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Pundits and politics: When journalists seek office, things can get interesting

August 8, 2013

BY ANDREA HILL, POSTMEDIA NEWS

Three journalists vying for party nominations in the coming Toronto-Centre federal byelection will continue a trend of journalists jumping from news duties into the political arena.

Journalist, author and Toronto Star columnist Linda McQuaig announced this week she would seek the NDP nomination in Toronto Centre, the riding vacated by former Liberal leader Bob Rae last month. She’s competing for the spot against Jennifer Hollett, a former broadcast journalist who has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and CTV. Whoever comes out on top in the nomination race could well be facing off against Chrystia Freeland, former deputy editor of the Globe and Mail, who hopes to represent the Liberals in the downtown Toronto riding. The byelection date hasn’t been set yet.

Chrystia Freeland Photograph by: chrystiafreeland.ca , Postmedia News

Chrystia Freeland
Photograph by: chrystiafreeland.ca , Postmedia News

What happens when reporters switch sides at the microphone? Is it a good thing for Canadian politics — and policy — or a societal gamble? Should the media focus on the message rather than meddle in the nation’s business?

Big political names, including former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and former environment minister Peter Kent, have spent parts of their careers as journalists before seeking elected office. Among politicians who haven’t faced election — that is, senators — count former journalists Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

At a provincial level, former Quebec premier and Parti Quebecois founder Rene Levesque was a respected war correspondent and television host. Ralph Klein, Alberta’s colourful former premier who passed away this spring, worked as a radio and television broadcaster until he left the media realm in 1980 to become mayor of Calgary.

Jonathan Rose, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says that, in theory, journalists can make good politicians. They understand the complexities of policy, are good communicators and tend to have a recognized and trusted public persona. In practice, this doesn’t always pan out.

“Duffy is an example of none of that working,” Rose said. “You’d expect a journalist to be able to manage crises better than he has because they’re used to feeding the media and they’re used to understanding the needs of the media. Duffy was not able to do it. His failure is not because he was a journalist, it’s in spite of him being a journalist.”

But despite Duffy landing himself squarely in a well-publicized expense scandal, journalists remain desirable political candidates.

“Anyone who’s attentive and really informed about politics is well-placed to be a good politician,” said Laura Stephenson, a political scientist at University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “In general, the kind of attention journalists pay to certain issues would give them a leg up in some senses and, of course, they’re also quite in tune with what the public is looking for.”

Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Kent, who spent four decades as a radio and television reporter before entering the political fray, said his years reporting on public policy from a variety of angles made him familiar with the political process and helped him understand issues pertinent to his roles as minister of state of foreign affairs for the Americas and, more recently, as minister of the environment.

“Journalists are as qualified as folks from any other walk of life to go into politics,” Kent said. “The nature of the craft, of journalism, is engagement with public policy on a daily basis.”

But it’s not always easy for a journalist to move to the other side of the microphone. Not only did Kent encounter “shock” and “dismay” from his journalism colleagues when he announced his decision to enter politics, he also had to adjust to a position where he was expected to toe a party line.

“The challenge that journalists have — and this is true of lawyers and doctors and just about every other profession that practises and then goes into politics — is the willingness to be a team player, to subject oneself to party discipline and to engage in the public policy situation,” Kent said.

“Effective government is a disciplined government,” he said. “That does go against the grain for a lot of journalists who tend to be independent minds.” Read more in the Montreal Gazette.

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