VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Twenty-three Prime Ministers, 42 elections, 150 years and counting. A new book looks at the evolution of political reporting on Parliament Hill.
“Democracy thrives on good information,” according to author Robert Lewis. “And the better the information, the better the democracy.”
In Power, Prime Ministers, and The Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill, the former Maclean’s editor weaves together the unconventional history of Canada’s Fourth Estate with his own observations and reflections.
It all started with answering the simple question, does the Press Gallery still matter? “I think it matters more than ever,” he says. “Because we’ve got this plethora of signals, confusion on the part of the public, and another big thing: huge cutbacks in the business.”
LISTEN: Robert Lewis discusses The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill with John Ackermann
His first day on the Hill was Feb. 15, 1965 — Flag Day. But that happy occasion was quickly overshadowed by the working conditions of the time.
“Our office was actually in an alcove off the main corridor, off the main press room,” he recalls. “And it was like one trash can removed from a slum. I mean, there was paper, beer bottles, dust balls all over the place, the fire marshal actually condemned the place and we eventually had to move.”
His toughest interview? Trudeau. (Pierre, not Justin.) “He had total disdain for everything we stood for, which was fine, that was part of the game,” he says. “But you had to bring your A-game with him, because he didn’t suffer fools.” But Lewis admits Trudeau was also the gift that kept on giving for reporters in search of a story.
As for the easiest? “Well, I liked Joe Clark a lot. Just in terms of a human being,” he says. “If you had to have somebody you’d want to have a beer with, Joe was the guy.”
Lewis says Parliament Hill is much different now. In fact, he’s surprised by how micro-managed things have become. “To see these grown men and women, standing behind roped barriers in pens like cattle, waiting for bon mots from the politicians,” he explains. “I mean, the flaks and the spinmeisters…they totally dominate the press gallery.”
The book is not all doom and gloom, however. Lewis sounds a hopeful tone about political journalism. “Most of the reporters, despite what a lot of people think, are honest, hardworking,” he says. “I think most of them are trying to get a good story out there that will inform people. And that’s so vital today.”
Power, Prime Ministers, and The Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill is published by Dundurn Books.