.S. relations at a time when so much is at stake? Why wouldn't James Cudmore, a man who covered the military for years, want to try his hand at procurement policy? Right, let's scrap that example too.

The point being, journalists aren't taking the work because it's easy. It's damn hard. And there's no job security. But there's arguably more than the alternative. Ask yourself, which of government and journalism has the brighter future? If not join now — when journalists might get summarily cut or canned by their media employers — then when?  Having gone the other way, I can tell you I'm not writing about any of this because it pays the bills. I just like to write. Parliamentary journalists like government.

Feeding paranoia

And yet, I can't dismiss the conspiracy-minded. Not completely. What's happening now with the Parliamentary Press Gallery could be a tactic from the Prime Minister's Office. There's a reason Trudeau aides Kate Purchase and Gerry Butts made a point of tweeting out Den Tandt's arrival.

Plucking reporters from the press gallery at this fevered moment in the Conservative leadership race could very well boost a "populist" like Kellie Leitch. And it will definitely feed Conservative/conservative paranoia about the press. Both of these outcomes would be helpful for Trudeau come 2019.

But let's hope it's not a tactic, or a strategy. Especially because this migration of journalists will inflict more long-term pain on the industry they've chosen to abandon. Government and the press are both suffering from low trust. Upping the clubbiness between them will do nothing to boost either figure. Indeed, it will send them the other way.

The legitimate anger feeding populism needs a productive and safe outlet, whether that's through representation by political parties or advocacy via the press. With fewer bodies reporting on government, and more bodies in it, there's less chance government will behave properly, or be held to account.

If citizens outside of the Ottawa bubble get the impression that neither the press nor the politicians are on their side, the urge to tune it all out or knock it all down will continue to grow.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Andrew MacDougall

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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