Journalist invited to “off-the-record” policy retreat

The Federal government has invited key policy players including CEOs,
academics, lobbyists and (the only journalist) Maclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne to a two-day,
“off-the-record” policy retreat.

The Sun‘s David Akin wrote on his blog:

“My friend, Paul (Coyne’s colleague), thought this was laughable,  that this was the pot calling the kettle black: Coyne is advising the finance minister; I gave some presentations to the campaign schools organized by the Manning Centre for Democracy.”

He writes that his readers had asked about the ethics of both actions:

“And, at the end of this you will have to come to one of three conclusions:

1. Both Coyne and I are in danger of violating a journalistic bond or trust.

2. You shrug your shoulders because you see no foul in either instance.

3. You concede that there is a difference between’s Coyne’s circumstance and mine and assess each one accordingly.

“I think the two circumstances are different but I’ll present what I see as the facts of the matter here and trust that you will provide your judgement (or further questions) in the comment section.”

On Coyne, Akin writes:

“Coyne, the national editor for Maclean’s, is the only journalist to attend this year’s event but not the only only journalist to attend one of Flaherty’s annual summer retreats. There was one other: business journalist Andrea Mandel-Campbell was among the invitees in Year 1. The Finance Department says that while academics are provided financial assistance to cover their travel costs, everyone else is there on their own dime. The sessions are off-the-record or, to be more precise, held under the Chatham House Rule: You can talk about what was said but you just can’t attribute what was said to a participant.

“I sent a note to Coyne telling him I was covering this meeting and asking him what his role might be.

“He wrote back to say, “I imagine my role is the same as everyone else’s: to listen to the other participants, and to offer my own views. Plus I might write about it, if it seems worth it.

“I followed up with this question: “Is it not a little problematic that a journalist who writes and reports on federal fiscal policy — and who plays a significant role in shaping federal government coverage for a national newsmagazine — is participating in an off-the-record roundtable designed to provide policy advice to the finance minister?”

“To which Coyne replied: “I thought about it, but I don’t think so. Journalists are briefed off the record all the time, by department officials. In this case, the “off the record” sources aren’t even department people, but academics and business people. I can quote them, I just can’t name them. My “advice,” on the other hand, is not off the record. Whatever I say at the roundtable will be exactly the same advice I would offer in my column, and I’m happy to share it with anyone who asks. (I’ll give you a hint: cut spending.) And it will, I trust, have exactly the same influence on policy as it always does, ie none whatever. (See, for example, my last five budget screeds.)”

Akin then explains his own justifications for his work with the Manning Centre, which is available to anyone to attend and was fully on the record.

He writes:

“I am a believer that journalists ought to do more to ‘drop the veil’, if you will, which often shrouds our profession and causes some readers and viewers to be frustrated about what they see and don’t see in the news. Telling those who want to know how the sausage is made is good for the state of journalism. And whether your business is selling computers, campaigning for a rainforest, or volunteering on a political campaign, I would be pleased to give you, too, some insight into the minds of the journalists you will inevitably meet while engaging in those activites. The phone lines are open …”