We spoke with members of the press gallery at province house to hear what they had to say, about what MLAs had to say about them. Interviews with Jean Laroche, Marieke Walsh, Sarah Ritchie and Michael Gorman.
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The press gallery talks about the special relationship between the media and politicians in Nova Scotia
[Theme music begins]
Mark Coffin: You’re listening to On the Record, Off Script. My name is Mark Coffin, I’m your host.
This week we’re bringing you two brand-new episodes dedicated to exploring the relationship between the media and MLAs.
In this, our second episode, we draw from interviews my co-host, Sandra Hannebohm conducted with four of the people whose job it is to cover the Nova Scotia legislature and Nova Scotia politics more broadly.
As some of the people in this episode told us, most Nova Scotians never set foot in Province House, and they never watch the machinations of the house from the gallery. That’s a motivator for the journalists who cover the house, to do a good job in reporting what goes on there.
Even fewer people get a chance to watch how the legislature is covered by these journalists, and that’s a motivator for us to do a good job in putting this episode together.
In this episode, we’ll unpack some of the ways that journalists in Nova Scotia approach their job, from the practical and tactical strategies they use when dealing with politicians, to how they respond to the criticisms lobbed at them by former MLAs.
To start, we asked those working the legislature beat how they approach their jobs at province house.
Jean Laroche: I’m at province house for no other reason than to be a surrogate for the electorate who wants to know where their tax dollars are going.
That’s Jean Laroche, he’s CBC’s legislative reporter and he has been covering politics in Nova Scotia since…
Jean Laroche: I’ve been here since Christ on the cross.
Sandra interviewed him during the summer of 2016.
Michael Gorman: I always viewed my function and being the eyes and the ears of the public down there.
Mark Coffin: That’s Michael Gorman. He’s been covering the legislature since 2013, has worked for the Chronicle Herald, Local XPress, and he now works for CBC. Sandra interviewed him in the summer of 2016 as well.
Michael Gorman: “If I’m not doing it, if my colleagues aren’t doing it… folks can do whatever the hell they want, and the general public won’t know about it.”
Marieke Walsh: Generally, as journalists, we’re asking for – most of our focus is around the policies that are promised, during an election, or in a throne speech.
Mark Coffin: That’s Marieke Walsh. She covers the legislature for Global News.
Marieke Walsh: So we’re focusing on those policies, tracking them, seeing their rollout, seeing if they’ve missed deadlines or if they’re on track.
Sarah Ritchie: The business of the legislature is to make laws. So the laws are the things that affect people’s lives.
Mark Coffin: And that’s Sarah Ritchie. She is the legislature reporter for CTV.
Sarah Ritchie: When government puts forward a bill it’s a matter of determining what that bill means to the average person, or the specific group that it’s targeting.
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Mark Coffin: Sandra spoke with both Marieke Walsh and Sarah Ritchie in the summer of 2017.
We wanted to speak to the journalists who cover politics because when we spoke to MLAs, they expressed frustration and concern that the media was evoking some of the conflict and controversy that we’re familiar with hearing about.
We asked the journalists about those things, but first we wanted to unpack a bit about how these journalists actually go about covering the Nova Scotian politicians.
The way politics is covered in Nova Scotia is somewhat seasonal. There are two seasons, one when the legislature is sitting, and another when it’s not. Most of the time, the legislature is not sitting. But we’ll start with how politics gets covered when it is.
Marieke Walsh: What happens in the legislature is that, because you’re in such tight quarters, you can get the minister you need before or after question period. Same for the premier. Once on the way in, or once on the way out. But more frequently now, it’s once on the way out of question period.
Sarah Ritchie: As a gallery we’re set up in the hallway between the legislative gallery and the red chamber – sort of what you would picture if you were in a scrum scenario where all the cameras and and their lights are on. We’re there, and ready to speak to a minister as soon as they are ready.
Marieke Walsh: Scrums are certainly more – I’m not sure if combative is the right word – they;re certainly more energy filled than a sit-down interview. It’s often a very short amount of time. You know they’re going to pull the premier in ten or fifteen or even fewer minutes, depending on his schedule.
So in order for you to get a question in for the story that you’re doing, or to get clips for a colleague you’re gathering for, you need to really make sure that your voice is heard. That’s where the intensity comes from.
Sandra Hannebohm: So it’s not because you’re trying to “get them.”
Marieke Walsh: It’s not a “get them” thing.
Jean Laroche: I know politicians like to think of reporters as a pack, but we’re all individuals. Despite what someone believes, we don’t sit around before scrums and say we’re going after so-and-so on this particular topic. It doesn’t happen.
The dynamics of a scrum can make it appear that way, if we’re not getting answers and everybody is looking for clarification.
Sarah Ritchie: You mentioned there can be sort of an adversarial nature in the house. Maybe the scrum is a bit to blame for that.
I can see why people would feel that that’s an adversarial environment, but when it functions well, a scrum is a pretty important tool for a journalist. The basic principle is two heads are better than one. If you’re trying to ask the right questions to get the right answers on a topic, and you have five other individuals also interested in getting the same answers, you can try a different way. Maybe they know a different question to ask. There’s a tremendous amount of experience in the press gallery.
[Theme music begins]
Mark Coffin: The scrum is a useful tool for the people covering the legislature as their beat.
But for people who only want to cover the basics, the scrum is also a way to get by for the reporters don’t want to, or don’t have time to do their homework.
Michael Gorman: For some people it’s easier to come down, stick out the microphone, take whoever walks over and talks into it – because you’re hard-pressed to find a politician who won’t do that – and take it back to the office to package it together.
That’s one way of covering the legislature. I don’t think it’s a particularly productive or useful way of covering it, but that’s one way to do it. I can understand why some reporters do.
Because so few people cover the legislature regularly, as a beat, often you’ll see people who are sent down there because the outlet it short on bodies and they need somebody to cover cabinet. ‘Can you just go , stick out the microphone, and rely on the reporters who know this stuff to ask the questions and we’ll assemble it when you get back.’
Mark Coffin: The kind of stories that end up getting covered in the scrum are the ones where everyone’s got questions, ones that are already in the news cycle, or about to become part of the news cycle, because it’s what government wants to talk about.
Michael Gorman: What’s going on here today that people have to know about? The day-to-day, ‘the facts ma’am’ kind of thing. There are certain functions that people in the government need to know about = the budget was released today, the public accounts were released today, a labor bill affecting 70,000 people was passed today…
Mark Coffin: These stories are the bread and butter of covering Nova Scotia politics. And the scrum can be an effective tool for digging deeper into those stories.
But there are stories that the government doesn’t want to talk about, stories that come from research and investigation, freedom of information requests, attending obscure committee meetings, and reading through tomes of dry paperwork in search of a needle in the haystack.
These kind of stories don’t get exposed by the reporters who just come down to province house and stick a mic into a scrum. They get exposed by the journalists who are doing their homework.
Understandably, the journalists who break these stories don’t want to give these stories away to the scrum before they’ve had a chance to put their stamp on it. And these are stories that are as important or arguably more important than whatever it is the government wants to talk about that day.
Sarah Ritchie: Let’s say I want to speak with a cabinet minister outside of a scrum. I’m not tipping off my colleagues in the press gallery to what I’m working on that day. That happens. I would take that individual into a room and typically one or two communications representatives would come from the department, or from the party, or both.
Sandra Hannebohm: Do you get a lot of one-on-ones with MLAs?
Sarah Ritchie That sort of depends what you mean. If you mean do I get to speak to an MLA with nobody else around me, nobody recording the conversation, no. Typically not.
Michael Gorman: Yeah, the legislature is pretty heavily managed by communications people now. Oftentimes, I could be having the most innocuous conversation in the world with an MLA – what’s going on back in Shelburne or Bridgewater – in part because I’m just shooting the shit, and in part because maybe there’s an interesting story that we, being based in Halifax, wouldn’t be aware of. He could let me know.
But you’re hard pressed to get more than thirty seconds standing and talking to an MLA by yourself before there’s some handler from a caucus or department standing next to you, typing away on their fucking phones.
Sandra Hannebohm: They record it as well?
Sarah Ritchie: Yes.
Sandra Hannebohm: So you’re recording them, and they’re recording you recording them. Do you know why they do that?
Sarah Ritchie: I’ve never outright asked, but I would assume it’s to have their own copy, to be able to verify. But also I think that part of the process is to be able to go back and ensure that the messaging that they want is there, but you’d have to ask them.
Mark Coffin: That, in a nutshell is the reality of covering the legislature in Nova Scotia. Journalists have all of the tools they usually have at their disposal – their research skills, story tips they might get from the public, or sources within the government, or a party.
But their main tool is the physical closeness to politicians that is provided by hanging around a sitting legislature, when to politicians generally have to walk past them to get to where they’re going.
Even the shadow-like communications staff are more accessible.
A journalist can walk up to them and ask a question – a question that can’t be as easily ignored as a phone call or an email.
It’s important not to understate the presence of communications officials at province house – not journalists, but people whose job it is to be the eyes and ears of the people they work for.
You’ve heard Michael Gorman and Sarah Ritchie describe how these staffers find their way into one-on-one conversations between journalists and MLAs.
But they’re also a part of the scrum. When a scrum is happening, there are often three to four hands holding mics or cameras in the scrum that don’t belong to journalists.
One for each of the opposition parties, one from communications Nova Scotia, and sometimes one from the communications staff of the governing party too.
But because of the closed-quarters, and the culture of granting reporters access to politicians that’s a part of the legislature – the role of communications staff is limited in the legislature.
Once the legislature is no longer sitting, communications staff get the opportunity to fall back into their preferred position as gatekeepers and that makes it harder to get access to politicians.
Marieke Walsh: They’re definitely not always available, definitely not always reachable. I think it depends on the story you’re asking about. Sometimes you’ll get a statement from the communications staff at 4pm, and sometimes you’ll have an interview offered up at 9am.
Mark Coffin: When the legislature is not in session, reporters still have a chance to access cabinet ministers and the premier, but that access is limited to once a week, following cabinet meetings. In some cases there simply is no meeting.
Marieke Walsh: Outside of the legislature and outside of cabinet days, I wuold say there’s more than 50 per cent, maybe 80 per cent chance that you’re going to get a statement rather than interview from a cabinet minister or from the premier. There’s definitely back-and-forth behind the scenes about whether or not to give an interview, but I’m not privy to that.
If you look at access to information requests that show a media request, then you see there are several people on an email chain, either vetting a statement they’re sending, or at least being made aware that this interview request has been put through.
Sarah Ritchie: In fairness, I don’t know what happens on that end, so I can’t speak to the process they go through when I make a request, but there are times when a request for information takes more than a new day. That can be frustrating, because if I can’t get that information by news time, it cannot be included in the piece that goes on air at six o’clock.
That’s my deadline every day. I don’t have a choice about that.
Sandra Hannebohm: Do you think that’s ever on purpose?
Sarah Ritchie: I can’t speak to that. I have no idea.
Marieke Walsh: They don’t want to do interviews with you,, or they’ll try to avoid it if you have access to information requests that raise questions, or new data. There isn’t always a huge willingness or availability. Who knows what they’re scheduling is like, I don’t see that side of it.
Mark Coffin: Now that we’ve covered some of the practical realities facing how journalists do their jobs, we’re going to use the remainder of this episode to share some reflections on the nature of their workplace, the ideals they aim to strive for in their work, the challenges and limits they face in the current media landscape.
And of course, their responses when asked them about what the xMLAs said about their craft.
Sarah Ritchie: What is fascinating about that workplace is that there are almost three distinct workplaces happening at once, if that makes sense.
There are the staff of the legislature, who are there to make the leg run efficiently – the clerks the pages. Those people do the work of the legislature as an entity.
Then there are the MLAs – the elected representatives – who are doing the work of the lawmakers.
Then there are a third group, which is the journalists who are doing the work of the legislature, covering the lawmakers.
Jean Laroche: The house is an interesting place. In many ways, you’re held captive in the same precinct. You interact professionally and personally, on a daily basis. You see people over and over again.
It’s much like going to school in university, you see some classmates, professors, you interact in this world. The legislature, being as small as it is, it’s hard not to know most of the people sitting there, and they know most of the reporters because there are so few of us now.
On any given day there would be a half-dozen reporters that would cover the house. There’s really only three of us who do it gavel-to-gavel when the house is sitting.
Sandra Hannebohm: Do you think there are enough reporters to give perspective?
Michael Gorman: No. I don’t. There aren’t many of us who do. As far as our press gallery goes, we have some pretty damn good reporters in it. You’d be hard pressed to find a press gallery with a couple of guys doing as good as Bryan Flynn and Jean Laroche.
The difficulty comes when you’re down there and you’ve got editors barking at you from back at the office, saying they need something immediately. Can you get video, and audio, and pictures, and can you bang out eight paragraphs for the web real quick? You’re trying to feed a beast while also trying to operate a filter, trying to include nuance.
Jean Laroche: The demands today – and this would be the greatest threat to proper journalism and being able to cover stuff – is the fact that reporters are being asked to do 17 different things and the to-do list is as long as your arm. You’ve got to live-tweet, perhaps you’ll periscope a scrum, then you need to file for radio, then file for online, and then file for television and the rest of it. It’s those demands and not having the ability to to think ‘wait a second, I need to stop and think about this for a second before I react to it.’
That’s a much greater threat to any kind of coverage, let alone political coverage. The demands, and not having time to say, ‘Wait a second. What exactly is this about? Do I understand this properly? If I don’t understand this properly, do I have time to make some calls and find out what the real situation is?’
That’s a much greater threat than any perceived conspiracy in media. We don’t have time to conspire, frankly.
Sandra Hannebohm: Do you think media has any control or influence on the tone of the house? Heckling, for instance.
Jean Laroche: Do they act differently because we’re there?
Sandra Hannebohm: Right, antagonistic behaviour or posturing…
Jean Laroche: Absolutely. There’s absolutely a ton of posturing going on.
There was a liberal MLA who would consistently get thrown out of the house. He would raise a fuss, get completely outraged about a particular issue, and get thrown out of the house, leave the house, and come back an hour later laughing and having a good time. There’s no question that there is posturing going on, and there is feigned outrage.
I’m not saying that’s always the case, because there are heated debates and people get pissed off at one another in there. But question period isn’t about the questions, or the answers. It’s about scoring political points. Nobody is looking for a straight answer.
Sandra Hannebohm: Most of them (xMLAs) kind of blamed media for why the tone of the house was bad.
Michael Gorman: Oh, sure they do.
Sandra Hannebohm: What’s your response to that?
Michael Gorman: I think that’s bullshit. These guys heckle because it gets them on the news. They heckle because when they first started at the legislature, they’ve seen more senior politicians doing it, so some of them think that’s the way to go about getting attention, or getting things done.
Are some people going to put that on TV? Sure they are. But I can tell you right now, you’re not getting in my story because you’re making an ass of yourself on the floor.
I don’t think the fact that it’s going to get you on TV is good enough reason for you to do it. It’s like the proverbial line your mother says, ‘if everyone else is jumping of a bridge will you do it too?’ At some point, everybody has to stop and recognize that we’re all adults in this.
As an adult, accountability for your behaviour falls on you. That, to me, is a cop-out on the part of the person who’s doing it. If you’re doing it because you believe there’s value in doing it, then that’s fine. I don’t have any problem with that. Whether I agree with it or not is moot.
Sarah Ritchie: I would say this – I visited the legislature in Saskatchewan when I was a little girl in elementary school. Where I grew up, we went to the legislature for a day, and we toured around this grand building. We were invited in to watch a snippet of question period, and all of us were horrified and amazed by the fact that these were adults. Our premier, our elected representatives, shouting at one another. I do remember thinking that was a very bizarre thing.
But I also remember my teacher saying at the time, this is not always how this works. Question period is just the part that goes on TV.
I see groups of children come into the legislature now that I’m covering it, and I watch them file into the gallery and watch a bit of question period, and listen to what is often a heated exchange, and I hope someone is telling them that this is not always how it is. This is not how it always is. Make no mistake, the press gallery is aware that the important work of the legislature happens before and after question period
Sandra Hannebohm: Do you find yourself looking for some controversy? We heard from one of the MLAs that they were actually whisked away to a breakfast where the reports told him to be more adversarial or else they’d cut him out of coverage.
Michael Gorman: It’s completely inappropriate to tell an MLA how they should or shouldn’t behave. That’s their business. I’m not there to stage manage politicians.
I don’t mine controversy, I don’t go looking for it. Sometimes it’s obviously there, and the set up of the political system is such that it’s adversarial – the government does something and the opposition tells us why it’s shitty – that’s the way it works. But I’ve never been a big fan of giving oxygen to a politician, or party, or issue, just because it’s a easy way to get a story out. If you want a quote in my story, you’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to contribute something.
The example that jumps to my mind is when, early into the current government’s life, Nelson Mandela died. The prime minister invited all of the premiers to go with him to Africa for the funeral. Our premier was one of the few who went, and it happened to be while the house was sitting.
It’s a rarity for the premier to miss time in the house when it’s sitting, but the premier decided if he’s going to miss time in the house, probably when it’s Nelson Mandela’s funeral and you’ve been invited as part of the Canadian delegation, that’s an acceptable time to go.
The leader of the opposition tried to make a big deal out of that. I stood outside of the chamber in the legislature and watched all of the other reporters gather around him to interview him and do a story on it, but I decided ‘fuck that, this is a stupid story.’ It’s not a story, what this guy is concocting. If he were premier he would tell the prime minister he wasn’t going to Nelson Mandela’s funeral? To me it was just ridiculous. That’s an example of a time when I said this is stupid and I’m not going to give it oxygen.
Sandra Hannebohm: We got a sense from some of the xMLAs that they had to do it – they had to chase headlines. So they were under the thumb of media because they want something sensational to happen, and if you’re just dealing with the issues, you’re not providing that.
Jean Laroche: It’s a chicken and egg thing. In some ways, the heat and fire of debate gets your attention. It’s one of those things were anything out of the ordinary sticks out. Personally, when I’m working in my home office, I always have the TV on and the debate going. The yelling no longer captures my attention because it’s background noise. What now catches my attention is the silence.
If the house suddenly goes quiet, I’ll look and ask what’s going on now? Silence in some cases is much more powerful than yelling. Look at any number of silent vigils and marches. People don’t hear yelling anymore, it’s just ‘blah blah blah’. What is more powerful is silence.
Michael Gorman: I mean, I get it. Part of the job of being in politics is keeping people aware of you, because at some point you’re going to ask those people to vote for you, and when that happens you need them to think highly of you. So people go on call-in shows whenever they get the chance to do it, and they send out news releases when they get the chance, but that doesn’t mean that as a reporter I’m obligate to do a story.
I’m not the communications arms of these parties. Part of my job is putting those news releases through a filter and determining is there value in what’s being said here? Is it something of substance and something worth pursuing? Is it something that the general public would be well-served to know?
Jean Laroche: The government always wants you to believe that their good news announcement is good news, because they’re trying to sell the electorate on that, which is why they have communications Nova Scotia. They have at their disposal, all the tools that a ten billion dollar budget can afford you in terms of communications people. They have a whole department devoted simple to getting their message out, but that’s not my job.
My job is to serve my listeners, readers and viewers. To tell them what I think they need to know about what’s happening at Province House.
Marieke Walsh: There is a tension between journalists and government, and there is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be a cosy relationship. That means it’s not always going to be comfortable. We have different agendas. We have a different mandate.
As journalists are taught in J-school, spin comes from some sort of entity – a government department, politician – and it’s the journalist’s job to cut through the spin.
Sarah Ritchie: Let’s put it this way. The end goal for everyone there is basically the same. Everyone who works out of the legislature fundamentally believes in the democratic process. It’s kind of a beautiful overlap. Those three distinct workplaces, all of that has to function together. You don’t have democracy without a free press.
Maybe there are days when a scrum goes poorly – maybe there’s a bit of tension between two sides – but I’ve never left the legislature and felt like there wasn’t…
[Music fades out]
Sandra Hannebohm: You don’t leave feeling cynical?
Sarah Ritchie: I don’t know if that’s fair to say. It’s a really great place to work. It’s a really interesting thing to be a part of. As a journalist, I believe strongly in the role of journalists in a democracy, and I think the role of the press gallery is really important. I believe in the thing that we’re doing, every day.
[Theme music begins]
Mark Coffin: Thanks for listening to this episode of Off Script. It’s September 20th and we’ve just released two episodes – this one and another one that explores the relationship between media and MLAs from the MLAs perspective.
We share some stories we heard when interviewing former MLAs about their time in public life. You can find that at springtide.ngo/os12 or look for it wherever you listen to podcasts.
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