Hébert: Time changes coverage of Hill

Once a staple of the holiday news season, the televised prime ministerial fireside chats are well on the way to joining the ghosts of Christmas past.

The CBC and Radio-Canada – among others – have opted out of the format, rightly concluding that the days when there was something special or, for that matter, newsworthy about deferentially serving up a prime minister to a festive nation had gone.

So have the days when a government leader had to rely on a handful of major networks to reach a national audience. Interviews with the prime minister are a dime a dozen this December. On top of various year-end Parliament Hill interviews and a news conference, Trudeau has spent the past week on a year-end tour. At the end of last week, he was in Montreal taking questions from Radio-Canada viewers. This week he spent time in Vancouver and Calgary. There was a time when a contingent of Parliament Hill reporters would have tagged along. But trips outside the parliamentary precinct are so few now, as it is possible to catch Trudeau live in action from one’s computer at no cost to media organizations.

This year marked the 150th anniversary of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. For its members, it was a bittersweet occasion. In tandem with the larger journalism universe, the gallery’s membership has been shrinking. That may be even truer of the institution’s collective influence. The challenging economics of journalism tell only part of the story.

When I came to Parliament Hill in the late ’80s, Le Devoir’s Montreal-based justice reporter would hop on a bus and travel to Ottawa every time the Supreme Court released a major ruling.

Collecting it in person was the only way to get the text of a decision on the day it was rendered. For that reason, larger news organizations often based their justice reporter on Parliament Hill.

With the exception of the televised House debates, pretty much anything that happened around or on the Hill was only accessible to journalists who were physically present on the premises. It was impossible to keep up with the narrative at a distance from the capital.

The members of the gallery truly were the ears and eyes of Canadians on Parliament Hill for more than a century. But today, the Globe and Mail’s André Picard writes the most authoritative health policy column on offer … from Montreal.

In English, as in French, the bulk of the immigration and foreign policy commentary and analysis no longer emanates from Parliament Hill bureaus.

Every year, the budget lock-up draws a gaggle of columnists and editorialists who normally toil in Montreal and Toronto. With access to federal finance documents at the tip of anyone’s fingers, more fiscal policy coverage than ever is done outside the federal capital. And, of course, it is no longer necessary to have a desk a few blocks down from the Supreme Court to obtain its rulings in real time.

The much-watched At Issue panel on CBC’s The National has never had a permanent member whose exclusive workplace was Parliament Hill. (I have been splitting my time between the federal capital and Montreal for 20 years.) And yet parliamentary insiders regularly vote it as the most influential media panel. Over the years, a lot of policy expertise and knowledge has been farmed out of the press gallery and with it, many of the relationships that minister and mandarins used to nurture with those who were on the beats that pertained to their portfolios.

As a consequence but also as the result of the practice of clickbaiting, the ratio of politics reporting versus public policy coverage coming out of the parliamentary press has steadily increased. The press gallery has become more diverse but polls suggest its output has tended to become less germane to the priorities of voters.

Parliament Hill remains the only place in the country where conflicting political currents come to clash. The dynamics are a must-watch for anyone who wants to understand how complex Canada is. That is not easily done via a computer screen.

It is impossible to imagine national political coverage without a parliamentary component.

But regardless of their number, the daily reporting of Parliament Hill media insiders is probably no more likely to be restored to pride of place in the national conversation than the cosy fireside chats of the not-so-distant past.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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