Parliamentary Press Gallery in Canada

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Aug 1, 2006

The Parliamentary Press Gallery serves as an important link between Canadians and the world of federal politics. In this role, however, the Press Gallery enjoys a complicated, and at times conflicted, relationship with the politicians and political parties they investigate and cover. This article provides an introduction to the Press Gallery: it discusses the nature of legislative press galleries, changes in press gallery reporting, press gallery membership, and well as the relationship between press gallery members and the politicians they cover.

What is the Parliamentary Press Gallery?

Legislatures, Press Galleries & Media Coverage of Politics in Canada

Changes in Parliamentary Press Gallery Reporting

From Exclusive & Partisan to Open & Impartial

Parliamentary Press Gallery Membership

Benefits & Oversight of Press Gallery Membership

Politicians & the Press Gallery: Interdependence & Conflict

The Complicated Relationship between Canadian Politicians & Press Gallery

Sources & Links to Further Information

List of Article Sources & Links on the Press Gallery, Media & Politics

What is the Parliamentary Press Gallery?

Legislatures, Press Galleries & Media Coverage of Politics

Press Galleries & Canada’s Legislatures

Every day television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the internet provide Canadians with updates and analyses of the personalities, events, and issues relating to politics and governance in Canada. In covering Canadian politics, the media pay particular attention to the federal Parliament and its provincial and territorial counterparts.

The term “Press Gallery” is used to refer to the group of journalists assigned by media organizations to cover the personalities and events of these federal, provincial and territorial legislatures. These journalists will observe legislative debates and votes, interview political actors, and attend press conferences and media scrums, in addition to undertaking their own independent investigations and research. 

Each legislature in Canada has its own Press Gallery. There is, for example, the Ontario Legislative Assembly Press Gallery at Queen's Park in Toronto, home of the Ontario provincial legislature, the New Brunswick legislative Press Gallery in Fredericton, and the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery in Edmonton, to name a few. These are separate groups of journalists assigned to cover the personalities and events at their respective legislatures.

Parliamentary Press Gallery & the Federal Parliament

The Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery includes journalists and media organizations that cover the federal Parliament and government. These journalists investigate and report on matters including the policies and priorities of the federal government, legislative debates and votes in the House of Commons, decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada, visits by foreign dignitaries, and the activities of important federal political personalities, including the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Opposition Parties, and the Governor General of Canada. The Parliamentary Press Gallery serves as a cornerstone of the national political media, and is an important link between Canadians and federal politics.

Parliamentary Press Gallery as an Association

That said, the Parliamentary Press Gallery is not simply a group a journalists; it is also a formal association with established rules and responsibilities. As an association, the Press Gallery is tasked with the job of overseeing and assisting journalists in their work on Parliament Hill. This includes providing accreditation to journalists and granting them access to the Parliamentary precinct, administering Parliamentary Press Gallery services and facilities, and acting as a representative unit for journalists in their dealings with politicians, political parties, and the officials that oversee the operation of Parliament.

Changes in Parliamentary Press Gallery Reporting

From Exclusive & Partisan to Open & Impartial

Early Parliamentary Press Gallery Reporting

Press coverage of Canadian legislatures began in Canada’s colonial period, with newspaper journalists reporting on the activities of the various colonial legislatures in British North America. When the Canadian Parliament was first formed in 1867 at the time of Confederation, Parliamentary administrators provided space and services for journalists. These first Parliamentary reporters played an important role in Canada’s early years. As official verbatim accounts of Parliamentary proceedings were not introduced until 1878, press reports at the time were considered the best unofficial records of debate and discussion in the new Canadian Parliament.

The Press Gallery of the early Parliaments, however, was a very exclusive club. Press Gallery journalists were usually newspaper reporters (due to the fact that newsprint was the common form of mass communication at the time), and only the wealthiest, or most politically interested, newspapers assigned representatives to cover the federal Parliament. As a result, the Press Gallery usually consisted of a close-knit group of select newspaper publishers, editors, and their favourite reporters, all who enjoyed close ties with one another, both professionally and socially.

In addition to being an exclusive club, the Press Gallery was highly partisan and divided along party lines. Most newspapers of the day were either owned or directed by political parties or politicians, or controlled by publishers or editors with strong biases in favour of a particular political party. Moreover, Press Gallery journalists often had close personal and professional relationships with many of the leaders and politicians in Parliament; in some cases, these relationships were so close that journalists found themselves being appointed to senior government positions.

This exclusiveness and partisanship in the early Press Gallery greatly influenced the reporting behaviours of journalists. Those with close ties to the governing political party of the day were highly restricted in what they could say about the government, and were often relegated to the role of government ‘boosters’ instead of ‘watchdogs.’ In contrast, journalists with ties to opposition politicians or parties were free to criticize and attack government leaders and policies (although, much less so in regard to the opposition party with which they were affiliated).

Modern Changes to the Parliamentary Press Gallery

The exclusiveness and partisanship of the early Press Gallery began to break down in the 1900s as changes in its membership and reporting techniques were introduced. One of the most important changes came in 1917 when the Canadian Press News Service joined the Press Gallery. The Canadian Press differed from traditional media organizations in that it is was a strictly news gathering service; it would collect news and information not for publishing in its own newspaper, but to sell to multiple newspapers that could not gather it themselves. As such, the Canadian Press did not affiliate itself with a particular political leader or party, and its reporters were expected to produce unbiased reports on parliamentary events.

Membership in the Press Gallery was further expanded in the mid-1900s to include magazine publishers, television and radio broadcasters, and freelance journalists. Today, the Parliamentary Press Gallery is no longer a close-knit group of newspaper publishers, editors, and reporters. It is a much more open and loose association, consisting of a wide variety of journalists and media organizations. This, in turn, has brought greater political neutrality and diversity to the news and information content that Canadians receive about the federal Parliament.

For a full list of Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery Members:

Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery Website: Members List

While overt partisanship is, for the most part, a thing of the past, one should not assume that the modern Press Gallery is a completely neutral provider of political news and information. Press Gallery journalists are not immune to their own political views when interpreting and/or analyzing federal political actors and events. Press Gallery journalists, and their media organizations, also make important decisions about which stories to publish or broadcast, and how to frame those stories. These choices can have important impacts on how the public perceives a given issue or political news item.

Moreover, it is important to remember that Press Gallery journalists work in close quarters with one another. As such, there is the possibility of “pack journalism” or “group think,” in which Press Gallery coverage becomes highly homogeneous in its content and analysis. Furthermore, Press Gallery journalists often spend large amounts of time with the political actors they are covering. This can, in turn, result in the development of close personal relationships that may colour a journalist’s interpretation of Parliamentary events.

Parliamentary Press Gallery Membership

Benefits & Oversight of Press Gallery Membership

Benefits of Press Gallery Membership

Membership in the Press Gallery is important in that it includes press accreditation as well as the ability to access the Parliamentary buildings and grounds. Other benefits include access to media facilities and services provided by the government or by the Press Gallery itself, as well as regular updates and schedules of Parliamentary events.

Furthermore, journalists also have the benefit of member solidarity. While Press Gallery journalists work for different media organizations, and are typically competitors within the media industry, they do share similar interests and concerns as Parliamentary reporters. Such commonalities would include, for example, having open access to the political actors and events they are covering, as well as being able to gather relevant information from government departments and agencies. As a collective association, Press Gallery members can more effectively exert pressure on government officials to ensure these interests are being met. 

It is important to note, however, that membership in the Press Gallery, while highly beneficial, is not necessary to cover the Canadian Parliament. Journalists may apply directly to Parliament to gain access to the grounds and buildings, simply as members of the general public. Furthermore, many Parliamentary proceedings, such as House of Commons debates and Parliamentary committee meetings, are broadcast live for the public to view.

Press Gallery Membership & the Speaker of the House

In order to gain membership, journalists apply directly to the Parliamentary Press Gallery itself. This represents one of the Parliamentary Press Gallery's most important administrative responsibilities as an association: deciding which journalists may receive parliamentary press accreditation and the benefits of Press Gallery membership. It is important to note, however, that the Parliamentary Press Gallery is not the final authority on who may gain access to Parliament buildings and facilities; this is the responsibility of the Speaker of the House.

The Speaker of the House is an elected Member of Parliament chosen by fellow MPs to be the administrative head of the House of Commons. The Speaker is not a political leader (like the Prime Minister or Cabinet Ministers), but is simply an administrator. S/he moderates discussion and debate between MPs within the House chamber, in addition to overseeing the general administration of the House, including its staff and operating budget, as well as public and press access to facilities and grounds.

For more information on the Speaker of the House:

Parliament of Canada: About the Speaker of the House of Commons

In practice, however, the Speaker usually grants the Parliamentary Press Gallery independence over its own membership and which journalists may access the Parliamentary grounds and media facilities. This independence is generally observed on the grounds of freedom of the press, and the notion that members of the media must have independence from government officials if they are to investigate and report on political actors and events in a full and impartial manner. If the Speaker were to oversee Press Gallery membership, he or she could, for example, exclude members of the media that were critical of House administrators, the government, or the political party to which the Speaker belonged.

Politicians & Press Gallery: Interdependence & Conflict

The Complicated Relationship Between Politicians & the Press Gallery

Canadian federal politicians and the Parliamentary Press Gallery have a very complicated relationship. On the one hand, each depends greatly on the other for their livelihood. Press Gallery journalists need access to politicians in order to gather the information they need for their news stories. At the same time, politicians need Press Gallery journalists in order to communicate with Canadians.

Despite the symbiotic relationship that exists between these two entities, there is also great potential for conflict. While politicians will pursue Parliamentary press coverage, they prefer to control the image and messages presented in order to maximize positive coverage. Conflict often occurs when a politician feels (rightly or wrongly) that Press Gallery journalists are exercising bias, or are being unfairly critical of his/her actions and views, or those of the political party to which s/he belongs.

In order to control their media image, politicians and political parties will often develop sophisticated communication strategies. These include developing specific sorts of messages that they will communicate to Press Gallery journalists; for example, simple and memorable catch phrases that newspapers quote or for television or radio sound bites. They may also develop “talking points” that party members and officials can use when speaking with Press gallery journalists, which keep the focus on the positive aspects of a given issue. In extreme cases, political actors will even limit Press Gallery access to them, and will even look for ways to bypass the Press Gallery and communicate directly to Canadians themselves.

There have been several instances of this sort of conflict between politicians and the Parliamentary Press Gallery. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, a Liberal, often had strong disagreements with the Parliamentary Press Gallery about the stories its members reported. As a result, Trudeau attempted to control media questions during press conferences, granted preferential access to particular journalists and media organizations, and often had heated exchanges with Press Gallery members. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also had conflicts with the Parliamentary Press Gallery; in 2006 he alleged an anti-Conservative bias on the part of some Press Gallery members and attempted to manage press conferences by dictating which journalists would be allowed to ask questions. The Press Gallery, as a group, staged a protest by walking out of a Harper press event.

Sources & Links to Further Information

List of Article Sources & Links for More on the Press Gallery, Media & Politics

Sources Used for this Article

Book & Periodical Sources
  • Siegal, A. Politics and the Media in Canada (2nd Edition). Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1996.
Electronic Sources

Links for More Information

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