Scrum and gone

The incredible shrinking Queen’s Park press gallery is a stark example of what happens when resources run dry. What’s going: informed citizens and democratic accountability. What’s coming: a potential breeding ground for political corruption. This week, we feature Jonathan Ore‘s story for the spring issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.  

The morning Question Period at Queen’s Park ends and reporters scrum politicians streaming into the halls. The exchanges aren’t rapid-fire shouting matches, there’s no staccato of camera flashes and politicians aren’t trying to outrun reporters chasing them down and barking questions. About two dozen journalists swarm Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, some holding television cameras that bathe him in a chilly white light. His mouth is the target of a dozen or so voice recorders, held by the tips of fingers as steadily as the journalists can as they try to get closer without toppling forward. Duncan answers their questions in a relatively calm rhythm. Several address the province’s massive projected $24.7-billion deficit. Does he know anything about the reports of General Motors paying back bailout money to U.S. and Canadian governments?

“Nothing formally, no. I just read that in The New York Times, and I take it for what it’s worth.”

How about that for a statement vague enough to be an adept deflection—  or a jab at every journalist in the scrum?

Deb Matthews is next, but the health minister enjoys a crowd half the size of Duncan’s. The rest of the reporters have left to speak with other Members of Provincial Parliament—a single journalist can’t be in two places at the same time, after all. Only half a dozen reporters and one camera greet New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath and as the numbers thin, the pace of the questioning slows down as well. Soon, all but the stragglers are gone.

At Queen’s Park, home of the Ontario legislature, scrums are now shorter, smaller and quieter. It’s a symptom of a dramatic drop in press gallery membership, as well as restrictions on the lines of communication between journalists and politicians, which make context and leads harder to come by. As multi-person bureaus become single-occupancy caverns, and experienced journalists with the know-how to navigate the intricacies of Canada’s second-largest government leave the hollowed halls, the breadth and depth of the coverage declines. Stories are now more narrowly focused on Toronto and only the biggest scandals and controversies get much attention, depriving citizens of the information they need to hold their representatives truly accountable.

Read the full story.