Ottawa reporters, photographers and cameramen face expulsion from Parliament Hill on the complaint of any politician or federal employee, with grievances to be heard at closed-door disciplinary hearings. The unprecedented measures are proposed by the Parliamentary Press Gallery, a volunteer group representing media.
“We thought we’d bring the proposal,” said Laura Payton, Gallery president, a CBC writer; “We’re leaving it quite open because the executive needs some discretion.”
The Gallery proposed to amend its own constitution to suspend or banish media from Parliament Hill for a range of new offences including “harassment” and “intimidation”. The amendment must be approved by Industry Minister James Moore as cabinet officer responsible for the Canada Corporations Act, according to the Gallery constitution. Payton acknowledged Ottawa members were not told of the code till Friday evening. The gallery executive did not consult any general members in drafting the code, Payton said: “Nobody.”
“We have been working on it for a while and just finalized it this week,” Payton said; “We could always discuss the wording.” Payton, asked if any government official had requested the change, replied: “Absolutely not.”
Under current rules dating from 1885, the only Gallery members who face expulsion are those moonlighting as lobbyists, speechwriters or political activists. Under proposed amendments, members may be expelled for a range of new offences including:
- •“personal harassment”;
- •“sexual harassment”;
- •“threats of violence”;
- •“a criminal offence that was or could have been tried by way of indictment and for which the member has been found guilty”.
Reporters would be expelled on the recommendation of a “confidential” meeting of the Gallery executive ratified by 10% of the membership – some 40 people. Expulsion for most members would mean the loss of livelihoods.
Journalists could face complaints from any source including rival media; government employees; lawmakers; lobbyists; campaign workers; corporations and unions; advocacy groups; agents of foreign governments; or the general public.
“The press should be held to account, but is this the instrument?” said Prof. Sean Holman, of Mount Royal University’s school of journalism. “I think it’s open to abuse.” Holman, a former member of the British Columbia Press Gallery, said he was unaware of any Canadian gallery with such an enforcement code.
“Reporters covering legislatures are often treated like parasites and barely tolerated by the administration,” Holman said. “The administration has enormous power. We should really think about that. How is it that this space that is supposed to be a public space is so often treated as anything but? That is troubling.”
Prof. Holman said the Gallery plan to create “a tribunal of sorts” appeared ill-defined. “On the surface it may seem reasonable, but the challenge is: when does that interfere with freedom of expression? When does it become an opportunity for people who don’t like media criticism?”
The amendment also states the Gallery may defer to “House administration” if complaints against a journalist are deemed a “security concern”. The head of House administration is Conservative MP Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle), Speaker of the House of Commons.
In the past, parliamentary journalists never deferred to the Speaker and operated as a self-regulating association in a custom dating from 1867, noted Mark Bourrie, a 21-year gallery member and author of the bestseller Kill The Messenger: Stephen Harper’s Assault On Your Right To Know.
“Bonanza For Lawyers”
“They are really endangering press freedoms,” Bourrie said. “If the government told the Gallery to do this, the press would go berserk. This is all part of the failure of the Gallery to stand up for our press freedoms in the face of continuous assault.”
Bourrie said purported offences like “intimidation” or “harassment” were too broad, and would attract partisan or score-settling complaints against media. “The idea that anyone who feels aggrieved – an MP, political staffer, lobbyist, security guard or offended reader – can launch some sort of action in a secret committee is both a violation of long-established press rights, and basic concepts of fundamental justice.”
Bourrie described the new offence of summary conviction as “bizarre”, noting reporters could be subject to banishment for doing their job. “A reporter could easily end up charged and convicted of obstructing police while covering a protest under section 129.a of the Criminal Code,” Bourrie said; “In that case a reporter could be expelled. I find it troubling.”
Reporters summoned to in-camera disciplinary hearings would be permitted to bring attorneys, though the Gallery said it would not provide any legal assistance to journalists unable to afford legal counsel.
“The Gallery will be litigated into the ground,” said Bourrie. “This is a bonanza for lawyers. You can see the cost and the stress that would be involved, not only for the journalist but also for the Gallery, which would definitely need a lawyer at hand through this process. In the end, I would expect this process to end up in court, and I think the Gallery would lose.”
The press association did not identify any specific complaint against any member that prompted the amendment. The proposal is to go to a membership vote February 27, a legal requirement under the Canada Corporations Act.
By Tom Korski