A great deal of media attention has been paid these past few months to the ethics, or alleged lack thereof, of senators Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy. Much less attention has been paid to the likelihood that the ethics of both are at least partially rooted in their training and experience as prominent members of the media.
While Mr. Duffy has been a senator for four years, he was a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery for 35 years prior (from 1974 to 2009). "The Gallery is an organization of journalists, photographers, camerapersons and soundpersons who cover Parliament and the federal political scene in Ottawa," according to its official handbook. So what ethical guidelines does that organization provide to its members and how does it monitor and enforce compliance?
The handbook has 36 sections covering everything from its history to scrums to parking privileges. But, surprisingly, it has almost nothing to say on ethics. The Press Gallery's constitution consists of 50 clauses, only one of which deals with ethics. Its focus, however, is quite relevant to the Duffy case.
Section 10 of that constitution provides for the expulsion of a member by a majority vote of the members for only one reason: "… that such member uses his membership or the facilities of the Gallery to obtain a benefit other than by journalism …"
Accordingly, if a member were to use his position as a member of the gallery to lobby for a federal appointment – a benefit being sought "other than by journalism" – he should have been subjected to an investigation by the gallery, a membership meeting to discuss and vote on the allegation, and expulsion on ethical grounds if the allegation had been substantiated.
It is therefore appropriate to ask whether section 10 of the gallery's constitution – the only one dealing with ethics – has ever been applied? If so, when and to whom? And if not, why not, especially in the case of Mr. Duffy, who (as is well known) had been lobbying for a federal appointment for years? No doubt if section 10 had been applied, the chances of the expelled member receiving any federal appointment from either the Liberal or Conservative governments would have been substantially reduced.
Is there any silver lining to the ethical cloud that hangs over the Senate and also the gallery through the involvement of one of its long-standing members? Yes, there is. Just as the Enron scandal refocused corporate boards and business schools on beefing up their commitment to ethics, and just as the sponsorship scandal resulted in the federal Accountability Act, it is to be hoped that the Senate scandal and the role of prominent media persons in it will spark a recommitment on the part of both the Senate and the Press Gallery to stronger positions on ethics.
With respect to the Ottawa Press Gallery, should its members and their spouses be prohibited from accepting any federal appointment for X years once the member leaves the gallery? Should gallery members be obliged to declare and decline offers of gifts, entertainment, trips and paid speaking engagements from federal organizations and officials whom they report on as journalists? Should gallery members who have a conflict of interest in covering a particular issue or event be obliged to publicly disclose it (e.g., reporters and commentators for the CBC, a highly subsidized corporation, when they report on governmental initiatives to reduce or eliminate corporate subsidies)?
Most importantly, if freedom of the press is to be maintained, it is imperative that the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery itself address these ethical issues rather than have its freedoms and privileges curtailed by intrusive state regulation. Most of its members are sincere, dedicated individuals who adhere to and practise high professional and ethical standards. It is in their interests especially that action be taken by the gallery to ensure that their reputations and the reputation of their institution are not unjustly tarnished by the unethical behaviour of the few.
Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.