Express and Explore Yourself

The perils of leaping from journalism to politics

Pierre Duchesne, a former
Radio canada journalist
-TheStar (Chantal Hébert)
MONTREAL:Less than a month ago, Radio-Canada journalist Pierre Duchesne was on television rating the performance of Quebec’s provincial leaders on the heels of an uncommonly hot pre-election season.On Friday, he confirmed that he plans to run in a plum Parti Québécois riding in that election.In between, Duchesne resigned his position as bureau chief for Radio-Canada at the National Assembly. At the time, he dismissed the already rampant rumours of an impending jump to partisan politics.
In hindsight, it seems he was the last person to find out about the PQ’s designs on his own future.According to La Presse, Carole Lavallée — a former Bloc Québécois MP with solid connections to the PQ network — was told three months ago that she should not set her sights on the vacant riding of Borduas as it was set aside for “a star candidate from Radio-Canada.” The Charest Liberals who had also had wind of a potential move involving Duchesne weeks before he cut his ties to the public broadcaster are crying foul.

They are not alone.Retired Presse Canadienne reporter Pierre April spent decades covering federal and Quebec politics. On his Facebook page earlier this week, he lamented the ease with which journalists and former politicians are trading places these days.In the name of the public trust, he argued for a minimal cooling off period between role changes.That is easier said than done as journalists enjoy the same democratic rights as other citizens — including the unfettered right to run for elected office.

Moreover, Quebec has a long history of successful transitions from journalism to political leadership.René Lévesque and Claude Ryan who each led a camp in the 1980 referendum both came to politics on the heels of distinguished journalistic careers. Quebec parties routinely poach the ranks of those who cover the political beat.Charest’s own minister of culture Christine St-Pierre is a past Radio-Canada correspondent on Parliament Hill and in Washington.

In Duchesne’s case, it is the minimalist interval between covering the government and running against it in an election that is the central issue.There was a time when the current prime minister would have echoed April’s call for a cooling-off period.After his 2004 defeat, Stephen Harper felt betrayed when some of the journalists who had just covered his campaign quickly went on to take positions with the Liberal government. On this, as on many other matters that he found objectionable in his days as opposition leader, Harper has since come around to a different perspective.

His government has been no less eager to bring journalists over to the so-called dark side as its predecessors. Indeed, one of Harper’s most notable Senate appointments was that of broadcaster Mike Duffy.Within a few months of the 2008 election, Duffy left the post of Ottawa national editor for CTV Newsnet for the Upper House. Since then he has often put his journalistic skills to work for Harper, hosting partisan town halls and conducting mock interviews on the Conservatives’ behalf. (They have so far sought a French-language equivalent to Duffy in vain.)

In the aftermath of Duffy’s appointment, a panel of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found that his treatment of an interview given by Liberal leader Stéphane Dion at the tail end of the 2008 campaign was “not fair, balanced or even-handed.”The Quebec Liberals have asked the province’s Press Council to look into Duchesne’s move.Its conclusion might not be as black-and-white as Charest would wish.This past spring, one did not need to be a wannabe PQ candidate to note obvious shortcomings in the government’s halfhazard approach to the student unrest.

Still, a fair-minded person could question whether Duchesne lived up to the exacting ethical standards that he imposed on the ministers he so recently assessed. On that score, one can only wonder how he — as a journalist — would have commented on the optics of his own actions. Ultimately though, the line between political journalism and the business of politics was always as elastic as the individual conscience of each of those who ponder whether to cross it.

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