Press gallery dinner

“It was enough to melt the heart of a cynical scribe: a standing ovation for two Conservative cabinet ministers – from the parliamentary press gallery,” leads John Ward of the Canadian Press, in a report about the parliamentary press gallery dinner in Ottawa. The journalists saluted Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon and Jean-Pierre Blackburn just for showing up — as the only members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet who deigned to attend the Oct. 27 event.

An excerpt of the CP story:

Traditionally, the dinners have attracted the cream of Parliament Hill and Ottawa, with senior officials, diplomats and MPs jockeying for invitations from journalists. This year however, Harper bowed out, followed almost immediately by Governor General Michaelle Jean. Within days, all of Harper’s cabinet – save for Blackburn and Cannon – were sending their regrets and cancelling commitments made months ago to attend the event.

The prime minister has been feuding with parliamentary journalists for a year or more and it’s said the Governor General was upset when her speech at her last appearance was taken out of context by the Quebec media.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton attended, noted Ward, while “Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe hasn’t attended for years.” Ward’s story neglected to say if Elizabeth May was there (another example of how the media often ignores the upstart Green party even as it rivals the NDP’s popularity in some ridings?) although the Ottawa Citizen reported that May attended.

The Citizen’s story by William Lin and Tony Atherton provided some background and context to the dinner, which stopped being “off the record” in 1994.  An excerpt of the Citizen story:

The dinner was once an almost weekend-long drunk in which the men in power and the men who wrote about them (female journalists weren’t invited) donned tuxedos to engage in locker-room banter — all under a veil of absolute secrecy …

…. Over the years, the boozy old-boys club of off-the-record sniggering and intemperate carousing was worn away by the incursions of sobriety, journalistic ethics, political correctness and public exposure.

By the early ’90s, the dinner was seen as an anachronism. Media outlets protested the off-the-record nature (even if their reporters did not). For two years running, prime minister Brian Mulroney declined to attend, raising questions of the affair’s survival.

Ironically, when the the dinner abandoned its secrecy in 1994, it enjoyed a revival. It became a place where politicians might score some points with an audience broader than a bunch of jaded journalists.