Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Freedom of the virtual press

Warning: lots of inside baseball/blog talk ahead.

Interesting little debate going on at Stephen Taylor's and elsewhere on blogging and the media, particularly on Parliament Hill. In summary:

I have a Hill pass that indicates that I have been pre-screened by security and allows me access to a variety of places in the Parliamentary district…. An official from the Press Gallery walked over and informed me that he had received "complaints" about me…. He called over a security guard to escort me from Parliament…

Now, I'm not completely unsympathetic to Taylor here. However, before I get into the issue, can I just say that I'm kind of amused with all the Conservative vitriol I read in the comments, given the "nobody cares, whiny losers" commentary we heard from these same sorts when the media was fighting their own access wars with the Conservatives? It made me smile a bit.

Anyway, as I was saying, I'm not completely unsympathetic to Stephen here. I disagree with him politically to be sure, but he takes his blogging seriously. And the media is going to have to come to grips with blogging and the new media. It's here to stay, it's not going away, and the old media are going to have to adjust. It's a new dynamic.

Now, that said, what about this particular incident? Here's a truncated rebuttal from the comments from the Gazette's Elizabeth Thompson, whose complaint apparently led to his removal:

What happened budget day had nothing to do with whether or not you are a blogger - it had everything to do with the fact that you were violating the rules that go with the pass you were wearing around your neck.

Different kinds of passes entitle the wearer to different types of access. The pass you got identifying you as part of an MPs office no doubt allows you to go some places that the media are not allowed to go. On the flip side, it does not allow you to tape or videotape people in the foyer of the House of Commons. If every one of the 308 MPs sent a single staffer to tape or videotape other MPs it would be chaos - and dangerous - for MPs and the media in the foyer.
This actually sounds quite reasonable. Before I was politically active I was a reporter in Ottawa and I covered Parliament Hill for a while, including a brief stint as a press gallery member. There are very specific rules about where you can go and what you can do. With my press pass, for example, I couldn't enter the lobby behind the Commons chamber, selected staffers could. The type of accreditation Stephen had is important here. Thompson is right, you can't have 308 staffers in there with cameras; the foyer just ain't that big.

Now, it is common practice for a staffer to record their boss' interviews with a tape/digital recorder. Usually not the opposition members, but ministers always had a communications staffer with them, recording our scrum. It's so they have a record; later, if they feel they were misquoted, they have the tapes to prove it. That's happened once or twice, I believe.

I don't ever recall, however, staffers recording scrums given by a member of another party, presumably for oppo purposes. I may be mistaken, but it's never something I've seen. Listen in from a respectful distance, maybe, but not actually in the scrum or participating.

Now, from a technical perspective, there are two kinds of scrums. There are three mics set up with pool cameras, MPs can go to these if they wish and the feed is shared. In theory all parties could access the pool; however there may be legal issues about using it for partisan advertising without permission. That's been an issue lately. For a gotcha however, it'd be fair game.

Then there are the more informal scrums, just randomly in the foyer as everyone crowds around and jockeys for position. Often scrums are mobile, as the member answers a few questions as they move to the doors surrounded by the pack. Chretien rarely scrummed when I was there, and before my time, dido Mulroney. They'd stair scrum, standing halfway up the stairs to their office, if they heard a question they'd like they'd turn and answer it. These aren't accessible by the pool feed; it's everyone for themselves, although the Broadcast News footage would be available.

But back to Taylor, it all comes down in my view to his accreditation. How was he accredited? Clearly, he wasn't accredited as media through the PPG or this wouldn't be an issue. If he was accredited as a staffer or a CPC researcher, then the terms of that accreditation would be different, and commensurate with the duties of that supposed position. If his activities weren't compatible with the terms of that accreditation, his removal from the area was entirely appropriate. Staffers are staffers and media are media. You can't backdoor your way into becoming media through a staff pass.

But are bloggers media?

This is a whole other question. From the sound of his activities, it seems like he should have applied for media accreditation. Why didn't he? Because media accreditation is done by the PPG, he knows full well they'd have turned him down flat. If I went as a blogger, they'd turn me down too.

And it wouldn't have anything to do with his being a Conservative, or my being a Liberal, but rather with us both being partisans. I suspect they'd also have the same reaction though to a strictly non-partisan blogger.

While they're a little more discretionary with a day press pass, membership in the PPG is very strict. As a freelancer IIRC you need at least three regular clients, and letters from those editors attesting to the relationship. As a staff reporter, a letter from your editor. All f/t applications are considered for approval by the gallery executive.

I think some level of controlled access should be granted to bloggers, but the question is what level and who will administer it?

First, I think the number of bloggers accredited to the hill needs to be capped. Media accreditation is limited and controlled, so should it be with bloggers. Space is limited. But who governs it? If you say the PPG, they'll recoil at any partisanship. But if you say the parties should provide a list, then you're tacitly saying bloggers are political hacks.

There has to be a middle ground somewhere. A limited number of bloggers, with slots for different political persuasions and neutrals, granted limited media accreditation (foyer and press theatre access, but hot room off limits). There would need to be selection criteria to ensure they're a serious blogger. And there would need to be a code of behavior to govern blogger conduct on the Hill, in press conferences, and so forth.

We should be able to find some kind of middle ground here. But, rather than kicking-out interlopers or trying to backdoor media access through a staff pass, we need to start having the conversation.

The media govern themselves on the hill, is the answer perhaps some kind of pan-partisan Parliamentary Blogger Press Gallery?

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Suzanne said...

I have a question.

By what rule, policy, statute or legislation does the PPG have the right to exclusive coverage on the Hill?

I realize it's the Speaker who's in charge of the House of Commons. Where and when did the Speaker say the PPG was the only group of reporters allwoed?

I'd really like to know.

I think it should be the Speaker's office who should handle access. He has final say on everything that goes on on the Hill. I think the criteria for bloggers shouldn't be *TOO* stringent. The whole point of blogging is that amateurs do it. Some people may not think blogging once a month is "serious", but bloggers do important work in underscoring ignored issues and facts-- even minor blogs.

Ti-Guy said...

Probably the first thing to ask and answer is what is essentially the difference between blogging and other types of reporting and bloggers and other types of reporters.

I imagine the distinction is independence, editorial discretion, citizen journalism and the blog format itself. But that would have to be clearly spelled out to avoid any...uh...co-optation and abuse, such as political parties and other corporate entities manipulating the process in ways that do not benefit the public interest and in fact, undermine it.

Jeff Gannon and a lot of conservative media come to mind...

Walks With Coffee said...

For the umpteenth time, Steve Taylor is CPoC... an accreditation pass from a CPoC MP again proves it. He is not media he is a CPoC propaganda hack.

Jeff said...

It's not easy bailey, but it is a little easier to get a day pass/temp monthly pass. Still, they're careful and you need to behave. Anyway, I think bloggers are somewhere between media and hack, hence the difficulty. Hence the need perhaps for a separate category.

Suzanne, I think the PPG's authority would have to flow through the speaker, as the speaker rules the Hill with an iron fist.

I'm veering into conjecture now, but I would imagine that the speaker delegates that power to the media themselves so it's apolitical. Have the government of the day deciding media accreditation and you could have credentials being pulled for political reasons. The media do play an important part in a democratic government, and the system as constituted recognizes that place.

Now, as for bloggers, while I agree with their being given access I think it does need to be somewhat stringent. Bloggers are playing a greater political discourse, yes, but the question is, how you define blogger? Everyone can have a blog, and amateurs and/or minor blogs can do important work. But I think that when you're talking about granting accreditation to Parliament Hill, some kind of screening and standards aren't unreasonable.

Ti, I think it needs to be self-policing. At least in the context of hill accreditation. A non-partisan group agreeing on a set of standards and a code of behavior.

Stephen, the fact that it was also budget day may have played a role, as the media tend to spill out beyond the foyer with the talking head experts gathered in committee rooms and so forth. Anyway, as I remember the rules are manifold and complicated. While I think they probably were right to at least caution you for your earlier foyer activities, and we shoudn't be trying to backdoor media access through staff passes, nonetheless it did serve to raise an important debate to the foreground.

Walks, be that as it may, the larger debate is still one worth having.

Bill Given said...

Great post - great comments!

ti-guy said: I imagine the distinction is independence, editorial discretion, citizen journalism and the blog format itself.

I'm new to this but one thing I've heard as a criticism of blogging is that there is no one to ensure the accuracy of what is posted. Keeping in mind these comments come from the MSM, I can still see it being a part of the issue.

The general public assume (I think) that the MSM are more accountable and therefore check the facts better.

I'm not saying I agree with it but I can see that perception being a hurdle to a wider acceptance of blogging and bloggers.

Ti-Guy said...

Ti, I think it needs to be self-policing. At least in the context of hill accreditation. A non-partisan group agreeing on a set of standards and a code of behavior.

Among many other things, but there really has to be a better understanding of how the public interest would benefit from having bloggers get media accreditation; we don't necessarily need more media; we just need better media. Before I'd start disucssing a code of behaviour or ethics for bloggers in order to gain the same access as the traditional media (and let's be honest; bloggers like Stephen Taylor are really only interested in that), I'd first look into standards of excellence or standards of good practice for blogging itself.

Mark Dowling said...

shades of that guy who was arrested at the NB legislature.

I agree that it should be the speaker's office. The PPG would take the same attitude as I heard discussed yesterday about the "veterans committee" of the Baseball HoF - the more we let in the less exclusive we are.

I think the important consideration is this: what does including a given blogger add that the PPG isn't giving. If it's just an alternate outlet for PMO/LPC HQ/Dipper Central astroturf or goofball stuff like Garth then why duplicate their machinery. If it's giggling nonsense then Jane Taber's got it covered. If it's bitchy staking out of territory we can rely on the Gazette, apparently.

Make it non-partisan, quality, innovative. Otherwise let's not bother.

Scotian said...

Interesting post. I am going to think on it a bit and get back to you what thoughts I have on it. I will note I had some idea of the protocols regarding access on Parliament hill despite never working media there and this post raises some very good questions and things to consider, as have several of the comments here also.

Jay Currie said...

And what, pray, is wrong with partisan? I mean Brennan works for the Toronto Star and it is difficult to imagine a media outlet more partisan than the Star.

At the moment the PPG is on the ropes realizing its 700 members are going to be bypassed in the next election. Worse, most of these folks live off the dribs and drabs in the Foyer without doing an hour's digging a day. Along comes a blogger and they realize the monopoly is threatened (well, over actually, but no matter.)

Sure there should be accreditation; but it should be very slack. More or less traffic control. Set a limit of, say, 20 bloggers a day and do it on a first come first served basis with a sub rule saying that if you are there three days in a row you drop to the bottom of the list.

And for God's sake don't vet the bloggers for status or party affiliation or "seriousness". that sort of thing would exclude people like the vile Robert McClelland and the various dotty types on the far left and right who would wear tinfoil hats to avoid assorted mind control ops from their less favoured parties.

Have a lottery.

The PPG is deeply obsolete. Legacy media and all that. time for fresh perspectives and bloggers are the way to go.

Walks With Coffee said...

somebody who doesn't get the point states, "And for God's sake don't vet the bloggers for status or party affiliation or "seriousness".

serious media doesn't allow party affiliation.

if you are shilling for a political party you can/should be reported on but you are not a reporter.

For example, the CPoC holds the government; if you are shilling for the CPoC you are shilling for the government and are a government hack and not to be trusted as media reporting independently on the government.