Could Senator Patrick Brazeau make history as the first sitting senator to also be a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery? More to the point, should he be able to?
Let’s assume Brazeau does manage to jump the procedural hurdles. He has been taken on as a freelancer by one of Canada’s two Frank Magazines. As a freelancer he needs one other outlet to write him a letter of reference. He’s hinted recently he has that second letter but hasn’t identified the source.
The Parliamentary Press Gallery executive will meet this Wednesday to decide whether Brazeau should be let in. This possibility has made a few of my colleagues in the PPG very angry.
In a scrum last week Canadian Press reporter Steve Rennie openly mocked Brazeau, asking him whether he hoped to sit in Mike Duffy’s old seat, his thoughts on the inverted pyramid style of reporting, and so on. Another reporter told me he may propose an amendment to the PPG’s constitution at the next annual meeting to ban sitting senators from admittance. A non-reporter friend argued Brazeau should be refused solely on the grounds he has been charged with sexual assault.
The core question is one that’s dogging many organizations: how do you define who is a reporter and who isn’t?
The PPG’s solution to this is, in my opinion, simple and elegant. In short, to qualify your principle occupation has to be journalism (see the full requirements at the end of this post). Yes, this bans most bloggers. It also lets in controversial foreign news organizations (background: last year Chinese state news agency Xinhua was accused of spying on the Dalai Lama. As then-PPG vice president, I was the only member of the executive that voted to strip Xinhua of permanent membership, largely because they refused to answer questions about the allegations.)
But for the most part the system works surprisingly well. Considering gallery members have the freedom to wander Parliament, some checks on who gets in are needed. Currently the gallery is full of reporters, camera people and photographers while partisan operatives are excluded.
But of course, Patrick Brazeau is a sitting politician so how can he be allowed in?
Normally Brazeau would be excluded since being a senator is his principle occupation. But in this weird, unprecedented case, Brazeau has been stripped of his salary and office and even banned from the Senate chamber. He’s still technically a senator, but it’s no longer his livelihood.
Yes, he could be seen as a partisan. But the gallery has no rules against this. The gallery includes everyone from Sun News’s hyper-conservative Brian Lilley to the union outlet Straight Goods News. (Fun fact: press gallery founder Thomas White later became a Conservative minister.)
Yes, he’s up for charges of sexual assault. There’s nothing in the PPG constitution banning criminals from entering the gallery. I would argue this is a good thing. The RCMP still conducts background checks on members and is tasked with stopping any real security threat.
So yes, Brazeau could potentially become a press gallery member. While some people are angry, I can’t get too worked up about this. Putting up a barrier to someone reporting on government should not be done lightly. By trying to exclude Brazeau we risk also including others who should be let in.
Also, hey, maybe he’ll turn out to be a good reporter.
One final note: Because of Brazeau’s unique situation, I believe he could still act as a reporter even if he does not get admitted to the PPG. Brazeau is still a senator and still has access to most of Parliament. The biggest perk of being a gallery member is access (other perks include scrum transcriptions and parking). Brazeau already has access. He could still hang around the scrums and question Parliamentarians without being officially dubbed a reporter. We’ll find out Wednesday if it comes to that.
ADDENDUM: Here’s the full definition of who qualifies for press gallery membership from the PPG constitution:
Active membership in the Corporation shall be open only to journalists, photographers, camerapersons, soundpersons, and other professionals whose principal occupation is reporting, interpreting, or editing parliamentary or federal government news, and who are assigned to Ottawa on a continuing basis by one or more newspapers, radio or television stations or systems, major recognized news services or magazines which regularly publish or broadcast news of Canadian Parliament and Government affairs and who require the use of Gallery facilities to fulfil their functions.
Media organizations must adhere to “generally accepted journalistic principles and practices.”