Friday, June 15, 2018

Well Worth a Read. 1965, June Callwood's, "In Defence of the Parliamentary Press Gallery."

A blast from the past and a breath of fresh air. June Callwood's stirring defence of the Parliamentary Press Gallery as it then was when journalists and politicians truly despised each other.

Politicians no longer rise in the House to praise their eyes and ears. Prime ministers view them darkly. In recent years, the gallery has endured insult at public meetings, such as last summer's Couchiching Conference; on television shows, such as the CBC’s Inquiry; in magazines and in newspaper editorials; from politicians in the House, politicians on the hustings, politicians bellying up to the bar A mari usque ad mare and, most unforgivably, from its own members. Along with such epithets as “drunks,” “incompetents” and “deadbeats,” the gallery has been belabored with “dull and pedestrian” (Frank H. Underhill), “servile'’ (John Diefenbaker) and “mediocre” (Douglas Fisher). 
In addition to this rude harassment, the press gallery currently is facing a crisis in its housing arrangements: it is about to be evicted from its snug quarters, three rooms and the corridor in the heart of the Parliament Buildings, for no good reason except that the space annually is condemned by the dominion fire commissioner as a fire hazard, is provided rent-free and costs Canadian taxpayers more than one hundred thousand dollars a year, operates untidily as a blind pig for the distribution of bootleg booze throughout Parliament Hill, and has been described by its most charitable admirers as a slum area and a disgrace.
...Among the milder opinions of a taut MP from Jasper-Edson. Progressive Conservative Dr. Hugh Horner, are the convictions that members of the gallery turned against John Diefenbaker because he didn't provide them with free liquor and that the entire gallery hates the entire House of Commons ever since MPs voted themselves a salary increase. "We got a raise and the gallery didn't, so they're sore,” he declares. "Ha, most of them couldn't be elected dogcatcher.”

...The gallery retaliates with the charge that the average MP's notion of impeccably fair journalism is when his speech is printed in its entirety on the front page of his home-town newspaper. "They don't grasp the nature of news,” explains the CBC’s respected television commentator. Norman DePoe. “There’s no drama in a daily item that ‘Flight 539 has landed at Malton after an uneventful flight and all passengers are safe.’ ”
The bitterness of parliamentarians toward the press in Ottawa can be traced back to the Great Pipeline Debate of 1956, when the Liberal government used closure to terminate discussion in a rebellious House. The press gallery found itself caught up in a spirit of flaming outrage and abandoned all pretensions of writing impartially. The Speaker, for instance, was described as “crooked” and a “self-seeking Liberal hack”; one reporter compared the unhappy man, to his disadvantage, with a bank robber.
... Many observers are inclined to blame the gallery's poor housing for any deficiency in the quality of its literature. “Those conditions wouldn’t be tolerated in a factory," asserts Grattan O'Leary. “It's just not possible to write well in such a mess." 
The Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery's quarters are indeed a wondrous sight. They have the impact upon a newcomer, approaching them along the austere marbled and cathedral-roofed corridors of the Parliament Buildings, of stumbling upon a Hogarth saloon in Westminster Abbey. There is, to begin with, bedlam: Teletype machines clattering against a vibrato of fifty typewriters, a hoarse squawk-box voice paging newsmen, telephones ringing, voices tiered to be heard over or under the uproar, radio reporters cupped over telephone hook-ups with their stations and the sweet lost sound of a cuckoo clock, a possibly not significant gift from a departed gallery member. 
The d├ęcor is Early Squalor, with sprightly touches of dust, empty beer bottles and solitary galoshes. When the main newsroom became crammed with antique oak desks, stalagmites of yellowed Hansards and elk-horned coat racks during the gallery's rapid wartime growth, Mackenzie King suggested that the overflow make temporary use of the broad corridor just outside. That was twenty years ago, when the gallery was less than half its present size. By actual count, a stretch of the corridor that connects the hallowed House of Commons gallery with the hushed Senate gallery now contains thirty-two desks, fifty-eight filing cabinets, fifteen coat racks, twenty-four bookcases and a festoonery of wastepaper baskets, cigarette machines, electric fans, water-coolers. Teletype machines, telephone booths and whiskey cartons rakishly stuffed with old budget debates.
The overall effect is not enhanced by the gallery's unique coalition of newsroom and bootlegging establishment. In a tradition dating back to the dark days of 1921, when politicians and press moved into the rebuilt Parliament Buildings and found them prohibition-dry, the press gallery has operated as a benefactor to the thirsty of all political faiths, but most especially writers.
...The raffish operation is sustained because, by happy chance, it is invisible: everyone on Parliament Hill pretends it doesn’t exist. When the Speaker in 1961 coarsely referred to the press gallery as “that blind pig on the third floor” in a written order to the sergeant-at-arms, he was informed of his error and obligingly erased the offensive phrase from the inter-branch journals of the House. There has been no further fuss, except the minor flutter caused when press gallery beer was delivered one day in a Government of Canada van. "Only happened once,” comments the sergeant-at-arms grimly. 
Even without its roguish sideline, the press gallery presents a disheveled picture, unmistakably stamped with the calculated neglect of a landlord hoping to have his lease broken. The paint is peeling, the windows dirty, the debtors’-auction leather chairs in the lounge are sprung and cracked. The government has been trying to rid itself of this eyesore for many years: it now is nigh on to frantic.
The Radio Boys
Douglas Fisher offered a particularly unpleasant experience a year ago because of an edited tape. The west coast’s jovial Jack Webster dropped in to Fisher’s office and the two struck up a fast rapport. Webster asked permission to tape-record an interview, during which he asked Fisher what he thought of the press gallery. Fisher, responding to Webster’s blithe mood, answered cheerfully that the members were a bunch of "lushes, drunks and incompetents.” Ed Murphy, a gallery member who represents a number of radio stations, obtained the tape and inserted his own voice for Webster's, retaining Fisher’s reckless reply. It was used on Ottawa's CFRA and the gallery reeled like a dowager confronted with a dead cat. Murphy’s deceit was overlooked, but Fisher was judged a bounder. He was obliged to apologize in writing.
I post these excerpts apropos of nothing at all save a few terrific memories almost lost to the ravages of time. For good and bad, those days are gone.


the salamander said...

.. made my day .. !
But now we must nourish ourselves
on the daily pathetic pasturing of Andrew milquetoast Scheer
or breaking news of another political poll to nowhere

I had no idea June could be so irreverent !

BTW ..
My son sent me a link
to a letter Hunter S Thompson
sent to Tom Wolfe ..
It must have come out of the envelope
like a raging pit viper.. it was a howl
Deary me.. the shocking language !
Tom must have hurt himself reading it

The Mound of Sound said...

Hey, Sal. If you can find that link, please post it here.

I recall the PPG Callwood (my mother's cousin) describes. I was there before a love interest told me I would be a better person if only I went to law school. That might have been the Golden Age of Canadian journalism. The fun and the booze and the outrageous practical jokes made it truly special. We worked on manual typewriters so beaten up that repairmen kept them on life support. Video came in 25mm Airflex with dual roll magazines. Ships were made of oak. Men were made of iron.

Last year I contacted a couple of Ottawa news outlets looking for archival material of a recently deceased friend, a very colourful Ottawa character. I was asked to put together something for his funeral.

I wound up speaking with a young woman at a television newsroom, told her the sort of thing I was looking for and the approximate time frame. She said, with a certain sadness. "I've heard a lot about what it was like back then. It was so much fun. Today, we're not allowed to have fun." And it's just a wild ass guess but I suspect that's why the reportage today is shite too. Reporters aren't as feral today. More's the pity.

The Mound of Sound said...

Correction - the news cameras were 16 mm, not 25.

the salamander said...

... the language is astonishing
but these two were great pals..