Talking to politicos: a misstep can be easy

Question: When is it advisable, if ever, to feed a question to an opposition MLA or MP to ask the government? How much information-sharing should there be between reporters and opposition politicians?

Answer by Steve Lambert

The question is presumably based on a recent incident at a parliamentary committee probing former prime minister Brian Mulroney. The Conservatives claimed a reporter covering the committee fed specific, written questions to an opposition MP to fire at Mulroney.

Mulroney isn’t much for scrumming these days, so presumably this was the only way to get questions to him.

There are two issues here, and I’ll start with the one that may be not as obvious:

Reporters who are covering an event aren’t supposed to participate in it or influence it in any way. One example: a reporter out East once covered a local landlord’s association meeting, not mentioning that he was a member. Another example: a tv reporter in Quebec was reprimanded for urging demonstrators he was filming to get off their butts and start marching and chanting. The more-exciting footage was played straight in the report.

Writing down questions for one side would be perceived by many as participating or influencing something you’re covering.

The second issue is one of taking sides. If it’s okay to write down questions for the opposition, it would presumably be okay to text-message a good comeback to a cabinet minister getting grilled in question period.

Both are practices to be avoided.

But there are many grey areas here that reporters face on a regular basis. What if an opposition MP, prior to question period one day, asks you for background about something you wrote last week? Are you taking sides by filling her in? What if she asks you for your opinion on his planned questions? Do you walk away?

I was once asked about the breakdown of gas taxes in another province by an opposition politician prior to q.p. (cause I’m a bit of a finance nerd and because the harmonized sales taxes in Ottawa and some provinces reap tons of cash for governments when fuel prices rise). I was asked for a cent-per-litre figure which I had already reported on, and I gave it, knowing full well it would be used in question period.

I generally think that a better-informed government, opposition, media or public makes for a better democracy. So I’ve always been willing to share information I’ve WRITTEN previously (not stuff I haven’t written). I consider it public domain at that point.

What about having a beer with a politician who asks you what you think about his line of questioning, or her policy?

What about a premier who, while answering another reporter’s question in mid-scrum, refers to something you wrote earlier as support for his position and turns to you and says “right?”  Some folks who cover Gary Doer will be familiar with that one.

I’m quite willing to spout off opinions that may be right or wrong and that should be taken with two grains of salt.

Heck, I’ve just done that.

Steve Lambert is a reporter with the Canadian Press. He is based in Winnipeg but has covered politics in Alberta,  Nova Scotia and on Parliament Hill.