An uphill battle

The Chronicle Herald’s Stephen Maher strives to cover politics with a more investigative approach in an environment of closed doors and restricted access.

By Laura Parlee

Stephen Maher’s column on the front page of the ‘In Focus’ section of the Herald. Maher writes hard news stories about federal politics, but also keeps an eye out for the most important developments of the week for his column.
Stephen Maher’s column on the front page of the ‘In Focus’ section of the Herald. Maher writes hard news stories about federal politics, but also keeps an eye out for the most important developments of the week for his column.

By Laura Parlee

Stephen Maher’s day begins the moment he opens his laptop, as he surfs and clicks through dozens of news aggregator websites and political blogs. Long before the politicians stage their daily battle in Question Period, Maher is in the Press Gallery office in the Centre Block, getting himself briefed on issues and hunting for the next big story.

Stephen Maher has been the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s eyes and ears in the nation’s capital since 2004. He covers the day-to-day business of the Hill and provides insight into the fast-paced world of federal politics.

Maher’s journey to Ottawa began at a young age, reading stories of great American political scandal and intrigue. It was All the President’s Men that first inspired him to consider political journalism.

“There was a brief period where we had this idea of journalists as crusading heroes after Watergate,” said Maher. “It’s sort of a romantic idea – but that’s likely what made me interested in it when I was young.”

Maher’s journalism career began in Gander, Nfld. in 1989. He graduated with a degree in international development studies from the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University and accepted an offer reporting for The Grand Falls Advertiser. That leap led to several other reporting jobs in the area. But by 1992, Maher was back to his roots in Nova Scotia, working as an editor at the Daily News in Halifax.

After accepting a job buyout from then owner Conrad Black, Maher left the Daily News and took a job editing on the night shift at the Chronicle Herald.

“All the time I wanted to be reporting and writing” he said. “But I had a hard time convincing anyone to let me be a reporter – I got sort of trapped on the night desk.”

Maher finally lucked out, being the only one to apply for a vacated Ottawa bureau reporting job. He traveled to Ottawa in March of 2004, and began educating himself on Canadian political history.

A sexy scandal

At 2p.m., the battle is set to begin. Maher springs from his desk to get to Question Period at 2:15. He`ll watch from the press gallery, the seating area above the speaker`s chair from which the Parliamentary Press Gallery gets its name. The gallery is a group of journalists specially accredited to keep tabs on the affairs of the nation.

“It’s often very boring,” said Maher with a chuckle. “But you do sort of get a sense of the politics of the country by sitting up there and watching the politicians do their business – attack and defend and all.”

Maher often uses material from question period for his daily hard-news piece on the happenings of the hill. He has covered everything from political relationship drama to Atlantic accord disputes during his last six years as the Herald’s Ottawa Bureau.

He also has his eyes open for the biggest stories of the week for his weekly column, “Letter from Ottawa.”

“I try to keep my eye on the main story of the day or of the week, so I’ll go and listen in to the scrums even if I’m not going to write a story about it just to get a sense of what Jack Layton or Gilles Duceppe or Michael Ignatieff are saying,” he said.

But it is investigative work that Maher enjoys doing most.

“There’s never enough good investigative journalism, the kind of reporting that really digs into how the government functions,” he said. “That’s something I try to do – I’ve been proudest of the work that I’ve done like that since I’ve been here.”

Last June, Maher uncovered the controversial story of an unintentional recording of a conversation involving the Minister of Natural Resources, Lisa Raitt, and her communications aide, Jasmine MacDonnell.

“It’s a bizarre story,” he said. “She inadvertently, I believe, recorded the minister – you can kind of tell it’s inadvertent because it goes on for five hours and there’s all kinds of blank spots.”

MacDonnell’s recorder was in Maher’s possession for almost six months before he pressed “play.” He contacted her when he first found the recorder in January 2009, but MacDonnell didn’t reclaim it. But after she was blamed for leaving important documents at CTV’s Ottawa station, Maher realized the fact that the recorder had been left behind for so long was newsworthy.

“I had the headphones on and I tried to listen and listen and listen and try to figure out what they were talking about. You’re hearing snatches of conversation…I eventually realized they were discussing the isotope crisis, and Mrs. Raitt said that it was a sexy issue and was discussing the manner in which she would gain advantage from it politically,” he said.

“The role of a political journalist is to get newsworthy information about politics and government and publish it; that’s my job…It’s honourable, it’s valuable, it’s necessary towards democracy – and once you find that you have information that’s in the public interest, you don’t really make a choice about that. If you have it – you print it” said Maher.

But before he was able to publish the scoop, MacDonnell filed for an injunction to prevent it being printed.

“I thought that we had nothing to lose with going ahead and fighting the injunction at that time, that we should publish and be damned. So (the editors) talked me off the ledge and put me on a plane to Halifax.”

The Herald agreed to hold the story and take the case to court. Dan Leger, the Herald’s director of news content, worked closely with Maher and the paper’s lawyers, Nancy Rubin and Robert Grant, to build the case.

On June 8, 2009, Judge Gerald R. P. Moir ruled that the article should be published. “I thought a lot about Joseph Howe that week and his historic victory for free speech in Halifax,” said Maher

“I was very proud of the Herald that we were able to go ahead and fight this thing, it was not a cheap battle either, I’ll tell you that – and the judge basically ruled in our favour on every single point that was read,” said Leger.

The cost was worth it.

“It gave some unguarded insights into the thinking of a federal cabinet minister and politician, one by the way who has Nova Scotia roots,” said Leger. “But it was the cynicism of her comments that were very revealing. It also gave us some insights into the way the Harper government works.”

With the exception of a few friends of MacDonnell, Maher says he still receives respect from the government after the incriminating publication.

“A governing party has the ability to make things pretty hot for a journalist who does something that they don’t like,” said Maher. “But the Harper government reacted to it with reasonable professionalism. They understand that if a reporter has something like that, they are going to have to publish it.”

Unfortunately, dealing with the aftermath of publishing accountability stories isn’t the only challenge of covering the Hill.

A politicization of information

By 3 p.m., Maher is jammed among dozens of reporters, holding his recorder high, taking in the shouted questions, and straining to hear the answers that will be the sound bites on tonight’s TV news. He’s taking part in the daily after-question-period scrums that have been part of the Hill routine for two generations. The reporters know much of what they hear is spun for their benefit, but nobody dares miss the scrums in case they miss something.

“More and more of the information that Canadians get is now filtered through political people who have partisan political reasons for releasing something or not,” Maher mused. “So there’s been a politicization of information flow in this government.”

Stephen Maher takes some time off from the bustle of the hill on his boat.  (Photo Courtesy: Stephen Maher)
Stephen Maher takes some time off from the bustle of the hill on his boat. (Photo Courtesy: Stephen Maher)

By creating information delays, bouncing media inquiries through several different departments and ministries, and responding with perfectly packaged emailed responses, the government knows how to dodge media scrutiny.

According to David McKie, a member of CBC’s investigative unit and a journalism instructor at Carleton University and Algonquin College, the government and the media have “diametrically opposed goals,” and will always be butting heads.

“This is nothing new – It’s just the nature of the beast,” he said.

Added Maher, “We have different roles – so the relationship as I see it is we try to get information about what they’re doing and publish it and explain it to people, without being unduly influenced by their political goals…They want control and power and influence; their interest is different.”

Maher and others have had to find new ways to get information.

“I expect less now then I once did, less information from government officials, so I probably spend less time trying to get information from them because I know that they’re not going to want to help me. So I try other things – documents or choices outside government.”

That said, Maher says the Conservatives aren’t as bad in this regard as when he first arrived on the Hill, a view Harris MacLeod of the Hill Times shares.

“Even in the time I’ve been here, I find the Conservatives are more open to talking with the press. When you have a party that hasn’t been in government in 13 years and sees the media as being against them then obviously they’re going to be defensive,” said MacLeod, who has been with the Times since April of 2008.

“From the Conservative perspective, the civil service seems more Liberal friendly than Tory friendly so they were afraid…right or wrong, that they would not be able to control their message,” Maher said.

Get the message?

Maher files his daily stories to the Herald by 6:30 p.m., before hitting the politico circuit for special events or unwinding with friends at Hy’s Steakhouse in downtown Ottawa, a known hot spot for politicians and political journalists alike. Another day on the Hill wraps up, but for a reporter in the press gallery, there’s always some more information, some more political intelligence, to soak up.

Maher is always looking for independence in his reporting. He doesn’t rely on government leaks or other reporters to tell the story.

“He’s quite fearless – he’s willing to tackle important and powerful people and I admire that. You can’t do well in Ottawa by being frightened by the powers that be, and Stephen isn’t. He’s cautious but he’s not intimidated by them. I value that very highly. Plus he’s a damn good writer,” said Leger.

According to Don Naulls, a political science professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, this independence is rare.

“Given the vast amounts of information available right now, the media isn’t digging into that information. The information’s available but there’s so much of it that it’s very difficult for someone who’s a reporter to know where to start. And have the time to go through it and say, ‘what is really going on here?’” said Naulls.

Said David Akin, national affairs correspondent for Canwest News, “all journalists are working under the news cycle, which is compressed – there is media pressure to have a story on the web as soon as something happens. That’s done at expense of being able to reflect on the story or think about how to present it in a different way

Naulls says this compression of the news cycle allows government to have more control over the message. This requires even greater independence.

“It’s one really challenging and interesting part of being here and that’s just you want to get close you want to get people to trust you and tell you things but you don’t want to get too close,” said MacLeod.

“I think I have a good relationship with the people I cover at the PMO but it’s a relationship based on…we have a clear understanding of our roles here,” said Akin. “I am representing readers or viewers who have a wide variety of views…they expect me to ask tough questions.”

Jasmine MacDonnell accompanies minister of natural resources, Lisa Raitt. This photo was splashed across the pages of almost every major news organization when Maher broke his story about MacDonnell’s accidental recording.  (Photo: Chris Wattie, Reuters)
Jasmine MacDonnell accompanies Lisa Raitt, minister of natural resources. This photo was splashed across the pages of almost every major news organization when Maher broke his story about MacDonnell’s accidental recording. (Photo: Chris Wattie, Reuters)

Maher says there is no perfect solution to maintaining balance when collecting information on the Hill, but he does the best he can to be an honest and fair voice for the Herald.

“Whether I like them, whether I dislike them, doesn’t matter.  I will always try to give it the same kind of weight so that anyone can know that that’s the way I operate. I strive to be equally tough on all federal politicians,” he said. “With enough different kinds of journalists covering what’s going on here, you end up getting quite a diverse amount of coverage – all kinds of different stories.”

In the end, the important thing is that the public is getting the message.

“The government has lots of different ways it provides information to people, not only journalists, but to everyone. The relationship between the PMO communications people and reporters is just one part of that. There’s also lots of websites where they release information, their press releases, all kinds of stuff,” he said. “If Canadians want to know more about their government, there’s a fair bit of information there– we could be better, I know that, but we could be worse too.”

[kml_flashembed movie=”” height=”950″ width=”550″ /]