Journalists-turned-politicians playing key role in Commons' media study

OTTAWA – Journalists-turned-politicians have earned a bad reputation in Ottawa in recent years thanks to the spending shenanigans of two in particular: Senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

Both former broadcasters, they were appointed as Conservatives to the upper chamber; Duffy is now awaiting a verdict on whether he’s guilty of fraud, breach of trust and bribery for how he handled his Senate expense account while an investigation into Pamela Wallin for her use of Senate funds remains in limbo.

Perhaps that’s why another broadcaster-turned-politician cracked a joke last month at a House of Commons heritage committee meeting.

“Former broadcasters on Parliament Hill . . . is an awful thing,” joked Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan. “Next they’ll be allowing the lawyers and teachers into politics as well.”

O’Regan made the remark in acknowledging the presence on the committee of another former broadcaster, Conservative MP Kevin Waugh.

At the same time as O’Regan was working for CanadaAM and then CTV national news, Waugh was covering sports for CTV out of his home province of Saskatchewan.

Now they are MPs, putting their professional backgrounds to use at the Commons’ heritage committee studying the state of local media in Canada.

The study began in February amidst a wave of change in Canadian newsrooms. It will hold at least 10 meetings but has been inundated with requests from people to appear, raising the potential of going longer.

What they’ve heard so far is not encouraging: a decision by the former government to stop advertising in community papers, for example, has seen some publications lose more than half their budgets. Three French-language community radio stations no longer have any paid staff. Since 2011, 20 out of 122 daily newspapers have closed, including two in 2016, according to a presentation to the committee from the Heritage department.

But the committee is also tackling bigger questions about the future of a free press in Canada and the impact digital-only publications have on the age-old question of who is a journalist, or who polices the quality and veracity of content both online and on the air.

Committee chair and Liberal MP Hedy Fry raised eyebrows early on when she asked the CRTC if regulators were examining whether digital content needed to be regulated to ensure it is truthful.

She said she didn’t mean to suggest curbs on free speech but more whether existing legislation that covers broadcasters and holds them to certain standards is being equally applied to those who only broadcast online. The CRTC has yet to submit an answer.

What the entire study will come to is anyone’s guess, said Fry. The intent is to submit a report and with it, recommendations. But she acknowledges the media landscape changes daily.

“Between the time we started the study and now, the sands are shifting and we don’t know what’s going to come out,” she said.

Two things could change the landscape in the coming months: the CRTC’s own review of local broadcasting, which is also considering whether funds it has at its disposal could be used to better support the industry; and the Liberals’ promise to reinstate $150 million in annual funding to the CBC. That money could come as early as Tuesday’s budget.

Waugh said he sees clear benefits to having former broadcasters like himself and O’Regan at the table. Witnesses — especially those from government departments or the CRTC — can’t hide anything, he said, because he and others have seen the realities of cuts and technological change first hand.

But no matter their backgrounds, all the MPs on the committee have a vested interest in trying to suggest some viable solutions to help support local news, he said.

“As parliamentarians the worst thing that can happen is two years from now we have a big statement in the House of Commons and we come out and guess what, there’s nobody there to put a mic to us,” he said.

“That’s what we’re headed for.”