The relevance of the PPG

For those that follow the soap opera in Ottawa as a sideshow to the governance of Canada, this week has seen a couple of new developments in the war between the PMO and the PPG.

The Parliamentary Press Gallery refused to play to the tune of the Prime Minister’s Office by ordering themselves on a list for the purposes of order in press conferences. While PPG scribes insist that they desire order too (they’ve suggested using the National Press Theatre on Wellington), the issue of the list seems to be the impasse.

As I’ve noted before, the press gallery has evolved past its primary role of reporting the news to dictating how the Prime Minister should disseminate information via reporters to the electorate. The Prime Minister refuses to relinquish control over his communications strategy to an unelected and unaccountable body which he has now deemed biased and frankly, that’s his prerogative.

Since the PMO and PPG are battling over format and since the argument has extended beyond reportage and into a bitter he-said-she-said squabble with predicted (by Don Martin) ‘come-uppance’ during elections or when polls are low, the press gallery has arguably become politicized and a partisan group that stands opposed to the Prime Minister and his party in favour of its own agenda. The PM ostensibly has one too and thus we see two parties opposed.

Some talk about history and the attitudes of previous Prime Ministers regarding the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The relationship between the PMO and the PPG has been one that has evolved since Confederation. In fact, at one time, members of the PPG were overtly partisan and actually sat on opposing sides of the House of Commons according to the allegiance between a reporter’s paper and the broadsheet’s preferred party.

Broadcast journalists were admitted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1959 and the evolution of the institution took a notable new direction according to then deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielson:

the ethical standards of journalists in 1958, when I first came into contact with the parliamentary press gallery, and the standards that prevail today in that same press gallery have, with rare exceptions, altered radically. Perhaps the main reason is the advent of technology, and the increasingly intense competition that the new technology creates between the electronic media and the written media. (Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, Donald J. Savoie. p. 95)

In mulling over this latest fight between the PMO and the PPG, one begins to consider the original and now present purpose of the gallery.

Ostensibly, the gallery was originally established to more effectively disseminate the news to a widely dispersed population. As technology evolved, bringing closer our widely dispersed population, the need for an elite centralized class of Parliamentary reporters has arguably diminished.

With the advent of blogging, average people with varied backgrounds are uncovering fact, crafting opinion and reaching their fellow citizens on a truly international scale that extends beyond newsprint and the subscriber firewall. On an average day, Blogging Tories is read on six continents by thousands upon thousands of people (Antarctica requires more outreach).

The PPG is but one class of the press. The Prime Minister has declared that he will bypass the Ottawa gang in favour of local media outlets. Does the merit of the existence of the current Parliamentary Press Gallery in its present form extend much beyond its founding, and now former, traditions? In this modern world of the 24 hour news cycle, via satellite dissemination, and the ubiquitous bloggers, is the PPG as critical as it once was when it was the only link between the federal government and the electorate?