How fares the Fourth Estate?

Long before he died in 1797, Edmund Burke stood in the mother of Parliaments at Westminster and pointed above the head of the Speaker. He said there were “… three Estates in Parliament – the State, the Crown, the Church – but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sits a fourth Estate, more important far than they all.”

In the House of Commons in Ottawa, there are three tiers of desks – all equipped with the mutual translation paraphernalia – high above the Speaker’s chair. There are 98 seats in all.  There are just over 450 registered members of the Ottawa Press Gallery – press, radio, television, freelancers. The day after American ambassador Paul Cellucci’s rather “babysitter” advice to Canada about Iraq, while the country waited for the prime minister’s response and all Ottawa buzzed about it, there were all of 12 reporters seated in the Press Gallery.

It is a puzzling phenomenon: how Canada’s national journalists – meaning the Ottawa Press Gallery – have abandoned covering the House of Commons. Question period is, of course, a farce – all playing to the TV cameras with fake ouage and feigned innocence. Well, then, reveal it as a farce. That is what reporting is supposed to be about, as I understand the black art of journalism.

Instead, all the proud descendants of the people Edmund Burke described sit in their offices sprinkled around the capital and watch the proceedings on TV – just as Missus Bloggs in Moose Jaw does – and whereby, as the rules decree, one can see only the head and shoulders of the attendant politician faking his outrage.

It’s rather like listening to a New York Yankees baseball game on radio rather than going to Yankee Stadium and actually watching Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio or the Babe himself. (Or, at least, have a good and honest sportswriter describe it to you.)

First visit in person was great theatre
This scribbler recalls his amazement the first time he viewed question period in person, a neophyte in from the Vancouver Sun, and watching the Press Gallery – no translation earphones then – with eyes down on notebook, catching in long hand the cut and thrust, which was at least a little more authentic before television intruded.

In the meantime, I observed, down on the Commons floor, more than several types were asleep after an exhausting lunch, while others, bored, read newspapers or perhaps a romance novel, one was picking his nose, others were raising their middle fingers to opponents across the floor. All in all, great street theatre.

Pierre Trudeau, who cynically (though accurately) remarked that most MPs were “nobodies” once 100 yards from Parliament Hill, illustrated the question period farce for what it was when he claimed what he said across the floor to an opposition MP was “fuddle duddle” when, truth be told, his two-syllable advice was obviously not four in number.

When the Globe and Mail’s wonderful columnist George Bain (who actually sat in the Gallery to do his own reporting) was the first and only scribe to put Trudeau’s actual F-word in print, I tried to argue with my Vancouver Sun publisher, Stuart Keate, a fine and principled old-school man and he said, “Foth, the next time Trudeau comes to town and you hear him say that word, we will print it. I promise you. Until then, no thanks.”

And then there is the matter of Paul Martin. Everyone I read refers to him as a backbencher, supposedly banished to the rear curtains with the boys from Moose Breath, Man. In fact, his desk is still in the Liberal front bench, just 10 seats away from the PM but just outside the inviolate line that defines the Cabinet gang from the Unwashed. Except you actually have to attend the Commons to know this.

Few in my trade do. On my recent visits to Ottawa, the 98 seats set aside for reporters are occupied on most days by six bodies – five of them female. While two dozen journalists were killed in Iraq, the Ottawa Press Gallery couldn’t even bother covering the House of Commons.